12 June 2013

A Pint of Baby Orphan Tears

by Frank Turk

Before we get too far here, two things.

Number One: Thanks for asking - my vacation was great.

Number 2 (HT: Fred Butler and DJP):

A truly-inspired video, and a truly-irreplaceable pet.  If my Big Dog screamed like that, I'd have him in movies, but only because it would be impossible to have him in a middle-class neighborhood around anything which would cause him to make that noise -- a noise which makes the shriek of a witch-king pierced by an unexpected woman on a battlefield sound rather cheery.

Now: why post that soul-jarring scream on a moderately-serious blog like this one?  Well, it came to my attention a couple of weeks ago that there is a 5-year-old white paper out there by Tim Keller and David Powlison (men I respect and have defended in the past, and would still do so) entitled Should You Pass on Bad Reports?

Unremarkably, their verdict is, "no."  I know it's unsurprising, but as they summarize the matter, it goes like this:
  • The first thing to do is to simply suspend judgment. Don’t pass on bad reports.
  • The second thing to do is “cover” it in love, reminding yourself that you don’t know all about the heart of the person who may have done evil—and you know your own frailty. Don’t allow bad reports to pass into your own heart.
  • The final thing to do is go and speak to them personally.
And they reach this conclusion through a significant exercise of walking through relevant Scriptural admonitions in order to reach a conclusion which, it seems, nobody can argue with.  It's offered, btw, from the blogger who posted it as something he hopes will resonate with all bloggers, to be posted far and wide on other blogs, to spiritually season Christian conversations on the internet.

Because: nobody wants to be the little white fluffy dog whom others perceive as howling like a cannibal's wedding feast.  Nobody wants to be the one whom others look at the way we all look at the little video above and be the object of dismay, scorn, and derision.  We don't want to be laughed out of the conversation, and moreover: we don't want to be dismissed because we are just a yowling mess.

In that respect: this is good advice.  Nobody should be a perpetual fault-finder -- if for no other reason than it actually makes less of you.  Someone who can find nothing good in other people is someone who is feeding himself only emotional poison.  Being constantly disappointed in other people -- or worse, always being outraged at them -- simply causes you to fail to see the image of God in those people.  Scripturally, you must do better -- and Powlison and Keller spell out why.

What?  Why are you looking at me like that?

I can't agree with good advice?

Oh, I see: you expect me to find fault with this particular consideration of bad reports of other people for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is because it is in some very specific and obvious ways responding to bad reports without, it seems, taking its own advice.  "Like Ministry" and all that.  Well, you seem to have worked that one out on your own.  Why do you need me to work it out for you?

What? You were actually hoping that I'd see if this advice actually works in realy life somehow -- like comment on Challies' on-going crusade against pornography as it relates to this good advice from pastoral minds?  Now: why should I do that?  Is there anyone reading this blog who is not actually aware that pornography is sinful and causes us to sin?  In fact, are there any readers of Tim's blog who are not readers of this blog (there are many of these people) who are not morally opposed to pornography?  We are on the same side of this issue -- why should I try to apply this advice to those posts?

What do you mean, "in what way is it in compliance with this advice to rail on against a particular sin abstracted from particular people? Doesn't that approach violate all of this advice -- first, by believing the worst of essentially all Christians; second, by judging the hearts of others; and third, by utterly neglecting to take the matter to them personally?"  Why would you say such a thing about a fellow everyone agrees is both discerning and utterly nice?  Do you think there's something wrong with general good advice?

Oh:  I see what you're driving at.  You're actually saying that the advice itself it a little bit too facile, too superficial -- that if somehow when it gets applied to the nicest fellow on the internet and somehow makes him out to be a watchblogger, it must somehow be faulty.  And by "Faulty," you mean the way a small dog that bays with the wails of demons demanding a pint of baby orphan tears is faulty -- it is neither useful, nor practical, nor as domesticated and harmless as it looked before it opened its mouth.

That's a pretty serious thing to say about useful fellows like Keller (who has sold a bajillion books, and gets to appear on Morning Joe) and Powlison (who has his own place in the pantheon of useful, center-bound Gospelistas in spite of his lesser status as a published author).

I'll consider your opinion and get back to it next week.


Johnny Dialectic said...

For me, the white paper's nut graf is:

Rather, in slander the speaker speaks as if he never would do the same thing himself. It acts self-righteous and superior toward one’s obviously idiotic inferiors. Non-slanderous evaluation is fair-minded, constructive, gentle, guarded, and always demonstrates that speakers sense how much they share the same frailty, humanity, and sinful nature with the one being criticized. It shows a profound awareness of your own sin.

So my opinion is that this is not facile, but a sound, scriptural admonition for all bloggers and commenters.

Nash Equilibrium said...

...and when you go to speak with them personally, it must be over a cup of coffee.

Frank Turk said...

Johnny -

I already agreed that there's there's something good about this advice, so you're not arguing with me: you're arguing with the nagging reader who wants me to say something bad about this essay.

The snarky, pre-essay me would say, "you should probably take it up with him personally." The post-essay me re-reads that paragraph and is deeply concerned and puxxled -- because I can't see how the writers escape calling the people they are criticizing "idiots," based on the criteria they have assembled here.

LanternBright said...

Actually, my problem isn't so much that Keller and Powlison would end up condemning Challies (although I certainly think they would), as much as they'd actually end up condemning guys like John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul--Scripture records each of them passing along "against-reports." In fact, if we take the idea of inspiration seriously, then the Holy Spirit even INSPIRED Paul to pass along an "against-report" about Demas to Timothy in 2 Tim. 4.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
donsands said...

The Church is anti-negative in our day, that's for sure. My own local "Christian" radio station is called "The Positive" listening radio station.

I have called and e-mailed them to talk about some negative things, such as Philips Craig & Dean, whom they play a lot their songs,- and how they are false-pastors and false brethren.
I was not taken seriously, and I was the bad guy.

I do need to ask our Lord to help me love even those who are wolves, and have a gracefilled heart, and not self-righteous heart as I share the pass on bad reports.

Good post to make me think. Thanks Cent. You truly have a gift for writing.
And that dog, well, I'm glad he doesn't live near me.

Johnny Dialectic said...

Right, Frank. I was not writing in disagreement with you, just posting my opinion as you invited.

I'm not sure I get your second paragraph, though. Could entirely be me. Are you saying Keller and Powlison have hoisted themselves on their own petard?

I like the post-essay you, BTW.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

Frank, after reading it about 4 times, I think I have what you're getting at.

Is it like "vaguebooking" - you know, where someone will lodge a vague or general complaint against another person in public social media with the hopes that they'll see it and be affected by it somehow?

Tom Chantry said...

Oh, nice work, Robert. I give it two hours max for this meta to blow sky-high.

Robert said...

OK...I'll pull the comment just for the sake of keeping on-topic, but you know what i mean.

Tom Chantry said...

…useful fellows like Keller (who has sold a bajillion books, and gets to appear on Morning Joe) and Powlison (who has his own place in the pantheon of useful, center-bound Gospelistas in spite of his lesser status as a published author)…

Here’s my problem with this article: it’s a collaborative piece for an obvious reason: Keller alone would be accused of writing from a perch above evangelicalism and trying to protect the other demigods. The problem is that Powlison is a lesser version of the same thing. Both are in the public eye enough to have a different perspective on this than I do. That is a useful perspective, but it’s more or less the same perspective, so how was their collaboration useful?

Here’s what I’d like to see: a collaborative essay on this issue written by Keller, Carl Trueman, Chris Rosebrough, and Pastor Joe Slabotnik from Paducah. Keller would bring the same perspective of someone who is often in the public eye, which is necessary. Trueman would share that perspective, but as someone known for being critical of the demigods. Rosebrough would obviously represent the “some things need to be said” perspective, but as a guy who still has boundaries. And Pastor Joe’s big advantage is that no one has ever heard of him. He doesn’t worry about how scandal will affect the high and mighty, but about how scandal or its neglect might effect sister Betty-Sue Periwinkle in the third pew on the left side. The thing is, I bet those four guys could agree on some things, and it would be interesting to see what those things would be.

Tom Chantry said...


Sorry, I didn't mean "Pull the comment!" Just commenting on how things might go. But if you think it's better to have it down, keep it down.

Actually, your main point (with or without the examples) is a key part of this discussion, and I hope you'll reinstate it in some form.

Frank Turk said...

Johnny -- I didn't say anything but nice things. A reader who wishes to remain anonymous has said that the essay is problematically self-contradictory. The "bad report" in question is "bad bad reporting", and somehow, this essay doesn't have to take its own advice. It seems to me that advice that does not obey its own ground rules has a fundamental problem -- especially when those ground rules are hung on 1 Cor 13 or some such thing.

Web -- no. I posted agreement with the Keller/Powlison essay and reviewed the extended objection of an anonymous reader who found himself (herself?) incredulous toward its point. The objection, as I understand it, is that issuing criticism which, let's face it, stands on an alleged biblical case against all "bad reports" seems to miss a couple of issues:

(1) This essay is itself based on a bad report or series of bad reports - or at least, the assumption that they exist. Nobody in particular, of course, is mentioned - but that's at least not any better. It may actually be worse because it's such a broad violation of the first concluding bullet point.

(2) How do we even implement the third bullet point? is it ever necessary to do so? When would one do so? What about people who do things notoriously and publicly so that, as it were, even unbelievers could see the breadth and depth of the fault? Don't even unbelievers deserve to see how something like that is set rightside-up again?

As I consider the anony reader's complaint, there is another problem that needs to be addressed as well: What's the difference between slander and correction? Is there one? How do we know what it is?

The issue really touches a lot of matters, including blogging, watchblogging, and christian conduct. I think it's the right discussion to have -- even if this answer is incomplete (according to the anony reader).

We'll do more about it next week.

Frank Turk said...


Omitting Dan and myself from your list hurts deeply. Repent.

Robert said...

Tom, no problem...I didn't want the meta to veer off in one of those directions. There's been too much attention paid to some people who want to vent instead of offering meaningful conversation on at least one of those issues.

I'll try with an analogy. My youngest son is autistic and tends to take most instructions very literally and tries to follow them to the letter. So when we told him he needed to stay in bed once we tucked him in, he didn't want to get out of bed if he needed to go to the bathroom or if he felt sick. Thus, we had a few incidents and had to talk through our original instruction and add some exceptions to keep him from having some bad emergencies. I read a similar story about parents of an autistic girl where they told her to wait in a box for the bus and she did so even when it was pouring down rain...I picture my son doing the same, but since he is now homesschooled I don't have wo worry about that one ;).

The thing is, different situations call for different responses. If my son just wants to get out of bed because he is bored, he needs to tough it out and fall asleep. If he needs to go potty, he needs to get out. There is context to be considered in analyzing whether or not he should get out of bed.

In much the same fashion, the context of the matter being considered in the bad report should be part of the discussion here. Is it some type of false teaching by a public speaker? Is it a conference where such a false teacher is embraced? Or is it accusations from within a private group where the only access to information is through other parties and there is no audio/video record of the actual event being reported in the bad report? Who all is affected by the event and how quickly does it need to be addressed? Was it just somebody misstating something or have they actually developed and stated a thought repeatedly and refused to receive any correction/criticism on it?

There are plenty of other situations and questions to be considered before deciding to take this type of approach and most of them are actually rhetorical on larger issues. I mean if speaker/pastor X says that salvation by works + faith is good in front of a national audience on repeated occasions, then we shouldn't hesitate to pass the bad report. We should also call him to repentance and pray for him. If somebody says they heard speaker/pastor X say something like that, but we don't ahve the record at hand to see where this was actually stated, that is another matter entirely. Especially if said pastor doesn't ahve a record of doing so previously.

That said, I think something like what Tom is speaking of would be more useful, but I also think it would need to be in some book format with many chapters or even volumes to lend itself to proper application. They might not catch every single type of application, but if we're going to speak thoughtfully on the matter, we should try to consider different applications instead of a one-size-fits-all.

Tom Chantry said...


You know I think you're awesome, but even a sycophant must occasionally observe some of the laws of decorum.

Frank Turk said...

That hurts even more.

Stop hurting me.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...


I'll go get the log out of my eye so that I can re-read your post properly.

Anonymous said...

I'm questioning whether you should be using an advisor's own advice to evaluate the advisor without first talking to yourself about it, and maybe even talking to him about talking to you. It's like when comedian Steven Wright put the mirror in the copy machine and went back in time.

Frank Turk said...


An advisor who gives advice he's not got any stake in using himself is selling something.

Not something good.

Tom Chantry said...

Not something good.

Reagan put it best: "That stuff that Bess Truman spent thirty-five years trying to get Harry to call 'fertilizer.'"

Kerry James Allen said...


Tom Chantry said...

I still think they should have called Milorganite "Soilent Green."

Kerry James Allen said...

Tom, as we enjoy Milorganite enriched tomatoes later this summer, my heart will be strangely warmed as I think about you and your contribution. Thank you in advance.

And I attempt to never believe anything negative people say about you here. I cover it with milor...I mean love.

Tom Chantry said...

I don't live in Milwaukee County. In Waukesha we bury our "fertilizer" like decent Christians.

Tom Chantry said...

Ladies and Gentlemen, the meta has now jumped the shark!

trogdor said...

Seems like it might be better to just ask if the other person needs to know, and why. Sometimes the answer is clearly that they don't need to know, but sometimes they definitely do.

Why do you think they should know? If it's a specific need or broad enough application to be beneficial, tell away. Does it edify those who hear, even if it edifies by warning against false teaching or dangerous churches?

There's a lot to like in the essay - it's far too easy to gossip or slander in the name of 'discernment'. But the idea that you should never pass it on is a massive and harmful overreach. Really odd to have such an incorrect blanket statement coming from someone who so often chastises us for lacking nuance.

Tom Chantry said...

That Trogdor sure is smart for being just six months old!

Nash Equilibrium said...

OK, I concede that the person who meets with the person of bad report, could do it over soylent green, milorganite, vegemite, or even dynamite. Not only coffee.

Tom Chantry said...

Someone needs to start a fake Twitter Account: @PersonofBadReport.

Johnny Dialectic said...

"Soylent Green is people!"

And in some cases, none too soon.

(Oops. Bad report.)

Frank Turk said...

Since Trogdor has commented, why will I blog his answer next week? Does it really need more words?

Aaron Snell said...

Well, at least give us another Doug Wilson-esque post title.