Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The edible cross

Mr Doug Wilson, who despite occasional fits of the iffy, periodically says wonderful things.

"Imagine you have been invited to dinner somewhere, and suppose you just can't get past the fact that your hosts are, apparently without malice, serving up carcinogens covered in gravy. Well, Jesus said that we had to take up our cross in order to follow Him. Your obligation is to die for your brother. At least in this case your obligation is covered in hot gravy."

(One of these days I'll do an actual post, cross my gravy-saturated heart)


  1. I'm gonna file this one under 'iffy,' as well.

  2. Yep, because Jesus was all about sticking to extra-Scriptural social norms and not making waves.

  3. For real? So when you go over to someone's house and they're serving inorganic tomatoes or something made with high fructose corn syrup or whatever, you refuse to eat it? That... doesn't sound like you guys. Surely that can't be what you mean? But that's what the quote is saying, and you seem to disagree.

  4. Joel, if they were serving up rat poison, would you eat it? Actually, perhaps in that case you *should* eat it, plus their own servings as well! That would truly be dieing for your brother. But taking poison into your body for social reasons? Even if it's just going to make you sick, rather than kill you, that is still ridiculous (I think Paul's phrasing is "May it never be!" or something like that).

    Now, a lot depends on degrees. If by 'carcinogens' he means a steak which is more well done than I'd prefer, then I probably wouldn't complain. But if there's something which I consider too harmful, too close to the rat poison, I'll do the polite thing and move it around on my plate (or not place it there, if it's a buffet), and find something else to eat. It's a rare occasion when one cannot find a non-carcinogen to eat.

  5. And if your guest innocently serves you a nice peanut sauce, but you're deathly allergic to peanuts? Still eat it? What about if your throat will just swell up and you'll have to go to hospital, but you won't die? What if you'll be uncomfortable and little wheezy all night after you take your Benadryl? What if you'll just get a itchy rash on your back? What if you'll just feel really crummy and need to sleep an extra couple hours that night? What if it gives you a mild headache? What if it just makes you really thirsty the next day? I'll refrain from going on...

    Is there a line?

  6. All right, agreed: Christian brotherly love does not require you to eat rat poison...

    But the category "carcinogen" is, I suppose you realize, rather broader than that. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it includes French fries, for instance, and I'm thinking that most things you're likely to be served in America are a lot closer to that end of the spectrum. And I would further suggest that thinking people can observe the vast distinction between "unhealthy", in the sense of "not optimizing your nutritional intake for this meal", and "unhealthy" in the sense of paint thinner.

    As you point out, there certainly is a spectrum, and I'm sure there are some very legitimate cases where you shouldn't eat something. Allergies seem like an obvious example. Of course, I also think (and I don't suppose you would disagree, but please correct me) that enduring inconvenience so that others don't have to is actually rather noble.

    But yeah, sure, there's a line somewhere. I have neither the desire nor - which is more important - the qualifications to map exactly how it applies in every case. It's a matter of conscience, not the law of the Medes and Persians. But I think the broad principle in view is that if it isn't something that's going to hurt you significantly and directly, you should generally probably eat it out of kindness. Does that seem so crazy?

    (The equally important other side of love, of course, is those who don't particularly care about food accommodating those who do, and maybe not ordering KFC when their locavore friends stop by. But that's a different topic.)

  7. I do agree that there are things to be eaten out of kindness. And I certainly agree that it's a matter of conscience, and a matter of knowing one's own temple. So why does a pastor (not a Pastor) get to come along and essentially say, "If you want to be like Jesus, you'll ignore your conscience and eat the crap"?

  8. If the broader principle you see here is "don't be rude without warrant," then I certainly agree. Likewise with "treat matters of taste as matters of taste." I'm surprised it's a point Wilson would feel compelled to make.

    On the other hand, if his point is "on this matter of conscience, your conscience needs to act more like mine," I don't see it. In my experience, few Christians need encouraged to err on the side of social pleasantries and fake smiles. What they need is to learn how to be honest without malice.

  9. I guess I'm not seeing why this is eliciting such strong reactions. The quote doesn't preclude there being a question of conscience, and (as previously established) doesn't apply to rat poison. It reads to me like a clever statement of the common principle of Christian selflessness, applied to the important area of table fellowship, and nothing more. Covering obligations with gravy is a fine writerly image, and I thought it worthy of citation.

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with encouraging "social pleasantries and fake smiles," and it's not a denial of anyone's right to make a judgement of conscience on the matter. At least, not in any way that's clear to me.

    So what gives? Why are you reading it that way?

  10. The clever, writerly images are the gravy. The underlying idea is in keeping with what Wilson has written in other places, namely that people who don't play the social game the way Wilson sees it are engaged in spiritual error (or at least, spiritual sub-optimality). That's the carcinogen, which accumulate slowly but *will* hasten death.

  11. So this isn't really about the quote at all, but a reaction to your broader knowledge of Wilson's philosophy. (I suppose you'd agree that applying "taking up your cross" to food doesn't necessarily entail "playing the social game" in the negative way you seem to intend?) Your charge, as I'm sure you realize, is fairly serious. I certainly haven't read all of Wilson - just his blog, and not always that - but I haven't observed him committing that particular error. Is there some text you have in mind that you could direct me to? I'd be interested in learning more.

  12. I've read Wilson's Federal Husband and most of Reforming Marriage (I think this was the other one I read, Federal Husband for sure). Along with those are the quotes mentioned in this review of his book Mother Kirk here.

    Other critics have dealt with the issue of Wilson as social manipulator before, for example here, here, and here.

    Now, I do not endorse everything on any of those posts, not by a long shot. But the picture they paint of Wilson as playing games when he's on the ropes, and the methods of condemning without openly condemning, judging without admitting judgment, ring true for me.

    So there is an element in which, since no statement is without context, I do think we should read the quote in the context of other things Wilson has said. And yes, I do agree that "taking up your cross" can be applied to meals without it being a power game.

    However, I still wouldn't be a big fan of the quote without this issue, because I still think it has something of a smirk to its tone that I don't think is helpful. It makes me think of sermons in which the pastor rails against open sins which characterize essentially no one present to hear the actual sermon. It makes those listening feel better about themselves, but doesn't enable them deal with their own sin or equip them to help others deal with it.

  13. I should probably add at this point that I suspect part of our disagreement could again be our personal contexts. Perhaps it is more of an issue in Ithaca that Christians do need to hear "don't be rude without warrant" and "treat matters of taste as matters of taste." Here in Oklahoma, I've felt much more that the opposite is true: it seems common to stifle one's own conscience, to the detriment of both parties, for fear of being socially improper.

  14. I don’t want this to be about whether or not Wilson is a particularly stand-up guy – I certainly agree that he’s alienated a ton of people by being an ungracious debater, and that seems to be the bulk of the criticism you posted. Honestly, the FV debate strikes me as such a dreadful he-said/she-said that I’m a bit reluctant to take a strong stand on either side, especially considering that my grasp of the core issue is very weak. But I’m happy to stipulate that Wilson can be kind of a jerk. There definitely are some cultural differences in play here, too, so you’re right to bring that up.

    I'm wondering, on the other hand, why you both seem to be putting conscience front and center, as if the main question were "Is eating X righteous or wicked?" a la Romans 14. I had imagined conscience playing a role, but only secondarily, in the sense of "I would prefer not to eat X for whatever reason; to how much inconvenience am I prepared to put myself in order to serve my brothers?" To that extent, it seems that everything is a question of conscience.

  15. Well, we've been dealing with other ideas built on the same sort of problem recently over on the facebook. Essentially, I see three main categories worth considering here:

    (1) Commands, about which there's very little room for debate. Like don't commit adultery: we might have to work to figure out exactly what adultery is, but there's no confusion about whether it is wrong.

    (2) Wisdom, which in the right context will apply to anyone without debate, although what the right context is may not be obvious. 'Don't walk by the prostitute's house' is one of my favorites from Proverbs: recklessly putting ourselves in the path of temptation isn't just bad form, it's wrong, although what constitutes the path of temptation will differ from person to person.

    (3) Conscience, in which the best way to love God and our neighbor isn't obviously clear, and will depend on how the individual feels about a situation. There's no doubt that we should consider how to love our neighbors when eating a meal they have served. But what specific actions love requires are a matter of judgment and discernment on the part of the individual Christian, and involve not only the neighbors' feelings, but other considerations like how strongly the Christians making the decision feels about caring for their own bodies, which are the Temple of the Lord.

    A major problem I've noticed recently, at least among reformed folk, is taking matters which should fall into at least the second, and often the third category, and treating them as if they fell into the first. We like to invoke "good and necessary consequence" in order to turn our preferences and judgments into divine commands, as if our reasoning (no matter how sound) were something other believers are obligated to follow. I think we have trouble accepting how few things the Bible is explicit about, because we want to leave as little room as possible for ambiguity.

    But the Bible spends a lot of time being ambiguous on how 'Love God, love your neighbor' should be worked out; I would say it does this precisely because developing wisdom and a sound conscience are majors sources of sanctification. But doing so means not doing what Wilson's quote does, which is taking something from the third category (or at the very least, the second) and talking about it like it's in the first.

  16. As an aside, you said "the FV debate strikes me as such a dreadful he-said/she-said that I’m a bit reluctant to take a strong stand on either side"

    I agree 100%! I actually am sympathetic to what some of the FV guys have tried to do, which is precisely to say that our rhetoric should look less like our textbooks (which always qualify and clarify every statement so there is never any hint of ambiguity) and instead should look more like Scripture (which sometimes says you are saved by faith alone, and sometimes says you are saved by baptism). We get our fuller understanding from looking at the whole of Scripture, but that doesn't mean we always have to talk about everything said in every part of Scripture.

    I would say that since most people are mystics, leaving room in our rhetoric for taking one thing at a time, and not trying to define every possible relationship between ideas in every sermon, can actually improve understand and help people learn more clearly. It's a pity Wilson doesn't seem to hold to that view when it comes to pragmatics.

  17. Nitpick: isn't the body-as-temple metaphor in I Cor. 6 really talking about sexual sin, not health? (I don't know if there's another verse you might have been talking about.)

    Ethical question: Is nitpicking side points made better or worse by introducing it as such?

  18. I Cor. 6 is definitely about sexual sin, not health. But I think the way of thinking about the body called on there is taught more generally in Scripture. And even if this is a bit of a misapplication, thinking in terms of I Cor. 8, if the believer's conscience makes them think about their bodies in these terms, it isn't more Godly to convince them to lighten up.

    I think acknowledging how central a complaint or critique is to the main point is beneficial, so introducing nitpicking as nitpicking is probably better. I usually say something like "this isn't really the main point, but..."