Smooth Transitions or, When Claims of Higher Standards Are Really Lower

SBC Voices’ Dave Miller reported the announced planned retirement of Dr. Richard Land. I write planned retirement for it will not be effective until the date that marks Land’s 25 years of service to the ERCL – to the day in October 2013. We need time for a smooth transition of power.

CNN reported on the Fall of Jonah Lehrer. The story details the manner in which Lehrer’s creative writing included manufactured quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. A freelance writer, also a huge Bob Dylan fan, began scrutinizing the quotes and discovered the creative license. Lehrer resigned amidst the discovery.

David Fitch raised an awareness [which may need an alarm] of an Evangelical ideology bound to empty signifiers. One exposes an empty core when the actions consistent with the claimed ideology face the contradiction of the one, or ones, making the claim. If I claim to have a higher standard than others because I am a Christian and yet my actions do not bear that out we often refer to that person as hypocritical. Another way to look at it is the loss of a center, a core. In this move, the core holds no power to persuade to consistent action. When that occurs it is considered empty.

Here is why many call for more attention to how belief functions rather than what we believe. If our beliefs fail to function in a way that makes of us better people, then our beliefs are called into question. I am not sure we Christians care for this sort of scrutiny. We seem more concerned with what we believe rather than how we believe. We rarely make the connection that the how of belief becomes the apologetic for what we believe. We prefer to hone our arguments so that propositionally we may win a debate, all the while treating our opponents less than Christian. Some go so far as to support their behavior by appealing to Jesus. This mystifies me.

Defenders of Lehrer, those in the  comment thread of the story, point to Lehrer’s brilliance. Others described how Lehrer simply followed the way laid before him, “everyone has been doing this for half a millennia.” Quibbles abound over mis-quoting and creating quotes. Whatever the case, what was written was manufactured with parts true and untrue.

When Dr. Land’s plagiarism became public in eerily similar ways to Lehrer’s creativity, defenders came out saying much the same of Land. “He is brilliant.” I concurred. “Everyone in radio does what Land did.” “His body of work should prompt us to overlook this habit.”

A occasional blogger continues to keep his post up suggesting that this messenger from Oklahoma writes disparagingly about Dr. Land even after said blogger admitted to only skimming what I have previously written on the subject. He never read what I wrote. Repeatedly I have written about the incident, not about Dr. Land. Even more, I have written calling into question our leadership who seems less interested in the higher ground.

Why does this matter? Why still raise the issue? Every time Christians lay claim to a higher standard and someone, who does not readily identify as Christian, falls prey to similar circumstances and then responds in a way that evidences a higher moral standard it calls into question our core. In short, when the New Yorker and Lehrer take actions commensurate with the error it gives the impression that they hold themselves to a higher standard.

Do you really think Lehrer wanted to resign? He had to for the New Yorker to maintain its integrity and for Lehrer who will yet have time to rehab his brilliant career. The matter is about what Lehrer did, not about Lehrer’s brilliance and creativity. To point to those two traits is to seek to raise the euphoria of his supporters and ignore the action. A matter we Christians practice under the rubric of grace; it trumps all our actions. But, does this prove or call into question our oft declared position from the moral high ground?

It seems if we really claim a higher standard, then we bear the burden of living that standard. Defaulting to grace seems like the trump card enabling us to avoid the consequences of our own actions. It allows us to believe but not believe. We believe plagiarism is wrong. We believe the consequences should be severe for everyone, except in this case us. We are able to tout that we believe plagiarism is wrong without believing the common consequences apply. I hope you are able to draw all the cultural parallels.

I am all for grace. And, I am all for grace in recovering from the necessary outcomes when we fail our own core. Or, to put it clearly, I hope Jonah Lehrer experiences the grace necessary for him to regain the status his fans believe more accurately represents this talented writer. It seems we Southern Baptists aren’t so sure grace would function the same way for our people of brilliance.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.