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The Power Of Controversy

I noticed something interesting in the comments to my article last week. Several of the earlier ones paraphrased to, “Well, I really can’t argue with this.” Stephen chimed in soon afterward, trying to stimulate conversation, I suppose, with, “Who disagrees? […]
| Nov 8, 2011 | No comments |

I noticed something interesting in the comments to my article last week. Several of the earlier ones paraphrased to, “Well, I really can’t argue with this.” Stephen chimed in soon afterward, trying to stimulate conversation, I suppose, with, “Who disagrees? Why would they disagree?”

Hmm. “Think, think, think,” quoth Pooh.

Dude talks tough, but he ain't nothin' but fluff.

Two weeks ago, I proclaimed my intention to “misbehave,” to stir the pot, be surprising, challenge the status-quo, et-cetera, et-cetera. Looking at those comments, I wondered, “Am I still settling for the conventional? Am I spouting safe ideas and taking comfortable positions anybody can accept without much thought?

Blogging is supposed to be interactive. I write something, then the readers line up on both sides of the issue, charge their muskets, and open fire. When the smoke clears, the battlefield is strewn with punctured rhetoric, and everybody on the ’net is talking about that epic conflagration over at Speculative Faith and reenacting bits and pieces of it on their own blogs. We’ve gone viral.

No doubt about it.

However, if my opinion piece is as provocative as a well-fed hamster, nothing much will happen. We’ll get a few shoulder shrugs. A couple of loyal readers might log in with, “Hey, there goes a hamster,” and “Yep, it’s a hamster, no doubt about it. Can’t really argue with that.”

Controversy gets people talking. It’s the friction point where the sparks begin to fly. If you’ve spent any time at all around here, you’re familiar with some of our collective hot-buttons, and may have noticed a spike in comments when they’re in play. For example:

  • Characters should/shouldn’t swear in Christian fiction.
  • Christians should/shouldn’t criticize Christian writers.
  • The gospel should be presented obviously/subtly in Christian fiction.
  •  (Insert name here) is/isn’t a universalist.
  • CBA-allied publishers and booksellers are helping/hindering Christian spec-fic writers.
  •  J.K. Rowling is/isn’t the Devil’s stenographer.

Controversies have expiration dates, though, and after the fourth or fifth go-round, people lose interest. “C.S. Lewis and Purgatory? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Bored now.” It’s not enough to hit on a controversy, it’s got to be crisp and prickly with a succulent, chewy center, like a fresh artichoke.

Should I try to be more controversial? That’s a lot of work. It’s hard to maintain a steady level of volatility, unless you’re talking about politics. Speculative Faith focuses on Christianity in fiction—religion can and does inspire folks to combat, but somebody will eventually toss a box of baking soda on the grease fire with an appeal to be kind and loving, like Christians should, buttressed with an apt Scripture verse or two. Everyone will retire to their corners, vaguely ashamed of themselves, and all conversation will cease.

I’m not talking about a reaction motivated by rudeness or lack of respect here—simple disagreement is often enough to bring out the volunteer fire department. From one perspective, we’re being better Christians—nobody’s arguing, so nobody’s going to get hurt—but what’s the point of having a discussion forum if we only discuss an issue until somebody feels uncomfortable? I guess we could steer clear of all controversy and offer nothing but supportive book reviews and an exchange of trivia from our favorite books and movies.

Is there a middle ground? How might we explore areas of fundamental disagreement between people without creating animosity? It may not be possible—it helps to be courteous and respectful, but some folks will always feel personally threatened by an opposing view, no matter how gently offered.

Cute & cuddly does not a revolution make.

I know some of you don’t like open-ended questions, but I don’t have answers for these. I want to see this forum live long and prosper, and I want to do what I can to help that happen.

What I do know is that it’s not going to help anybody if all I do is serve up hamsters.

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.

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Esther
Guest

Fred Warren, “I don’t know you, but I love you” (as per Dug from Up). I read most things you write here because you really do have a way with words and stimulate thinking as well. (FYI, because of that you are one of the reasons I do not write. I could never manage to use words the way you and other writing heroes do, so why should I try?)
Shameless fawning checked off the list, I want to suggest that as a culture and as Christians in particular, we’ve forgotten the art of gracious discussion. Partly because we are steeped in the religion of tolerance and self-esteem currently in vogue, partly because of pride (“What I think is right simply because I think it even though I haven’t thought about it and all the ramifications of it or considered another opinion”); partly because of fear (“what if I’m not right? What if that person gives enough evidence to prove me wrong? Will I actually have to think about this? Will my faith be shipwreck because I actually thought it through logically?”) and partly because our culture no longer believes in real, gracious manners. We refuse to learn the art of thinking and discussion, and would rather take questioning of our opinion personally and devolve immediately into personal attack.
So there. I’ve solved the problem. If you would all just listen to me and Fred, we could have a decent discussion or two around here and the common cold would be cured, as well.
Just kidding…about the cold, anyway.

Maria Tatham
Guest

I hate to be so agreeable but, I really like your post. You can write.

Sherwood Smith
Guest
Sherwood Smith

I believe that ‘discussion’ means listening to the other person’s viewpoint. Otherwise it’s just another internet flamewar, only the artillery is Biblical or “my pastor said” instead of cussing about ‘yo mama and the horse she rode in on.’
Too often I see Christians trump someone else with “You’re not a Christian if you accept X,” at which point you either have a flamewar, or the person who supports X is silenced.
There are some thoughtful essayists on this blog who I almost trust enough to engage in discussion (maybe I would if I could see their faces, hear their voices), and one person whose essays I don’t read at all any more, because I get that “I’m right–I know what Christianity is–and you’re going to hell if you disagree” vibe. Which isn’t Christian the way I understand it.

Galadriel
Guest

For my part, I tend to shy away from debates, both because they make me uncomfortable and because it takes too much time to follow the responses.

Kaci Hill
Member

There’s this weird phenomenon where the best posts often get the least comment traffic. Not sure why.   For me, personally, six years moderating a message board heavy-laden with theology both taught me how to ‘fight fair’ online and wore me out on many topics. 
 

Is there a middle ground?

Always. I think the trick sometimes, though, is that many times a conversation just reaches a stalemate. It may be perfectly amiable, but once all the cards are on the table and neither side intends to change positions, well, game over.
 

How might we explore areas of fundamental disagreement between people without creating animosity? It may not be possible—it helps to be courteous and respectful, but some folks will always feel personally threatened by an opposing view, no matter how gently offered.

I think if someone’s going to feel offended regardless, then there’s not a whole lot can be helped about that.  “Neither seek nor shun the fight,” to quote a proverb from a book.
 

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

I’ve been reading Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeline L’Engle. I really, really wish you guys would grab that book and use it as discussion material, because she articulates so many things that we’ve debated in here. Like the effects of our faith on our art, and how even non-Christians can reflect the Divine accidentally, and how God is no respecter of persons when it comes to talent and even revelation.
 
And angels. She’s very partial to angels.
 
She also goes on about how as we lose the glorious language of previous generations, we lose the depths of our theology, because we no longer have the words to articulate truth. And if we can’t articulate truth, our bad theology leads to bad art.
 
There’s all kinds of firecracker-debate stuff in there. I hope somebody picks it up and tosses it in here, because it’d cause some debate, all right. 🙂

Kaci Hill
Member

Ask and you shall receive. I’m pretty sure it’s been filed away in the ‘read’ pile for some time.
 
Now that might be a feat…a segment on books *about* faith and writing. Hmmm….

Sarah Sawyer
Member

Like Kaci, I’ve had this book on my “to read” list for quite a while, and your suggestion has inspired me to pick it up sooner rather than later. 🙂
I know  L’Engle had some beliefs I disagree with, but the excerpts I’ve read of Walking on Water suggest a very thoughtful look at the intersection of faith and writing.

Maria Tatham
Guest

I read and enjoyed this book quite a while ago. I’d be willing to reread it for discussion, at least parts of it. 

But to be completely honest, I deeply distrust this writer. Any discussion of her work, well, for me it would be more like letting a polemical rat loose, than tossing in a hamster.

Galadriel
Guest

My teacher had us read from that book for Intro to Poetry. Our conversation on the first three chapters jumped from icons to pornography to socialism. It was fun, though.

Sarah Sawyer
Member

Fred, I think you hit on an important point regarding debates that get old and tired. When I see a post covering a topic that’s been debated time and again online, I usually only skim to see if it offers any new insights. Frequently, the post and subsequent discussion will merely cover the exact same territory I’ve seen a number of times before.
 
So I’m in favor of controversy if it offers a fresh, thoughtful perspective on a topic…and even more so when it’s followed by a considerate exchange of ideas. 🙂

Maria Tatham
Guest

Fred, I am someone who finds it hard to engage in debate. The Scriptures about likemindedness, and being of one mind and purpose, are very important, as we all know. Occasionally I get controversial because the situation demands it: I have to speak and stand for truth.

About freedom in and willingness to debate issues: Some people can tackle ideas with ease and intelligence and wit; some have more foggy brains, like moi. So foggy brainers humbly realize their limits.

Another idea: Because someone loves and can write fiction, that doesn’t mean they’ll be as gifted with this kind of interchange.

Sorry, I did nod and smile at your hamster, so I do agree with your post; except that I sense disappointment in you about where this blog is, or is going. Nothing is perfect, Fred. How about this: “I have seen a limit to all perfection, but Thy commandment is exceedingly broad.”

I bet someday an argument is going to develop here, an ardent and sacred interchange, and we’ll all be surprised and jump in. It may have happened before I found out you all were here.

  
 

  

Kaci Hill
Member

Fred, I am someone who finds it hard to engage in debate. The Scriptures about likemindedness, and being of one mind and purpose, are very important, as we all know. Occasionally I get controversial because the situation demands it: I have to speak and stand for truth.

 
On the like-mindedness, sometimes I think likeminded people argue more than unlike-minded people.  Likeminded people, you’re going to the same place and have the same general principles, but everything in between might be up for grabs. Unlike-minded people, on the other hand, you’ve neither the same principles nor the same purpose in mind, so you’re more like two people passing in the street than two people in the same car.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Good point, Kaci. It seems almost as if we have to have the same starting point or there is no possibility of discussion. If I said, The weather has turned cold and got the answer I like tomatoes, we simply would not have a discussion.

 

Becky

Maria Tatham
Guest

Kaci, true! For likeminded people everything in between is up for grabs.

About unlikeminded people, I disagree. I’ve been pommeled to the ground and tempted to do the same. We HAVE TO sometimes sit in the same car, and bite our tongues so that there isn’t all out war.

Wow! I sound hostile. What I’m thinking of is non-Christian family members and the cold truce that exists. If the truce is broken, that is, if the silence is broken by a single word, then hostilities begin again.   

Kaci Hill
Member

Point taken, Maria. I suppose in that instance it’s more like being in the same car but not in favor of the same destination. Or something.  😛

Maria Tatham
Guest

Yes, Kaci!

Patrick J. Moore
Guest

“I wanted to play Mouse Trap. Roll your dice, move your mice. Nobody gets hurt.” – Bob the Tomato

Controversy is a fun game to play, as long as the players all respect each other.  As long as everyone stays on topic, are open to hearing other view points, and are okay with the fact that not everyone will agree. I enjoy a good debate.

Controversy stops being fun when people take opposing views as personal attacks. They have this idea that a person is what they believe, and if a belief is questioned it is an attack on all who hold that belief. Then the name calling comes in, or accusations that “real Christians believe ______” implying all who doesn’t believe as you do are condemned to Hell.

Seriously? We are talking about FICTION here. I love this blog. There seems to be a high level of respect which allows for deeper discussions of important topics. Tensions can get pretty high and I know all is still good here. Even though I can’t recall ever seeing any overt name calling or condemnations- sometimes there are responses that indicate that things are not all-right in a commenter’s mind: they have taken a discussion very personally, feel attacked, and are trying to fight back as passive-aggressively as they can  without embarrassing themselves by breaking the unspoken rules on this “Christian” playground. 

Even in Mouse Trap feelings get hurt for the kid that believes he has to win at all costs as if his very life depends on it.  These mice are already trapped in their own thinking. If we have love and respect for our fellow Spec. Faith group then we can all be winners. The deeper we can go without calling fouls on each other, the deeper our understanding can run, and the richer our experience can be.

I hope that The Power of  Controversy is being used to help us all grow as writers and fellow Christians, and not just to send the number of hits to a post soaring.  As you said we need balance. Battles wear us out. At that point I actually prefer to see a few rodents we all agree on scurry across the way. 

Timothy Stone
Member

To raise important issues is a good thing. To be a simple contrarian is not. That’s a good standard to judge a piece one writes, I guess.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

It’s hard to maintain a steady level of volatility, unless you’re talking about politics.

Even then it’s difficult. Personally, though I enjoy political discourse and debate — even some of the more-fiery pundits — I can only take so much. Conflict and debate have their limits, especially the ones that aren’t even partway filtered by Christlikeness.

But in addition to being hard, it’s wearying. For the Christian, it often feels very much like an endless battle. If we’re not careful, that’s what it can turn into, even in our heads. Often that’s happened in my own head, and unlike some of the folks who’ve said above that they disfavor debate, I often find myself enjoying these too much — not necessarily because I Want to Be Right, but because of the thrill of the thing. All of that has its place, and is permissible for Christians, but for the greater goal of glorifying God.

Speculative Faith focuses on Christianity in fiction—religion can and does inspire folks to combat, but somebody will eventually toss a box of baking soda on the grease fire with an appeal to be kind and loving, like Christians should, buttressed with an apt Scripture verse or two. Everyone will retire to their corners, vaguely ashamed of themselves, and all conversation will cease.

What’s especially fun is when people are actually trying to beat one another, or outdo one another, to be loving and gracious even while disagreeing on a point. I’d object to that as some kind of unhealthful self-righteousness that misses the point; however …

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Romans 12:10

The Apostle Paul certainly makes it sound like a friendly competition.

If my opinion piece is as provocative as a well-fed hamster, nothing much will happen. We’ll get a few shoulder shrugs. A couple of loyal readers might log in with, “Hey, there goes a hamster,” and “Yep, it’s a hamster, no doubt about it. Can’t really argue with that.”

I think that’s what happened to me last week. After taking a break to stir the cauldron about Halloween, I’d written about the temporary nature of fightin’ and scrappin’ and how stories, and discussions about them, and enjoyments of them, really point us to the ungracious-conflict-free New Heavens and New Earth. Any responses and big long comment thread about this? Nope. Just a few sporadic agreements, enough to make me wonder, as a stupid twenty-first century yuppie-wannabe, what I’d done wrong.

Answer: nothing, so far as I can tell. Do I want to make a living being a Controversialist? … Self: don’t answer that. Should I want this? Answer: no. I only want to engage in controversy as much as it will benefit God’s Kingdom. Jesus took controversy head-on. So did His disciples. But they were equally content without it, to preach to “friendlies.”

And you know what? I loved writing that column. Much more so than many of the ones about Hot Topics. It was an exercise in “Christian Hedonism.” Exploring that topic was an act of worship. And worship, in all that we do, is the only thing that we’ll do forever.

With that in mind, thanks for worshiping, and leading into worship through thought and discussion, by writing this, Fred.

Esther
Guest

Exploring that topic was an act of worship. And worship, in all that we do, is the only thing that we’ll do forever.

Light bulb moment.
 
Ponders….

Maria Tatham
Guest

Thanks, Kaci, for additional interesting info about hamsters! Poor darlings!

Thanks, Stephen, for taking the time to explain how to do links in a number of ways!

   

Maria Tatham
Guest

SPEC FAITH TEAM:

Resident hamster here! PLEASE READ THIS! Because you aren’t a blogger but a blog, so to speak, I have no other way to let you know that:

I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award, which means it seems that you have received this award. Please click the link below to read my post about your nomination, and to learn how to respond to it. God bless you! If you have qualms about the way I’ve described you, please forgive me! If you don’t wish to participate, that’s fine! Simply, resteth upon thine laurels!
 
http://christianfantasyforwomen.com/2011/11/09/passing-along-the-fun-versatile-blogger-award/
In His joy,
Maria     

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