September 30, 2020

The Little Brothers of Saint Archie Bunker

The Little Brothers of Saint Archie Bunker
How to argue theology till no one but the cows come home

“We didn’t crawl out from under no rocks. We didn’t have no tails. And we didn’t come from monkeys you atheist pinko meathead.”

“It ain’t supposed to make sense; it’s faith. Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe.”

• Archie Bunker

• • •

I used to watch “All In The Family” with my dad. It was strange. Strange because my dad was the virtual clone of Archie Bunker (and my mother the twin of Edith), and all the comedy- which I increasingly found both hilarious and truthful- usually went right past him.

Archie was perhaps the greatest practitioner of the art of argumentation ever portrayed on stage or screen. He had all the necessary gifts. He believed himself to be more knowledgeable on any subject than anyone else in the room. He had a vocabulary that ran circles around a normal person. He was never daunted by logic, compassion, or mercy. No, he pressed on, wagging his finger–or cigar–in your face, making his points, calling Mike a meathead or the neighbor an idiot or worse.

Archie loved an argument the way most people love dessert. At the slightest provocation, he bullishly inserted his opinion and denigrated yours. Reality, facts, common sense, sheer numbers of opponents–none of it made a dent in Archie. Inventing and redefining terms was an art form with him. It was Archie who explained that male behavior was determined by khromostones, and later discovered both his-mones and her-mones. When he found humility, it was always his special variety: “The only thing that holds a marriage together is the husband bein’ big enough to keep his mouth shut, to step back and see where his wife is wrong.”

I’ve decided that Archie Bunker is the patron saint of Christians who can’t stop making their point. Christians who love to argue. Christians who can’t stand it that someone somewhere disagrees with them. Christians who are caught up in theological controversy like University of Kentucky basketball fans are caught up in defending their team. Christians who have to correct everyone the way obsessed Lord of the Rings fans must correct any deviation from the Holy Canons of Tolkien. Christians who can’t rest easy if someone somewhere is not understanding, reading, or getting “it,” whatever “it” happens to be.

Like the guy I once had over for dinner. I was pastoring and looking for some non-congregational fellowship, so Denise and I invited over this Reformed Baptist pastor and his wife for a meal and some conversation. No Amway talks. No counseling appointments. Just dinner.

After the meal, this young pastor and I walked across the road from the parsonage to the church and to my study. And that’s when it happened. Right there in my chair, still digesting the chicken, this guy starts challenging my call to the ministry, and eventually, my salvation.

I said something about wishing our church had elders. Saint Archie Bunker was apparently praying for me, because the young pastor started in without mercy. If you know that the Bible teaches elders, how can you pastor a church that doesn’t have elders? You need to make this change now, or resign immediately. If you haven’t obeyed the truth you know, aren’t you a false shepherd? (Yes, a false shepherd!) And if you willfully continue in sin, and don’t repent, aren’t you actually an apostate? Believe me, he did a much better job than I just did!

If you want to know what I said, I believe I profoundly sat there making strange shapes with my lips, sighing and thinking how I could get this guy into his car and across the county line.
Now, here is the tragic thing. The young man didn’t need to do this. He could have said all this to his wife driving home. He could have given me a book or a tape. I like gifts. He could have invited us over for dinner, gotten to know me and eventually asked those questions in an intelligent way.  But no–he had to get in my face right then. He had to spurn my hospitality and ignore my desire for fellowship. He had to pass any chance to encourage or influence me long term in order to confront me as soon as possible.

That’s sad, or sick, whichever you prefer. And it’s too common among some theologically smart, Biblically sharp people. The little brothers of Saint Archie Bunker, I call them.

I meet Calvinists who have no control over their need to make all Biblical discussions turn into debates on predestination. There are young earth creationists who hunt down anything that smells like a less-than-literal view of Genesis one and label it evolution. Pentecostal/Charismatics have all varieties of little brothers of Saint Archie who can’t stand it that someone isn’t riding the latest wave of the Holy Spirit into last days revival. Seminary students who can’t understand why there is anyone refusing to read N.T. Wright, and hand-wringers staying up nights writing letters to people who do read N.T. Wright.

There are political types who won’t shut up, and Dobson types who won’t leave you alone, and don’t even start on those people caught up in the euphoria of the latest evangelical product, and have to make sure any peaceful gathering is subjected to commercials and testimonials.

Are religious enthusiasts just naturally obnoxious? Or do certain forms of Christianity attract people who have an insatiable need to impose their beliefs on others? Do some of us simply have nothing on the the mental dashboard that registers “too intense?”

It is a fact that any religion worth ten cents carries the warning label “Caution! Adherents may become convinced they are right, and feel obligated to make you a project.” Many forms of evangelicalism encourage things like cold-case confrontations and manipulating conversations in the name of persuasion, so that obnoxious and obsessed types may get the bonus of feeling they are “bold witnesses” for the truth. In fact, they are just a case of bad manners, and everyone is usually relieved when they go home.

When someone continually, incessantly presses the issue of the sovereignty of God, or the nature of the sacraments or the errors of the New Perspective on Paul, aren’t they doing the loving, truthful thing that we all ought to be doing? When the little brothers of Saint Archie won’t let us go home without hearing them out, aren’t they showing us that the truth matters, and my discomfort is only because I’m avoiding the real implications of the truth?

No. That is NOT the way it is.

First, let’s clear up a couple of things. I am not a relativist, and I’m not going to write that essay. But I don’t believe anyone has quite the grip on the truth these people seem to imagine they have. Their enthusiasm is blinding them to an undeniable truth–no one holds the truth perfectly, and all of our lives are rift with error, inconsistency, hypocrisy and ignorance.

Now, if we can remember that, I think it will come out like this. Truth is “out there.” God has revealed it. Sometimes, He reveals it to us. We can grasp it. But not perfectly, not consistently and not as purely as we think. We have to match our belief in the truth with a humility about ourselves. Knowing the truth is a privilege, a miracle. It may never happen to us again, and we may abandon what truth we have. Let’s be humble, grateful, and kind, because most of us aren’t walking advertisements for the truth of anything other than depravity.

(It’s particularly revealing how annoying zealots can get to the big issues from any small one. Notice how my pastor buddy was able to get to my salvation directly through the issue of elders? It’s a fun game to play. Just how big a thing can you find hiding in plain sight in the smallest matter of disagreement? Does the whole doctrine of Christ really depend on the details of how I explain justification? Is my entire doctrine of inspiration at stake in my view of the age of the earth?)

Secondly, let’s remember that argument is neither a witness nor a favor if it isn’t invited. If someone asks for the Archie Bunker treatment, then by all means play the defender of the faith or the great salesman. But if he didn’t ask for it, if you brought it up as a way of asserting your knowledge, your superior understanding and your devotion to the cause, you may, just may, be a jerk. As someone said, when a baby gets a hammer, everything’s a nail. Don’t be the baby, and don’t make other people the nail.

So you care about these things. You care so much that you can’t contain your knowledge or excitement or insight. Then ask yourself how to introduce the subject with some class, some kindness, and maybe some love and humility. It’s not a bad time to ask “What would Jesus do?” and don’t assume everyone is the Pharisees and it’s Matthew 23 time.

A few years ago, I started to figure something out. There were people who didn’t want to be around me. Not many, but some. Now it wasn’t hard to engage in all the usual justifications and criticisms to deal with that, and I could easily blow it all off. It wasn’t that I was being rejected, just avoided. At some point, through an offhand comment made by a much older friend, I realized something clearly. I was always making these people listen to my opinions, my arguments, and my insights about everything. They were uncomfortable. I thought it was all important and insightful. They wanted a pleasant lunch.

These were some of the people we’d had in our home for meals who had never reciprocated, and I was starting to suspect why.  I was too much. I came on too strong. My opinions. My insights. My own horn being played loudly and too long in your ear.

Could it be that that if your religion has turned you into a neurotic, others might not want to join it? They might turn out like you.I’m better now. (I’ve given up on real people and just write all my arrogant wise-yammering on here 🙂

Third, the truth, even when it’s true, can be cruel. And it’s wrong–sinful, my pastor friend–to be cruel with the truth. It’s a simple lesson in ethics. We don’t tell a drooling madman with an ax where our children are, even if he asks and even if we believe it is wrong to be less than truthful. We don’t have to say everything we think about Sister Bertha’s suddenly purple hair or

Brother Eddie’s hair that appeared out of nowhere. We don’t have to say everything we think our kids need to hear when they do something wrong. The employee under us isn’t being treated right when we scour her every action for fault and announce it to her at the beginning of each conversation.

And it is not right, or loving or good, to bring the truth of your own theological or Biblical insights into every situation that strikes you. That may just roll over you the wrong way, and you may have scripture to back up your view. But I’m going to stand by that one. What’s needed is an apt word. A timely word. A patient word. A word heard in the context of respect and relationship. What’s not needed is the blinding light of opinion–or even truth–carried along by human energy rather than spiritual timing and preparation.

Part of my strong feeling on this subject comes from working around teenagers from Christian homes. Many of the students I deal with are rebellious kids from strong Christian families. In general, the parents are usually “right” in their issues with these kids, and the kids are usually “wrong” in their responses. No argument from me there. Still, I continually see examples of parents who are obsessed with their teenagers hearing the Bible, being in church, adopting Christian mores and culture, submitting to various Christian rituals and activities. And these parents, as “right” as they are, are as “wrong” as they can be in pressing their case with all the qualities of Saint Archie Bunker.  I frequently find myself emotionally siding with the kids, and telling the parents this profound piece of counseling advice: “Lay off, will ya?”

“Lay off, will ya?” is a very good word, but we need to add one more to it. Sovereignty. Particularly, God’s sovereignty over timing, and over changing hearts and minds.

It is wretched urgency to act as if it all depends on us. It is similar desperation to act as if God needs us to win his battles with our weapons. It is arrogant to act as if our every word and method were His own choice for how people are to be brought to the truth. If we believe in the truth, and if we have confidence in a sovereign God who orders all things to His glory, then can we rest in His timing? Rest, be humble. Wait and win respect. Trust, and follow–rather than force–God’s hand.

It would be far better if we enjoyed the truths we believe, rather than if it appeared we are made anxious by the need to convert others to those truths. Delighting in, exulting in and savoring the truth we believe is a God-honoring witness free from the ministry of Saint Archie. If we yearn for others to know the truth, then may that truth satisfy our own yearnings, even the yearning to be heard and be right. May it bring, as Peter said, the welcome questions that seek to know of the hope that is in us, and why it is a source of joy. It really helps when it IS a source of joy.

And if it doesn’t bring us to that fountain of joy, and bring us delight, trust, worship, and peace, why are we talking about it anyway?