When it comes to the First Amendment and freedom of speech, so many conflicting thoughts run through my head concerning “Cancel Culture”. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the forward for this week’s book, The Canceling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott. In fact, I would put Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, as one of my topmost influential reads in the last ten years.[i] While reading this week’s book I quickly ordered The Coddling of the American Mind, since it was quoted and referred to throughout Lukianoff and Schlott’s material. Both of these books encourage a return to the wisdom found in the past. I love the fact that Lukianoff, Schlott, and Haidt are advocating for discoveries from the past to help us better navigate the present. I could not agree with this strategy more, I just think Paul, the New Testament Paul, needs a voice in this conversation.
Before we can hear from Paul, some would have to embrace the fourth “Great Untruth” mentioned by Lukianoff. I’ll just go ahead and list all four:
- The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
- The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.
- The Great Untruth of Ad Hominem: Just because you hate someone doesn’t mean they’re wrong.[ii]
While in grad school I heard someone say in a discussion, “I don’t like Paul!” and it became clear she saw no value in reading anything he wrote. As she shared her story throughout the semester, I began to understand why she felt that way. However, I had never heard someone say that before and even thought: “Are we allowed to say that?” I almost felt like scooting my chair over a little just in case lightning struck the room. I’m fairly certain my mid-size, country church would have quickly shut that type of talk down. She would have been cancelled!
Are we allowed to say that about Paul? Do we have permission to think like that about an apostle?
This was a foreign concept for me at the time, but the person in the room was not raised in a Bible-based, Evangelical church like I had been all my life. They had no problem listing the things they had against the guy who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament and in this space of higher education, they had every right to say that. I don’t know if I would say this person hated Paul, but they did not like him for several reasons including, what they believed, were oppressive views on women, authority, slavery, and marriage. I could not help but notice how animosity toward someone, even from thousands of years ago, can shut down any type of engagement or openness to their ideas.
Essentially my classmate wanted to cancel or censor Paul and his writings from modern-day theological and ethical discussions.
Jonathan Haidt gives an example of this in, The Coddling of the American Mind, when discussing a course at Columbia University called Masterpieces of Western Literature.[iii] This curriculum included thinkers like Ovid, Homer, Dante, Augustine, Montigne, and Woolf, which led to some students feeling “triggered”, uncomfortable, marginalized, and offended. Part of the issue was that students framed this literature as dangerous and unsafe, versus uncomfortable and disliked. This type of framing has the potential to condition students toward fragility, hinders exposure to material that is necessary to understand what has shaped Western thinking and forfeits valuable wisdom and insight that could be gained from others, even if we don’t think highly of them.
Speaking of which… Paul.
Throughout Lukianoff and Schlott’s book there is a lot of talk about freedom of Speech and Free Speech Culture which I very much agree with being that I am a huge advocate for education not only in universities, colleges, and seminaries, but faith communities. This is my NPO in a nutshell. Paul makes us think. Especially when he talks about freedom and rights as he discusses one of the hot topic controversies of his day, “food offered to idols”. The emotions felt around this religious issue would be like how many of us feel about modern-day controversies.
Apostles: Don’t Eat It – There was a letter sent from the apostles to some Gentiles in Acts:
29 You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:29)
John: Don’t Eat It – The author of Revelation warns churches of this practice:
14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and engage in sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:14)
Paul: Don’t Eat It in Front of People Who Don’t Eat It – Paul says something very peculiar:
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God. 4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one…
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do…
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?.. (1 Corinthians 8)
Regardless of what people might think about Paul, his critical thinking, cultural maneuvering, and heart for others is beautiful in his letter to the Corinthians. Especially when you see how black and white other Bible passages were on the issue. Paul didn’t say, “let me tell you why you’re wrong here”! He just didn’t eat meat in front of them. If you’ve read much of Paul, he is not afraid to make arguments, use the art of persuasion, or stand his ground, which is what the books we’ve read lately are fighting to maintain in America, especially in higher education.
For Paul, there were times to argue and times to accommodate.
(Using different pronouns may be equivalent in the 21st century). Thoughts?
Paul was not above being inconvenienced or willing to forgo his rights and freedoms to accommodate others and their convictions for the sake of love. Sometimes I think we get so fixated on pushing our convictions that we tell love to get in the backseat and stay quiet. Guilty.
Back to the individual who disliked Paul. Ironically, the very person who dismissed and ultimately wanted to censor this ancient Christian thinker was unaware that she was sitting beside someone who had been inspired and convicted by him enough to shift his mindset and language so she, and others, would feel seen, heard, and loved.
The Great Untruth of Ad Hominem: Just because you hate (or dislike) someone doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
[i] Haidt, Jonathan, ed. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. 1. Vintage books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2013.
[ii] Lukianoff, Greg, and Rikki Schlott. The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust, Destroys Institutions, and Threatens Us All–but There Is a Solution, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023), 8.
[iii] Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure. New York City: Penguin Books, 2019, 6.