We, a small group of theological educators, went to a Demolition Derby—a real one, with cars, and then trucks, smashing into each other in a muddy arena, and more than a thousand people watching from the grandstands.
Four couples, all of us good friends from our longtime engagement in theological education, were spending a weekend together at a cottage on the shore of a Minnesota lake. We joked a lot, ate good food, took a pontoon boat ride, prayed, sang, argued theology—and late Saturday afternoon we went to the Pine County Fair to witness a Demolition Derby.
We were only a few minutes’ drive from where the Derby was held when six of us decided to attend. Afterwards, half of our group said they would attend another one if they had the chance. But for the others—the three that included me—we chalked it up to a once-in-a–lifetime experience, with an emphasis on the “once.”
On the drive back, I suggested that we talk about the theological significance of the event. We represented Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Methodism and Catholicism. What better opportunity to “say something theological” (remembering the wonderful title that James Gustafson gave to his 1981 Ryerson Lecture—the line came from a request from a conversation partner in a bar, when Jim told him that he was a theologian) about what was obviously a significant public gathering for many ordinary folks? And we were in the heart of Lutheran country. Surely at least some of the crowd (maybe even some of the drivers) would be in church the next morning. What would we say to them about the event that we had all witnessed?
But we could not really come up with anything profound about the arena action we had observed. What could we say about a bunch of rowdy drivers trying to slam and disable one another's vehicles inside a caged arena?
Maybe they provided some vicarious thrills for folks who sometimes get irritated with other drivers on the road. The more interesting observations we briefly discussed reflected on the spirit in the grandstand. Many people: young and old, dating couples, groups of teenagers and families. There was much beer-drinking, piles of food consumed, even the occasional waft of marijuana in the air. But it was a friendly crowd, displaying a raucous and joyful communal atmosphere. Since these folks were spending several hours in the stands, with each of the four rounds of official action lasting only about ten minutes, we concluded that much of the attraction had to do precisely with a sense of community. People seemed to enjoy the simple occasion of being there together. That was the extent of our wisdom. And anyway, a fine salmon dinner was waiting for us at the cottage.
I still have not been able to think of anything seriously theological to say about the event itself. But in the days following our attending the Derby I kept coming across its metaphorical use. In a New Yorker piece that I read two nights later, Amy Davidson observed that the sixteen declared Republican presidential candidates presents the GOP with “a crowd-control problem; now the campaign threatens to be defined by demolition.” And shortly after that I read Gerald Seib’s observation in the Wall Street Journal that the Republican debates had turned into “a kind of demolition derby.”
The one biblical text that strikes me as relevant to this derby imagery is Second Corinthians 10, where in verse 5 the Apostle reports (in the NIV translation) that “we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” On the face of it, this passage could serve as the “campaign verse” for the candidates that Gerald Seib classifies as the present Republican “fighters” (his examples are Trump, Rand, Christie, Cruz, and Huckabee), as opposed to the “statesmen” (Bush, Rubio, and others).
What is significant, though, is that what gets demolished in this Pauline text is not people but arguments. It is one thing to leave an opponent’s argument in ruins and another thing to destroy the one who sets forth that argument. That this is a distinction worth attending to in thinking about debating important matters is highlighted by the way the Apostle introduces his subject a few verses before using the demolition image: “By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you . . .” (II Cor. 10:1).
When one of the demolition rounds was over at the Pine County Derby, twenty-one cars were silenced—some battered beyond repair, with wheels and fenders embedded alongside them in the mud. But a different thing happened with their human operators. Waiting for the tow trucks to come and clear the arena, drivers climbed out of their vehicles, and many of them jumped over to shake hands with—and in several cases to give a warm embrace to—another driver.
If I had to preach to a congregation in Pine County the next morning, I think I would have gotten some theological mileage out of that concluding muddy scenario of handshakes and hugs in expounding the text from Second Corinthians 10. And I might have applied those thoughts to the proper nature of discourse about serious matters of public policy.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?