Several weeks ago, I published on article on Sarah Moon’s blog entitled Reclaiming a Feminine Christianity which essentially argues for reclaiming the feminine metaphors that we read throughout scripture. This article made waves in some circles, leading to a followup article published on The Good Men Project and an invitation to do a national radio interview on the Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show based out of Los Angeles, California.
For those of you who do not know who Jesse Lee Peterson is, he is a hyper-conservative preacher and radio host who has been a regular commentator on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox and is known for his controversial opinions. Among these controversies are his extremely low opinion of women and views on race. He is known for publicly declaring that the decline of our nation can be tied directly to allowing women the right to vote. He has argued that women are incapable of handling leadership positions due to their incapacity for handling stress (which this study and this study refute thoroughly), and labels anything that argues for gender equality as “liberal feminism”. He doesn’t stop at gender, either. Peterson is widely known for his comments thanking God for slavery, declaring it a means that God used to help black men and women “get out of Africa” while comparing the slave trade to riding in a crowded airplane.
Needless to say, I was very hesitant about accepting an invitation to appear on such a show. One of my goals, however, is to be able to dialogue with culture-shaping voices that I consider harmful and engage perspectives that undermine Christianity. So, after requesting a list of questions that we would be dealing with on the show and receiving that list, I accepted. Yesterday morning, we did the interview, which lasted nearly an hour over a conference call. I will be breaking the audio up in a series of future posts and discussing our conversation, but here are three things I learned from my first national appearance.
1. Controversy Brings Listeners
It was fascinating to observe how Jesse approached our discussions. On many of the points we disagreed (such as the nature of sin and an egalitarian approach to marriage), and he consistently sought to establish false equivalencies or over-simplifications and demand a yes or no response to his points — a response I refused to give without also defining what I meant in that response.
What was particularly telling, however, was when we agreed. In the discussion on abortion, for example, he asked if I believe abortion to be morally wrong. Even this is a nuanced question, as there are times where abortion becomes a far more complex issue, such as when a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. As a form of convenience, birth control, or simply a preferential choice, my stance is pretty firm: the elimination of life on the basis of “choice” is never a moral option. Despite the fact that Jesse openly agrees with this, he decided to flip the script and instead present me as an opponent to women’s rights. This reveals something very insightful about such shows: the goal is controversy, not truth.
Lesson #1: The seduction of a large platform is the temptation to pander to the audience, rather than to the truth.
2. Integrity And Image Are Not The Same
In preparation for this interview, I requested a list of the questions we would be addressing so I could enter the discussion prepared. I was invited on the general basis of discussing the article I published on the feminine metaphors for God, and more specifically on the list of questions such an article raised. Over the course of 45 minutes of actual discussion time (15 minutes of the interview were taken up by commercial breaks), not one of the questions I was presented with ahead of time were asked. Ever.
In fact, after half an hour of discussing every controversial topic you could think of, we still had not touched on the article whatsoever. It was not until I refused to discuss more controversies and all-but-demanded that we deal with the topic I was brought on the show to talk about that we even introduced discussion of the piece on feminine metaphors. In the course of that conversation, we still never discussed the questions that had been furnished to me. At best, this is deceptive. The topic and list of questions essentially became a bait-and-switch tactic, but nobody but Jesse and myself were aware of the deception. This is particularly intriguing in light of Jesse’s declaration at the early part of our interview that, as a Christian, he no longer sins.
Lesson #2: A public image can be easily manipulated to cover private sin.
3. Ambiguity Is Akin To Dishonesty
I touched on this earlier. One of Jesse’s favorite tactics was to create false equivalencies (ie. if a Christian still struggles with sin, then Christ has not saved him/her from sin) and to demand a simple yes or no response to terms that he would refuse to adequately define. Then, when I would define the term in the course of my agreement or disagreement, he would ignore my definition and return to demanding a simple yes or no — a response I would refuse to give without defining what I meant by that.
This, too, is a far more subtle form of deception that feeds the controversy of point 1. If the question remains inadequately defined, the questioner can then attach any meaning to it after a simply agreement or disagreement has been offered. This can then be used to paint the one being questioned with whichever brush they wish, often creating a remarkably dishonest persona that enables a more poignant controversy. The fallback is to then pull out the honesty brush, coloring one’s refusal to be so trapped as an expression of dishonesty. Of course, such a fallback is fairly transparent, especially when the one being so painted points out what is taking place. This reveals something important, however: clever wordplay is a willing cover to open deception.
Lesson #3: As rhetorical skill improves, accountability becomes even more important.
The temptation of a large and growing platform is to become increasingly absorbed with one’s own self-importance. If my time with Jesse Lee Peterson has taught me anything, it is to be dutiful in my own self examination as this blog, my writing, and my opportunities in the public sphere continue to increase. Personal integrity is always more important than public image, as it is our personal relationship with God that is impacted. Yielding to the temptation to pander to one’s audience, rely on one’s public image, and manipulate one’s rhetoric results in individuals that are not only harmful to the Christian body at large, they are harmful to themselves as well.
Lesson learned, Jesse Lee Peterson. Thank you.