dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Creative writing on faith, culture, and things in between

Classic Offspring and John Howard Yoder

You gotta keep ‘em separated.
— The Offspring, "Come Out and Play"

John Howard Yoder

On October 11, The New York Times ran a piece on the disjointed, dissonant legacy of American theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder. Here for the full article, which situates Yoder's theological work amidst the interpersonal storylines surrounding his inappropriate behavior toward women. Among other things, you'll be introduced to terms like "nongenital affective relationships."

In fact, it might be best to read the article with the sounds of Tim Hecker, the Canadian noise artist, playing in the background. There is an unresolved quality of lament hanging over Hecker's overall ambiance, which, it seems, is befitting this article on Yoder. 

To reference The Offspring's breakout song from 1994 (quoted above) is not to suggest, flippantly, that Mr. Yoder and women, well, you should've kept them separated. Instead, I want to use that ringing-loud lyric as a catapult to reflect briefly on yet another lesson in a long line of theological lessons concerning beliefs and behaviors.

One of the great ironies of the Times report is this: it includes observations like the following: "Mr. Yoder's memory also presents a theological quandary. Mennonites tend to consider behavior more important than belief." All the while the article is filed in the newspaper's U.S. section under the category "Beliefs." Maybe it's time to give that news category a more sociologically coherent title, like, perhaps, "Beliefs/Behaviors." You'll see what I mean.

Additionally, of interest—to me anyway—is the theologically assumptive manner in which the article opens: "Can a bad person be a good theologian?" Um, yes. But of course. Why not? It happens every day—and everywhere, for goodness sake. Can a bad person be a good journalist? Any bad people being good public servants?

The assumptions get worse: 

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

"But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals..." Are you kidding me? Here I especially imagine Flannery O'Connor—that prolific modern explorer of human nature and divine grace—chiming in, with emphasis: "To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life."

On the other hand, standing beside Flannery, I believe grace really is the forever-antidote to this often-persuasive cultural sentimentalism. As David Zahl of Mockingbird writes: "Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good." Amen. This is, I think, a distinction with a Christian difference. For example, in October's edition of CT, I love the way that Mark Galli pines for the centrality of grace within the Christian story and message, revealing that—in the church as in culture—enemies of grace can take the form of belief (having to believe "a certain theological construct"), feeling (having to experience "a certain [religious] feeling") or moral effort (having to "perspire in effort").

Furthermore, in a recent post for The Washington Post's On Faith blog, William Graham Tullian Tchividjian cuts into the underlying "performancism" in some outposts of American churches, characterized by "'do more, try harder' sermons and pleas for intensified devotion." He says: "Too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior."

 The Offspring. Impossible to tell that they're from California. 

The Offspring. Impossible to tell that they're from California. 

Which leads us back to The Offspring, because, although I resonate with Tchividjian's point-counterpoint, especially in context, I also am becoming convinced that belief and behavior simply cannot be kept separated—for theological clarity as much as for sociological coherence.

So, for instance, it is not that Yoder didn't live up to the ideals of his faith; it is, rather, that he showed what he believed in the first place. (This is the overwhelming argument of James 2:14-26.) The Times piece draws this out, actually, through an ending quotation by a woman who experienced Yoder's awkward advances. She channels what she imagines Yoder thinking: "'I have created this great peace theology. And you and I are developing a new Christian theology of sexuality.'"

Christian belief and ethical behavior must be faithfully joined in our lives; that is essentially true Christianity, no doubt about it. In the measured words of Donald Miller: "It is so cumbersome to believe anything." However, there is something more basic still: Belief and behavior are, by necessity, already conjoined. As a person of Christian faith, Yoder's story profoundly reminds me that we are not so much what we believe—or what we believe that we believe. We are what we do, which is, at the end of the day, what we believe.

Another way to say it might be: Behavior is, and will be, the offspring of belief—no matter what we say we believe. And I believe this is yet another reason to get in line for divine grace.