Posted by: minnow | January 6, 2010

BUILDING STRAWMEN and other frustrating debate tactics

I recently found myself commenting on this post by Joel Borofsky at The Christian Watershed.  I was directed to the site by a fellow blogger because he felt misinterpreted by Mr. Borofsky and wanted my opinion.  I do not usually site posts with which I disagree and try to avoid blog bashing altogether.  However, several parts of my experience on The Christian Watershed  pushed my buttons and I would like to discuss those issues.

One does not need to look far to realize I consider myself an emerging Christian with a non-traditional view of Hell and an a-typical perspective of gender rolls.  Often when I make these positions known those I am in a conversation with build a strawman and begin to debate it rather than me.  Such was the case when Mr. Borofsky said that I was disqualified from any further debate about Islam.  The fact is, I never was  debating Islam.  Instead I made the point that the Bible has historically been twisted, distorted, and used to justify a whole host of evils including: slavery, gender inequality, war, and murder.  That doing so to the Qur’an because we do not understand the culture in which it was written is equally plausible, and that unless Mr. Borofsky had done a whole lot of study on the topic (as opposed to taking a single course in “cults and world religions” in seminary) it might be wise to NOT try to pass himself off as an expert.  My points, and in truth most everything I said in the rest of the discussion was deemed irrelevant because I admitted to not being qualified to discuss Islam, even though understanding Islam had nothing to do with the other points brought up by both Striker (the other commenter) and myself.

In other discussions I am often called a heretic, a universalist, or worse.  I am told I am in danger of going to hell and taking others with me.   And, people almost always suggest I read my Bible more.  Most of the time what has actually happened is someone sees me write something like: I do not believe in an everlasting place of torment for those who have not confessed a belief in Christ (and all the baggage others attach to that confession) before they die, and they immediately accuse me of saying all roads lead to God (or heaven which I sometimes think is what really galls people; they do not want anyone in heaven that might disagree with how they think things should be done).  Or I am told I can not even believe in heaven if I do not also believe in hell.  I am frustrated with the need to defend myself against things I do not say.  But, I am getting pretty good at writing a condensed version of my statement of faith.

Quoting scripture is another thing people like to do to prove their points.  This tactic is sometimes referred to proof texting.  Sometimes individuals take small phrases out of scripture or give their own paraphrase and neglect to A). explain how it applies, or B). consider its context.  inevitably these people end their discussion with me by saying things like, “Well I  just believe what the Bible says.”  What they refuse to understand is that I too believe I believe what the Bible says I just think it says something other than what those making that statement think it says.  Usually by that point in the discussion I have already brought up looking at other word choice options from the original Greek or Hebrew, considering the culture in which the “instruction” was written, or the fact that the portion of scripture the individual wants to take literally and turn into doctrine  is a parable, used to highlight a point and only meant to be taken figuratively. 

Two other extremely frustrating debate tactics some people use are to play the “tradition” card and the “God breathed” card.  Just because we have misunderstood something for years does not mean we need to continue to hang on to our misunderstanding.  Clinging to a favorite doctrine even when your opponent points out the passage you use to defend it has been added to, was understood differently in the past, is a parable or could be translated in another way might keep you from being a heretic but does not prove your point.  And, using a modern-day English translation of scripture while employing a “God-breathed” argument is just a little ironic, don’tcha think?

Finally, my least favorite of all possible civil comments: the dismissive, patronizing–“Well you know His ways are not our ways and we will just have to leave that one up to Him (but I know He is a just  as well as a loving God”  AKA: He sees it my  way).  The first part of this argument is for most of us obviously true.  However, I could just as easily play the His ways card as the person or people with whom I am having a discussion.  We would be a little less patronizing to simply agree to disagree.

The fact is none of us know God completely.  And, even fewer of us are meant to be someone else’s Holy Spirit.  We can grow in our knowledge and understanding by sharing with one another our ideas and insights.  However, if we keep stomping on the foot because he does not see the word the way the eye does we only end up with a lame Body.


  1. interesting as always Minnow.

    I’m sure I have used those “tactics” without even knowing they are tactics! Especially the proof texting, I’m sure I do that a lot….. I know that sometimes all I have to say is that I will stick to the way *I* interpret scripture being a foundation even if “you” find greek or whatever to ‘prove’ it should be interpretted differently. It seems to me that there are soo many different interpretations and one can always find greek/commentaries to prove any ‘side’… so many times I just stick to what it has been and trust the Spirit will show me (eventually) if it’s otherwise.

    THis is all so tricky.

    I guess when there is not a lot of ‘proof’ or lots of room for debate, then maybe it’s an issue/topic that God would not want us spending the most time on huh? getting into debates & trying to figure out THE right answer.

    anyway just rambling to let u know i’m here 🙂

  2. Randi–Thanks for letting me know you’re here!! I rarely would call your comments rambling. I enjoy your point of view and am always open to hearing from you!!
    I have not found your use of scripture in the past to be what I would call “proof texting”, though I guess for some people any use of scripture to try and prove a point would technically be proof texting. The kind that irratates me is when scripture is taken from one context to try and prove a point it was never meant to prove. For example when we argue that we are allowed to “test” God because in Michah He told the Israelites to test Him on a specific point. Some of my other issues are equally narrow. Leaving an issue to God, for instance, is not a problem unless it is said in such a way that it really means, “I am right and someday you will see the light or suffer serious consequences.” I just about hit delete instead of publish for this post because it feels like I’m whining due to a bruised ego. In the end I kept it because I feel strongly about how we should relate to our fellow brothers and sisters and I need as much reminding as the other guy.
    AND I totally agree with you–on many of the issues we get so hot and bothered about God would just as soon we never even think about unless we can discuss them with our hearts, minds, and words full of grace.

  3. I don’t hear whining – I hear passion…. and some hurt too yes.

    🙂 have a great day!

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