Slave to public opinion

I just ran across a great post on Donald Miller’s blog about being a slave to public opinion and always pandering to this jury of one’s peers and superiors.  It spoke to me directly.  His punchline is great:

It really is a waste of your time to defend yourself to anybody but God Himself. And it’s even more of a waste of time to claim any defense other than Christ crucified.

Well said.  But easier intellectually acknowledged than deeply believed, much less lived out.

22 thoughts on “Slave to public opinion

  1. becky

    Hey Marc, I promise this isn’t atheist ganging-up time, though it may feel like it after your previous exchange with Jerry. 🙂

    I suppose I’m having a hard time understanding your “well said” affirmation of Miller’s contempt for being accountable to critics in an audience. What does it mean to say that the only person you are accountable to is God?

    In my opinion, it’s this kind of seemingly solipsistic approach that has made the church so irrelevant in many peoples’ eyes today. If the only person you ultimately need to please is “God”, well then it doesn’t matter who you hurt or whatever criticism is directed your way. You’ll always have an “out” — you can just shrug off legitimate critique and assert that your only audience is God (however you define him/her/it). So not only are you not accountable to the people around you for what you say, but this dismissive perspective also is a backhanded way of silencing people from questioning you in the first place.

    So much damage has been inflicted with this kind of attitude, especially in the church’s service. Now I’m not necessarily accusing you of such negatively-motivated acts, but I’m hoping you’ll see why I don’t see Miller’s disregard for human critique as virtuous or “well said.” If anything, I think views like his give license to some of the worst forms of religion out there.

    Part of what I teach my students is the importance of considering the audience in your communication. Now this isn’t to say that you can always answer everyone’s critique (or that you’re even obligated to in all instances) — but to simply write out any consideration of the audience (or to characterize critical interactions as “a waste of your time”), reveals more about the flaws in your message and yourself as a speaker than it does about the audience you are addressing. That kind of dismissive approach conveys a condescending attitude that doesn’t win over people to your message — whether you’re an engineer attempting to find financial approval for a proposal or you’re a minister spreading the good news.

  2. Marc

    Did you read Miller’s entire post, Becky? If you did, you read it completely differently than I did. He wasn’t suggesting we shouldn’t be accountable or that we should be immune to critique or that we can do as we please as long as we feel God is backing us up in whatever it is we’re doing.

    What he writing against is the need many (most? all?) people feel to present themselves in a certain way to their peers, to pretend that we don’t struggle with things, that we’re not perfect, etc. He was posting about how we derive our value, our self-worth in relation to others. He’s writing about self-image (hence the title about being a slave to public opinion). It was something I could relate to.

    Of course (I assume) Miller also believes in the importance of community, which involves critique, correction and possibly even discipline from others within one’s community.

  3. becky

    I did indeed read his entire post, Marc. And yes, part of what he said was directed to having a healthy self perception — but there was also a lengthy discussion on the virtue of disregarding how fellow human beings feel/react to what you do or say. You may have appreciated Miller’s thoughts on self-image, but it was this other part of the post that stood out the most for me.

    Miller made it seem like it was an inferior view to have concern about how others perceive your words/actions, since the only “person” who matters is god.

    My reflections in my earlier comment were based on his “punchline” that you commended, and I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in how I’m perceiving the implications of having such a view. Rather than just disregard what I said in response to Miller (because that’s not how you read his post), why not think about the practical implications of applauding such a sentiment?

    [p.s. It’s funny that in a post where Miller is railing against the self-righteous judgements of religious folk, he uses a story of a discussion between himself and a friend of his as a basis for his reflections — making sure to state that he sees this friend as “spiritually and emotionally unhealthy”]

  4. Marc

    “Rather than just disregard what I said in response to Miller (because that’s not how you read his post), why not think about the practical implications of applauding such a sentiment?”

    I don’t understand this. Do you mean the practical implications of applauding the sentiment as *you* read it? Why would I do that, when I don’t think your reading is accurate?

    And if you mean *my* reading, then I see only good implications.

    I’ve just re-read Miller’s post and I can’t for the life of me figure out how you got the reading you did. This is the second-last paragraph, describing the people he is talking about:

    “So my question to you is, are you a slave to a jury of your peers? Do you always have to explain why you are right? How much do you care what religious people think of you? When somebody else is wrong, do you jump in quickly to tell them so, making yourself feel righteous? My answer to these questions is yes, I do.”

    You’ll note he includes himself. And all those questions relate to self-image. His “punchline” flows directly out of this.

  5. becky

    The “practical implications” I’m referring to come out of his assertion that the only audience you’re ultimately accountable to god — to make an extreme analogy, I’m sure folks in Al Quada would support such a sentiment.

    If the sole standard of approval for your self-image and your words/actions is god (however defined) and not any of us mere humans — then that sounds like a pretty solipsistic approach to take or commend as “well said.”

    The sentence before his “punchline” reads this: “I think we would be a bit more emotionally stable to understand self-righteousness gets us nowhere, and the jury of our peers is neither an accurate or authoritative judge.” — you’ll note that both your reading of his post and mine are included in this one sentence. You’ve got the self-image bit AND the dismissing of human critique as well.

    I’m not out to get you to change your mind or forsake any of your beliefs, I was just hoping you could try on my perspective for a second, and see why I reacted the way I did to Miller’s platitude. If you can’t see or understand my reasoning, then that’s fair enough.

    We are coming at this post from 2 different perspectives, but I don’t think that should prevent conversation from taking place over what is being said.

  6. becky

    One last clarification: I guess I’m reacting more to how sentiments like Miller’s can be misconstrued in the church as giving religious folks carte blanche in doing or saying whatever it is they want, all because they’re doing it in god’s name.

    So, for example, it’s okay for hate speech to be spoken from the pulpits in some places — because, after all, these are god’s words and god’s commands. I’m afraid I’ll never be okay with that. It’s not okay to ignore the effects of your words and actions on others, even if you attempt to cloak them under the untouchable cover of religiosity.

    I mean, in his post Miller himself uses the story of God’s intervention in Mary and Joseph’s lives in the book of Matthew — implying that it was virtuous of God to not care about how religious people or his own children felt about his actions.

    Maybe I’m tentative about such “self image” statements of Miller because now that I’m on the outside of the church, I can see and feel the effects of religious people feeling like they only have to answer to god.

  7. Marc

    “One last clarification: I guess I’m reacting more to how sentiments like Miller’s can be misconstrued in the church as giving religious folks carte blanche in doing or saying whatever it is they want, all because they’re doing it in god’s name.”

    Well, sure. I don’t disagree that that can happen (but, again, I don’t read Miller that way). I certainly don’t condone the individualistic “God told me to do this” stuff that comes from extremists and from pulpits.

    But Miller is speaking specifically out of and into a community of faith, which is broad geographically and deep historically and there’s all sorts of accountability there based on that very community. Some people will disregard it, of course, as can happen in any context.

    It’s self-righteousness Miller is concerned about. He’s concerned with the fact that his friend finds his own value in how his peers evaluate his “righteousness”, who themselves are far from perfect. It’s not a question of whether his peers can confront him about error or sin (Miller himself says he has done this), but whether his self-worth is based on keeping up a squeaky-clean image.

  8. Marc

    I think the question he’s dealing with is “Why does it matter what other people think of you?” Not in a “To hell with them, I’ll do what I want” kind of way, but in a “You are who you are” kind of way.

    As an example:

    You come to my house for a visit and you look through my bookshelf (I know you would!) and you note a couple of oddities: maybe a book by Billy Graham or something by Rick Warren; or perhaps something by Pat Robertson or John Hagee or Bruce Wilkinson. You are likely to make some sort of an evaluation of me based on some of these findings.

    The question, then, is do I need to justify or explain the presence of those books because I want to make sure you know I’m not “like that” (“It was a gift from my grandma!” or “That was from my Bible college days a decade ago; I don’t know why I still have it”), because I want to be accepted by you?

    That’s not the best example, but that’s the kind of thing I see Miller talking about.

  9. Phil L

    I think it’s a good post in the sense that we as Christians shouldn’t depend on our neighbours’ approval for our sense of self worth. I don’t get the impression that Miller is pushing an individualistic lone ranger Christianity – all parts of the body are accountable to the others.

  10. Marc Post author

    You’d find none of those guys on my shelves at this stage. I’ve never had any Hagee or Robertson. I did have Graham and Warren, but I think they were victims of our pre-move book purge (which, incidentally, wasn’t big enough).

  11. Toni

    Becky, having just been reminded of the ugly side of conservative evangelical America myself in the last 2 days I think I can see where you’re coming from.

    The problem with a quote like this is that to the innocent it’s very innocent, but to those who are not it’s license for all kinds of wickedness. The spirit behind the quote is a good one, but it’s woefully lacking in the way it fails to deal with those that have a different god.

    It also misses the point that a part of pleasing God is caring for men: how we relate to them and are perceived is incorporated in that.

    You might find a little Warren on my shelves (mostly as a result of stuff we’ve done with the church) but you’d also find Wallace, Coombs, Mumford, Prince, Piper and Christenson. 😉

  12. Jerry

    Toni said, “The problem with a quote like this is that to the innocent it’s very innocent, but to those who are not it’s license for all kinds of wickedness. The spirit behind the quote is a good one, but it’s woefully lacking in the way it fails to deal with those that have a different god.”

    Toni, who are you calling “innocent”, and in what way are they innocent? And how much importance in good intentions or a good ‘spirit’ can we find when they are compared to the hurtful actions they are ‘behind’? And lastly, are you saying that Becky is one of those who have “a different god”? If so, please share with us what god this is, why you think it can be taken to be a god, and where you’ve observed Becky’s worship of this deity?

  13. Toni

    Nuts, I seem to be provoking spouses to defend their other halves at the moment.

    Becky referred earlier in her posts to al Qaeda using pleasing Allah as justification for their actions. This seemed completely obvious to me from the context of the conversation. I thought you and Becky were atheists anyway (again from a comment she made earlier) so please tell me which god it is you don’t worship. 😉

    As for innocence, there are those who would never intentionally hurt someone, and would naturally see that pleasing God (I refer to my understanding of who He is – you’ll just have to try to figure out what I mean) requires treating others with love and respect.

    Becky also said “So much damage has been inflicted with this kind of attitude, especially in the church’s service.” Much of this, from a historical perspective, has been perpetrated by those who are very clearly not innocent by any stretch of the imagination (regardless of the names they called themselves).

    In my first post I mentioned an ugly side of conservative evangelicalism. Because I objected to the content someone posted on facebook (describing it as foolishness) I received abuse in the most crude terms, suggesting I was being incestuous with my mother, that I was a paedophile, hateful and that I would be shot or beaten up if I ever showed up near them. Now you tell me, can you spot the difference between wickedness and innocence in this pattern of behaviour? Does this help answer your questions?

  14. becky

    Hey Toni, I don’t need Jerry to defend me. I can actually do a good job defending myself — I just didn’t see anything worth responding to in your comments. Still don’t.

  15. Marc

    To be fair, even if you don’t need defending, Jerry did seem to be jumping to your defense in that last comment.

    I’m not sure why Toni’s comment called for this kind of response.

  16. Marc

    Well, it seems to me that this discussion has kind of run its course and is now devolving into something else entirely.

    Until next time… 🙂

  17. Toni

    You didn’t need defending because it wasn’t an attack. In many ways it was actually agreeing with some of your comments – sorry I couldn’t reach the standard required worthy of a more polite reply. :p

  18. Collette

    hey, I thought I was the atheist around these here parts?!?!? who invited these knuckleheads??? (ha! just kidding! I’m fond of the word knucklehead tonight. I’m also usually the atheist disagreeing with things, so I really did think “hey, that’s MY job” at first. hehe. I just finally got around to reading the whole Hope conversation tonight as well.)

    and oddly enough, I agree with Toni on this one. I got what he was trying to say, completely. this statement made perfect sense to me: The problem with a quote like this is that to the innocent it’s very innocent, but to those who are not it’s license for all kinds of wickedness.

    Marc, I have to admit I giggled when you did point out that you don’t have any Robertson on your shelf. sounded defensive to me! 😉

  19. Marc Post author

    There may have been some defensiveness in there. I was actually quite self-conscious when making that qualification and seriously considered not making it. I probably shouldn’t have.

  20. Collette

    I think it was fair that you wanted to point that out. you illustrated one of the things the original author you mentioned was trying to talk about in fact. but, you did it quickly and didn’t agonize over it, unlike his friend.

    I was an agnostic in university, but now I’m an atheist. in university I really wanted to believe, and I was open to the idea. but now I believe there is no god. it doesn’t make sense to me.

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