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My niche corner of social media blew up earlier this week when The Gospel Coalition journal Themelios published a highly-critical review of Dr. Amy Peeler’s Women and the Gender of God (Eerdmans, 2022).
The review—written by Marcus Johnson, a professor at Moody Bible Institute and a colleague of Peeler at Saint Mark’s Anglican Church in Geneva, IL—was placed under heavy scrutiny for several reasons: 1) Johnson’s review was mean-spirited, poorly written, and did not remotely represent the argument made in Peeler’s book; 2) Johnson did not disclose his proximity to Peeler to the reader (a standard practice when reviewing a book in a peer-reviewed journal); and 3) Johnson failed to mention to his co-associate rector that he was reviewing her book and would be heavily critiquing it (and her).
Since reading, I’ve debated using this platform to talk about the review any further. I don’t make a habit of letting people like Marcus Johnson and the unfruitful in-group dialogue (on all sides) take up much real estate in my mind. I—along with this newsletter—am much more interested in constructing paths and bridges out of the world that MJ and his colleagues inhabit.
(If you’d like further commentary on and critique of Johnson’s review, I highly encourage reading , who has already done the heavy lifting of naming the many problematic aspects of the review and its implications for the Christian church).
That said, what I find in Johnson’s review (and TGC/Themelios broadly) is a bad-faith argument. Johnson’s omission of his relationship with and proximity to Peeler, cowardice to inform Peeler of the negative review beforehand, and misrepresentation of her argument all tell me that he is more concerned about preserving his own theological interests and beliefs than actually engaging in meaningful and charitable dialogue with the text he was tasked with reviewing and the author behind it.
The larger point I am trying to make—and the reason I decided to write this piece—is that Johnson’s review, for all the rave it has caused, is not new or phenomenal. Across our society we are prone to speak before listening, to argue before understanding, to elevate our self-interest and experience over the needs and questions of others.
Even in an earlier draft of this essay, I found myself creeping towards this temptation as I wrote from a place of deep frustration and anger about my time at Moody Bible and personal encounters with Johnson. I read Johnson in a way that justified my frustration, rather than reading him on his own terms. So, I scratched the original draft, re-opened Themelios, and read with as much charity and grace as I could muster. (Hence, the delayed post).
What came to mind after reading Johnson’s review is a quote from Karl Barth that I first heard from Bruce McCormack in a Princeton Seminary class:
In response to Emil Brunner’s harsh critique of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth advises his friend:
“Anyone who has never loved here and is not in a position to love again and again may not hate here either.”
What Barth is saying is that if we seek to critically engage with our neighbor, we must first open ourselves to the possibility of loving them—even those we may disagree with.
For Christians, the precondition and foundation (themelios) for critique must be love.
But in Johnson’s critical Themelios review, I find no love; and amongst those critical of Johnson, I also find very little love. Both practice a “calling out,” that is familiar to our society, but neither testifies to the Gospel of Christ. Johnson has “canceled” Peeler and his critics have “canceled” him. This pattern, I think, is what Barth is trying to name and move us beyond.
Love draws us away from our own tendencies. Love calls us out of hate-filled critique. Love moves us beyond a hyper-fixation on self-preservation and taking control. Love frees us to move in and through the world, paying attention to the work of the Holy Spirit amongst people and places unfamiliar to ourselves.
What I appreciate about Barth’s wisdom here is that he doesn’t tell Brunner to find a way to agree with Schleiermacher or to stop being critical of other theologians. Even Barth is very critical of other theologies (including Schleiermacher); but his critique and correction are derived from a fervent love for God and the people of God, not hate, notoriety, or moral points with those who agreed with him.
The act of calling out (we might say “testifying” or “prophesying") is undoubtedly a work that Christians are called to. Jesus, in his divine role as Prophet, is bold in naming the injustices of the world, “calling out” the hypocrisy of religious leaders, and protecting the people of God. Critique, accountability, and disagreement all have a rightful place within the Church.
But, above these actions remains one greater—an action into which all others are subsumed and conditioned—love.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. - Romans 13:8-10
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12: 29-31
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. - John 15:12
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Molly McCully Brown, “Bent, Body, Lamb” (Image Journal)
Josiah Daniels, “Rainn Wilson of ‘The Office’ Wants a Spiritual Revolution (Sojourners)
Derek Wu, “Chinatown Rising to Evangelical Rising: Is Youth Ministry Changing the Ethnic Church?” (Center for Asian American Christianity)
Unpacking BEEF | Inside the Season Finale (Netflix)
Speaking the Voice of God in the World (ft. Soong-Chan Rah and Fuller Studios) (Youtube)
The Office - Season 1 Rewatch (Peacock)
Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. New Edition. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), p.413