The second is that there’s a lot of ignorant, tendentious and even aggressive media chatter about the church right now, and it’s starting to grate. Church observers are blabbering away on cable and network news telling the church to get with the program, throwing around words like “gender” and “celibacy” and “pedophile” and phrases like “irrelevant to the modern world.”
I wouldn’t presume to tell Baptists or Lutherans or Orthodox Jews how they should interpret their own theology, what traditions to discard and what new ones to adopt, what root understandings are no longer pertinent. It would be presumptuous, and also deeply impolite in a civic sense. The world I came up in had some virtues, and one was that we gave each other a little more space, a little more courtesy both as individuals and organizations, never mind faiths. That kind of public courtesy is what has allowed America, with all its sharp-elbowed angers and disagreements, to operate.
Right now every idiot in town feels free to tell the church to get hopping, and they do it in a new way, with a baldness that occasionally borders on the insulting. Whatever their faith or lack of it they feel free to critique loudly and in depth, to the degree they are capable of depth. I have been critical of the church over the sex scandals for longer than a decade. Here’s one column—but I write of it because I love it and seek to see it healthy, growing and vital as it brings Christ into the world. Some of the church’s critics don’t seem to be operating from affection and respect but something else, or some things else.
When critics mean to be constructive, they bring an air of due esteem and occasional sadness to their criticisms, and offer informed and thoughtful suggestions as to ways the old church might right itself. They might even note, with an air of gratitude free of crowd-pleasing sanctimony, that critics must, in fairness, speak of those parts of the church that most famously work—the schools that teach America’s immigrants, the charities, the long embrace of the most vulnerable—and outweigh a whole world of immediate criticisms.
But when they just prattle on with their indignant words—gender, celibacy, irrelevant—well, they’re probably not trying to be constructive. One might say they’re being vulgar, ignorant and destructive, spoiled too. They think they’re brave, or outspoken, or something. They don’t have enough insight into themselves to notice they’d never presume to instruct other great faiths. It doesn’t cross their minds that if they were as dismissive about some of those faiths they’d have to hire private security guards.
I once read an account of Anne Boleyn’s death. In the moments after she was beheaded her head was held aloft by her executioner, to show the crowd. Her nervous system was shocked, her neurons misfired, her head didn’t know it was severed from her neck. Her eyes blinked, her mouth moved crazily. Those critics who go on TV now to tear down what they don’t even understand: they are removed and unknowing. They are Anne Boleyn’s head.