March 2, 2014

On Religious Bullies

Not long ago a stranger sent me this email, which I have anonymized as a courtesy to the sender. These things happen when you have the nerve to publish and make your thoughts available to the world.
Hello Brad,
This is R—. I have a brother named Brad so the name is familiar and I feel like I know you somewhat.
I recently ordered your book from Amazon, “What would Jesus drink?” I have read it.
Before I read it, as well as after, I looked at the outside of the book. and wondered why a Christian, a born-again believer, would be identifying himself with Jack Kerrouac [sic] and James Taylor. I was raised in Californina [sic], was a ¨hippie¨, a beach bum, etc. and am familiar with these men as well as others. I am 67 years old and a Vietnam veteran etc. Not a big deal, just experience I suppose.
I do want to say that if and since you are consuming alcohol you are participating in what this world system loves, adores, and even worships. Are you participating in what the world system produces on a grand, no immense scale and which, as first mention in the scriptures, the shame of Noah and one of his sons and their generations to come. First mention is very important as you surely well know.
Question for you Brad. Are you a member of a local independent church that is non-sacramental, and believes the Bible. By that I mean, not an Episcopal church, (I was raised Episcopal), nor Catholic, nor Luthern [sic] etc. Just wondering.
Thanks for reading this .
R— B—
Missionary to [a place]
Although, as I readily admit in the book, I make no claim to be a Bible scholar, it was because of messages like this one, often delivered through sermons from the pulpit, that back in 1996 I sat down to do the research on this topic, much in the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17:11) who examined the scriptures to see if what Paul had preached to them was true. As a protestant, I am of the opinion that every believer can, and should, go directly to the source rather than be forced to rely on some religious hierarchy to tell them what to think.

I undertook this project not to defend a preconceived position but to find out what the Bible really said about alcohol. And I was fully ready and willing to accept whatever I found, pro or con, and live by it.

To that end, I ferreted out all 247 verses in the Bible that mention wine and strong drink and read them in context to make sure I understood what was actually being said. Up to that point I had heard many opinions on all sides of the issue, but I was not satisfied with hearsay. I spent several months reading and compiling the results.

The truth is that I had a sneaking suspicion that, despite appeals to scripture on both sides, much of what I heard was not scriptural but man’s opinion and personal experience. Based on my findings, I wrote an essay that found a wide audience on the internet, and in 2011 I expanded the essay to a short book called “What Would Jesus Drink?” It’s a quick read because I wrote it for regular Joes like me, not for theologians.

Despite my suspicions, I was surprised at the overwhelming clarity of the message I discovered. I won’t rewrite the whole book here because this post is not so much about what the Bible says about alcohol as it is about something else that has been around for a long time and that has been more at the forefront of my awareness since 2011. That thing is religious bullying.

While I have no doubt that the author of the email is completely sincere and believes that he approached me with the purest of motives, his email evinces several tactics of the religious bully. A natural-born manipulator will use them, probably without realizing it much of the time.

Perhaps I should first define what I mean by a religious bully.

A religious bully engages a person, whether in his/her local fellowship or a complete stranger, to attempt to enforce a personal view upon this person, all under the guise of spiritual maturity.

The engagement is not an attempt to come to a broader view of what the Bible says, not to understand the view of the other person, but rather to impose the view of the bully on the other person. And in most cases, this view is in reference to some peripheral, subjective opinion that is not part of the essential elements of Christianity. (Rather than define what those elements might be, I refer you to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis or Classic Christianity by Bob George or, for those who want the reader’s digest version, the Nicene Creed.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at this email from R.B. First, he starts off by asserting that because I share a name with a member of his family, he somehow feels like he knows me. Somewhat. As if a relative of Charles Spurgeon might feel like he knew Charles Manson. Somewhat, at least. We’re only one sentence in and already words fail me in my attempts to point out the absurdity of that claim.

Next we get the “guilt by association” argument, as he is evidently at a loss to explain why I, a writer, would mention that I share a birthday with two highly talented and successful writers of the twentieth century. Instead he implies that because they were “hippies,” or in the case of Kerouac, the seminal beat writer who popularized the term, their ungodly ways disqualify them as a reference point for a writer who is a Christian. Notice that so far he is working in the realm of inference and implication, not scriptural authority. This is a classic tactic of a bully, whether religious or otherwise.

Then he plays the Vietnam vet card and as quickly discounts it. If it really is irrelevant, why mention it? Another bully tactic, to create the impression of authority via specious credentials.

Next, another guilt-by-association salvo, equating a glass of wine with endorsing the “world system.” This is actually two-for-one because he uses that nice evangelical code word, the “world system.” Very handy, that one. A nice catchall for whatever one wants to demonize.

Then he plays the “first mention” card, which “is very important as you surely well know.” Quite to the contrary, not only do I not “surely well know” that it is important, the law of first mention is an arbitrary and entirely unreliable “law” or “rule” of hermeneutics, as a little study and common sense tells us. And if that isn't enough, a simple search will provide ample evidence to the contrary. But it does come in handy for lending a veneer of authority to a pet position.

Finally, R.B. poses a leading question in the hopes that I will answer. The thing is, no matter how I answer, he will have a ready argument with which to beat me down. Because R.B. is not looking for a true dialog. In fact, of the entire email, the only sentences that are not blatant attempts at manipulation are the two sentences in the second paragraph, which are a mere statement of fact that the bought the book and read it.

R.B. is not wanting to understand and consider the validity my conclusions based on research. Since he told me he has read the book, he already knows my conclusions. So why is he emailing me?

What R.B. wants is to intimidate and browbeat me into submission, to enforce upon me his personal view on a non-essential, peripheral detail of doctrine. He’s made that very clear in every sentence of the unsolicited email he sent to me, a total stranger.

R.B. isn't seeking to understand my perspective, to find out what I think and why.

The reality is that he doesn't care what I think about this topic. And the reverse is also true. I don’t care what R.B. thinks about this topic. However, our reasons are quite different.

R.B. doesn't care what I think because, in his view, what I think is wrong if it is different from what he thinks, and he can’t let that difference stand. He’s zealous enough to engage me, a complete stranger, in an attempt to intimidate me into changing my mind.

And I don’t care what R.B. thinks because a position on alcohol is not a core element of the gospel. I’m perfectly content to let R.B. think whatever he wants to think about it without condemning him as “participating in . . . this world system” or trying to coerce him into recanting his position and adopting mine. (I also don’t go around trying to turn vegans into carnivores.)

If R.B. wants to abstain, I heartily support him in that view. Just as long as he doesn't pretend that he has any scriptural authority to enforce his view on others. The truth is that, according to scripture, the fact that he sees sin where scripture does not places him closer to the weak-in-faith end of the spectrum than to the strong-in-faith end. Where’s the authority in that?

What I am not fine with is R.B., or anyone else, attempting to bully people into conformity to his legalistic rules about whatever non-essential matters of faith he has decided we all need to submit to.

As Augustine said, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." Although Augustine of Hippo might not be non-sacramental and Bible-believing enough for R.B.

And that’s why I wrote “What Would Jesus Drink?” Not because I think everyone should start drinking wine, but because everyone should make up their own minds on the subject based on the actual scriptures, and let others come to their own conclusions without mounting a crusade to convert them to another view.

Jesus opposed the religious bullies of his day and only went along with their nonsense when it coincided with the plan of the gospel.

If you’re going to submit to something, submit to scripture, not to bullies.


True to bully form, R.B. could not let it rest. After four months without a response, he sent a second salvo in his assault on my view on this peripheral issue. That's a hallmark of a bully. An opposing view cannot be allowed to stand.

No matter that there are over a dozen books on Amazon on this subject, all of which agree with him. No, there is one book that offers a different viewpoint, and it cannot be allowed to exist unchallenged.

In the marketplace of ideas, there should be only one shop. None of this open discussion of ideas and let each make up their own mind.

This new note is more than twice as long as the first. He opens with the same "my brother's name is Brad" approach, and then immediately fires all guns with this choice paragraph.
I want to tell you that you sir, are unwise. That is a strong word in the Bible. Your book ¨What the Bible says about alcohol.¨ reveals what you are. What is that? Well, the name of your publisher Wunderfool Press describes you and your book.
He also played the Vietnam vet card again, and indulged in a host of other transparent bully tactics, but I won't belabor the point by enumerating them all. You get the point. But I will use his P.S. as a final illustration of the type.

In reaction to my FB page tag line
Serious novelist, casual musician, amateur hermit
he writes
Are true believers hermits?

Lack of a sense of humor is another mark of a religious bully, often combined with a dogged insistence on applying religious or spiritual interpretation to even the most casual utterance or action in an attempt to guilt the victim into submission.

I leave you with the same exhortation: If you’re going to submit to something, submit to scripture, not to bullies.


Brendt said...

IMHO, "bullies" may not be the best word, though the better word does start with "bull".

And yes, I realize the weirdness (it's not ironic, Alanis) of lecturing one of my favorite turners-of-phrase on word choice in his writing.

beeeword said...

If you were a woman he would have told you that you had a Jezebel spirit.

Brad Whittington said...

Brendt, bull---- might be an accurate evaluation, but I'm trying to be generous, here.

Brenda, very likely. And who knows, maybe I'm precocious and have a Jezebel spirit despite my gender.

Brendt said...

Brad, I get that. Complete accuracy may have gotten in the way of your point. Let your commenters handle the crassness. ;-)

JackAz said...


Hannah Alexander said...

Brad, since I've read your commentary What Would Jesus Drink? in its entirety, and because I did the same thing you did--read through the Bible over and over until I knew what it said--I have enjoyed the fact that you dug even more deeply than I did, and shared it with others. I'm just amazed that anyone would try to refute the truth when it's staring them in the face.