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By John Wilson


Can't We Just Have a Good Argument?

Lessons in "respectful conversation."

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While waiting for new prescriptions for eyeglasses (yes, that's prescriptions, plural) at the Wheaton Eye Clinic this morning, I browsed through a recent issue of Newsweek (Oct. 10) that featured the fall of Tom DeLay. A column in the same issue by Jonathan Alter made the astonishing claim that the U.S. House of Representatives has been more corrupt during the past ten years—under the sway of DeLay and his "radical" cohorts—than at any other time during the history of that venerable body.

I am shedding no tears over DeLay's troubles. It's long been clear that he's a master of dirty dealing who wraps himself in the mantle of piety and patriotism. But this is something new under the sun? Please. Alter's pontifications, in the warp six Krugman mode, would get him laughed out of his job if columnists were subject to any accountability beyond the capricious norms of the moment. (Think for a minute of the things a columnist Just Can't Say in October, 2005. Then compare with what Alter wrote—the sort of thing for which he may even get a raise.)

Many people are fed up with public rhetoric of the DeLay/Alter variety. (DeLay, by the way, having attended closely to Chuck Colson, likes to thump the pulpit in defense of "absolute truth.") One of those who have had enough is Harold Heie, now at Northwestern College in Iowa but still affiliated with the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College, where he is a senior fellow. Heie is a persuasive advocate of what he calls "respectful conversation": not bland, feel-good dialogue but the real thing, which will often entail strong disagreement and will always encourage forthright expression, undertaken with mutual respect.

Under Heie's direction, the CCS has sponsored a three-part series called "Christians Engaging Culture," intended to model such conversation for public policy practitioners, politicians, scholars, and people like you in and me, in the pews and parking lots of our fair land. Last Friday at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington—under the auspices of the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning, whose director, Whitworth history professor Dale Soden, presided over the event—scholars and students met for the concluding installment in the series, featuring James Waller, who is Edward B. Lindaman Chair and Professor of Psychology at Whitworth. Waller's book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing will soon appear in a second edition from Oxford University Press. The previous night, George Marsden spoke at the college on the political turn of American fundamentalism, a subject clearly relevant to the Friday session. (Look for Marsden's piece on this theme in the March/April issue of Books & Culture, excerpted from the new edition of his book Fundamentalism and American Culture, coming from Oxford early in 2006.)

Some scholars who talk about the Holocaust or genocide more generally, it's sad to say, radiate arrogance; they play the horror at the heart of their studies as the ultimate rhetorical trump card. Waller isn't like that at all. He presented a "model of engagement" based on humility—"worldview humility," "intellectual humility," and "relational humility." Humility, of course, is a tricky deal, and Waller is savvy enough to dodge the obvious pitfalls. His is a cocky humility, and all the better for it. He speaks in a rush, like a certain type of stand-up comedian, and he's funnier than a lot of pros, now self-deprecating (the humility is genuine), now cutting.

When he's slicing and dicing, what's getting reduced to small pieces—more often than not—is evangelicalism, evangelicals, and all their pretensions. Indeed, as Whitworth's president, Bill Robinson, gently hinted in the Q&A session that followed, Waller could do a better job of applying his principles to that particular "culture." But never mind. As Harold Heie repeats, respectful conversation isn't based on utopian notions of consensus. Disagreement may well persist even after we've listened carefully to one another, but we're better off for having made the effort. And Waller is certainly worth listening to and learning from, whether he's talking about "Christ the transformer of culture" or explaining why he doesn't feel at home among evangelicals. (And when he says that Cornel West is "maybe the best writer I have ever read" … well, all I can do is pray for him.)

Waller was followed by Ronald C. White, Jr., whose superb book Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon & Schuster) you may have seen mentioned in the pages of B&C, and Whitworth professor of political science Julia Stronk, who practiced as a lawyer before turning to academe, both of whom exemplified the project of "Christians Engaging Culture" in ways that complemented Waller's approach. A panel of three Whitworth faculty members—poet Laurie Lamon, boundary-crossing literature professor Pamela Corpron-Parker, and Africanist John Yoder—offered brief responses drawing on their own work, and the program concluded with George Marsden revisiting The Soul of the American University in the light of the day's discussion. In his closing remarks, Heie noted four prerequisites for respectful conversation: (1) humility; (2) love; (3) patience; and (4) commitment balanced with openness. All four were on evidence that day.

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