Bulverism is perhaps the laziest of all rhetorical gambits. When C. S. Lewis coined the term in 1941, he described it like this: “to assume without discussion that [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” Lewis had in mind the predilection among Marxists and Freudians for attributing the views of their ideological opponents to some psychological taint without bothering to refute the views themselves, whose wrongness they took for granted. The bulverist’s pretense of intellectual sophistication masks his question begging, and reason withdraws from the public square in proportion to his advance.
James Wood’s recent essay, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller,” has provoked much comment, little of it productive. Wood contends that Keller's “third way,” which eschews culture-warring in favor of ostensibly nonpartisan faithfulness to Christ, is no longer the best approach in the context of the secular world's radicalizing hostility toward the church. Moreover, it risks alienating believers from one another. The bulverists have responded to Wood like sharks to chum.
The least charitable response came from arch-bulverist David French, who dedicated his Sunday newsletter to denouncing Wood. “As the right has become more cruel, malicious, and dismissive of character,” he wrote, “some Christian thinkers have been willing not just to excuse this transformation but to affirm it as deeply virtuous.” A master of insinuation, French did not explicitly accuse Wood of baptizing Trumpism, but his rhetorical intent was clear enough. In French’s telling, Wood desires not to spur the church on to greater resilience, but to excuse his own partisanship, even if it means leading the church into idolatry (Wood explicitly addresses some of these concerns in a follow-up essay).
While few critics have echoed French’s imputation of malice, many fellow bulverists agree that Wood is guilty of subordinating the commands of Scripture to the demands of political expedience. “[A]voiding tribalism and seeking winsomeness is NOT a strategy that can be discarded once we arrive in a ‘negative world,’” tweeted pastor and author Gavin Ortlund. “It is a biblical commandment.” Richard Stearns, president emeritus of World Vision, tweeted, “Jesus never changed his approach or his character because Rome and the prevailing Jewish power hierarchy created a ‘negative culture’. He remained winsome and compassionate even to the cross, forgiving even the thief and the Roman soldiers.”
A mind capable of believing that the crucified Christ uttered the words “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” winsomely is, I’ll admit, endearing. But treating winsomeness as an end in itself can warp more than one’s imagination, as Wood contends: “If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem.”
Stearns confirmed the reality of this danger when, in 2014, he attempted to reverse World Vision’s policy against hiring employees in same-sex marriages. Stearns made the unconvincing claim that the new policy was “symbolic not of compromise but of [Christian] unity.” Although Keller’s more febrile critics accuse him of having always intended to pave the church’s way to progressive heresy—an accusation as uncharitable as it is stupid—for too many the third way has inadvertently done just that.
It also encourages the sort of false equivalences French employs against Wood: “When it comes to negative partisanship, neither side has clean hands. If we truly live in a ‘negative world,’ then Christians helped make it negative.” French implies that Christians deserve the hostility they face. There are of course cases in which this is true, such as the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years, or those that seem perennially to plague the Catholic Church. But French’s writing over the past five years indicates that he has in mind the bogeyman of white Christian nationalism.
Many of Wood's critics reject the idea that we have transitioned from a neutral to a negative world; the church, they argue, has always faced a negative world. This is true in the cosmic sense (cf. Ephesians 6:11–12). But both Wood and Renn clearly use “negative world” in the sociological sense of post-2014 America. Three rhetorical questions demonstrate the aptness of this schema:
1) Was there a time in America’s history when being a non-Christian was a social liability?
2) Is being a committed, small-o orthodox Christian considered a social liability today by broad swaths of society and by a supermajority of power-holders in elite culture-making institutions?
3) In the historical passage from the time when being a non-Christian was a social liability to the present day, was there a period, even if quite brief, in which the mean of societal attitudes toward Christians was neither warm nor cold?
Renn's trichotomy serves as a broadly accurate description of American social transformations over the past several decades.
Keller tweeted recently that the third way approach modeled at Redeemer “was forged FOR people to use in hostile cultures everywhere going forward” (emphasis mine). The context of that forging, however, was a very idiosyncratic culture, one that fervently believed it had arrived at the end of history and that liberalism had achieved a final victory, thereby ensuring the future would be post-political. Keller’s winsome, depoliticized third way may have flourished for reasons specific to New York City; but it also tapped into the triumphalist, post-Cold War energy surging through the broader national consciousness. In other words, it was a brilliant strategy for evangelizing a culture intoxicated by the idea of its own universality.
But time has revealed liberal universalism to be a parochial delusion. History is up and running again. The political has returned with a vengeance. And those who continue to mistake the third way for a universal doctrine are at risk of sleepwalking into political idolatry that insists upon a paradoxically post-political ideology.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.
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