THE MESSAGE IS NOT THE MESSENGER – Quoting the questionable
I’m sure the Emperor Constantine thought he was doing Christians a favor when he ended official persecution and made Christianity the established religion of the empire. Yet it might be the single most unfortunate thing that happened to Christianity. Once we moved from the margins of society to the center, we developed a new film over our eyes. After that, we couldn’t read anything that showed Jesus in confrontation with the establishment, because we were the establishment, and usually egregiously so. Clear teaching on issues of greed, powerlessness, nonviolence, non-control, and simplicity were moved to the sidelines, if not actually countermanded.
As long as the Church bore witness from the margins in some sense, and as long as we operated from a minority position, we had greater access to the truth, to the Gospel, to Jesus. In our time we have to find a way to disestablish ourselves, to identify with our powerlessness instead of our power, our dependence instead of our independence, our communion instead of our individualism. Unless we understand that, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) isn’t going to make any sense. (Richard Rohr)
If you were able to read this quote by Richard Rohr and appreciate the content of the message without being distracted by the messenger, then this article is not applicable to you – but read it anyway.
We received some questions about using quotes from people whose theology might be regarded as questionable (from their perspective). On this website, you will find quotes from all kinds of people, for good reason. Some might be seen to be controversial, but they still have some valuable wisdom to contribute. The truth is that everybody is controversial in the eyes of someone else. Some are are labelled part of the Emerging Church movement, some are described as being self-help gurus, some are considered New Agers and some even secular psychiatrists. Why do we quote those with a questionable theology (according to some)?
Head of Church and Culture at dia-LOGOS, Rev. Richard Baird, responds as follows:
The goal of writing is to convey a message of some form. It remains an incredibly powerful tool of expression, and can be used in a myriad of ways and purposes.
When you write, and you come across a quote in which someone else has expressed the point you want to make, it is not unusual to quote them. Sometimes you refer to them because they are recognised and it adds credibility to what you are saying. But not everyone who gets quoted is known, or even appreciated, and this is acceptable because the focus of the quote is actually not the person who made it, but the message of the quote itself. For example, consider the Apostle Paul in Titus 1:12&13…
“One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true.
Do you see what Paul does? He mentions who said it by simply saying ‘a prophet of their own,’ and then points out what this prophet said. He then endorses what was said: he doesn’t comment on anything else the prophet might have said – just that this particular statement is true (and surely not every single Cretan fitted the description?). The emphasis is on what was said (the message), not who said It (the messenger).
It is however extremely difficult to dissociate what is said from who said it. Embedded in the message is our perception of the authority of the person making the statement. If my wife, a medical doctor and forensic pathologist, makes a diagnosis that my daughter has the flu, and I also make the diagnosis, obviously my wife is going to be listened to more than me – even though what I said was true!
But if my diagnosis is true, should it be disregarded because of who I am?
We have an uncanny knack for brushing everyone with the same brush. I should know because I am guilty of it. If I find you quoting Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Oprah Winfrey, Neale Donald Walsch, or a whole host of other people, my inbuilt ‘brow-o-meter’ (a reference to the extent my eyebrows raise when I’m encountering something I consider dubious) pretty much reaches maximum level – and in my view, for good reason. I’m tempted to write you off (no pun intended) based simply on who you quoted. If you however quote people like Tim Keller, Calvin Miller, Brennan Manning, Dallas Willard or Philip Yancey, my ‘brow-o-meter’ converts to a ‘smile-o-meter.’
But if a true statement has been made, or if a statement has been made that forces me to reconsider my point of view, or at the very least teach me how someone else sees something (whether erroneously or not), must I dismiss the message because of the messenger? Let us not forget that God is the source of all wisdom and truth, and He can reveal that through a donkey – just ask Balaam (Numbers 22:28). Don’t marvel that the donkey can speak truth, but rather marvel that God can speak through a donkey!
So, with sincerest apologies to William Shakespeare (as I blatantly distort his amazing work) I ask you to kindly consent to allowing me to creatively convey some considerations for your contemplation:,
To quote, or not to quote, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous accusation,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of social media,
And by appeasing end dialogue: to think, to challenge
No more; and by a prejudice, to end
The discomfort, the cognitive dissonance
That Truth is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To think, to grow,
To grow, perchance to deny ego; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that quote of Rohr, what insight may come,
When we have opened up our mind,
Must give us pause. There’s the reality
That makes Calamity of selective learning :
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of media,
The sanctimonious smug, the proud man’s conspiracy,
The pangs of dislike, the shares denied
The insults of offence, and the tweets
That paint an unworthy portrait,
When through silence he can avoid rejection?
Who would falsehood bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary lie,
But that the dread of realizing self-wrong,
The unfamiliar territory, from whose obstinacy
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those biases we have,
Than dare to confront our idiosyncrasies through the lens of others?
Thus prejudice does make cowards of us all,
And thus the light of truth
Is faded o’er, with the clay bushel of self-righteous Thought,
And opportunities of great learning and growth,
In this regard get denied and turn awry,
And lose the name of wise.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure I got that right.
Perhaps a shorter version of what I’m trying to say is this:
Consider the message being written. I am aware that I can get far more approval through quoting ‘approved sources,’ and I probably will, but I do marvel at how I find ‘gems’ in unexpected places. When reading articles relating to our walk of faith, and you see sources quoted that you are not comfortable with, have a closer look at the quote and see if it aligns with Scripture: is the principle and attitude being conveyed consistent with Scripture? Don’t be guilty of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Be willing to listen to others without violating your convictions, but ensure your convictions are properly rooted and not based in self-bias. Don’t be afraid of discovering that maybe you were wrong, because that can only be an impetus to growth. Try to focus on the message and avoid shifting into presuming that the source quoted therefore means an endorsement of the source. It doesn’t. This is why on many publications you will see the disclaimer along the following lines: “The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of …………………(insert name of organisation).
We have been called to think, and thinking is at the heart of being human – it a very big part of what it means “to be!” Let us not be guilty of dismissing the message because we don’t like the messenger.
To quote Joel Oesteen…thank you.