Tim Gough responds to one of the most fiery Unbelievable? debates ever to air
Back in 2004 I attended a public debate held by the Evangelical Alliance in London. The purpose of the event was to discuss the atonement as presented in Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus.
Steve didn’t so much defend his book as he talked passionately about social justice and widespread judgementalism in the church. It was a masterclass in winning over a hostile crowd. It was incredibly hard to disagree with a man who had sat by so many bedsides, visited so many prisons, and who spoke so passionately about the love of God lived out. Anything said against him was an unreasonable attack against an immensely likeable figure. Even then however, as a young theology student, something about Steve’s approach bothered me.
Yesterday I watched the recent episode of Unbelievable? where Steve Chalke debated Phil Moore over the themes of Steve’s new book The Lost Message of Paul.
As Steve’s book is largely a popularised version of the New Perspective on Paul, I was hoping the debate was going to dig into questions about the accuracy of scripture, the reality of hell, the nature of faith, and what exactly salvation is. I have a real interest in these topics and was looking forward to a lively debate on the issues. I was sadly disappointed. What prompted me to write this, was not the content but rather the manner of the debate itself, and specifically how Steve carried himself.
Coming out swinging
To be fair to Steve, some of Phil’s early swings were overreaching. He made an entirely unreasonable remark about the cover of Steve’s book, for instance. At the beginning, Phil came across a little aggressive and he made some sweeping statements that he was never fully able to shake off. With an opponent like Steve, you’ve got to be very careful not to shoot yourself in the foot with a misplaced word. It was a poor start from Phil, and one that perhaps prompted Steve go in guns blazing.
Steve dominated the discussion, and I mean dominated. He took at least 80 per cent of the airtime, interrupted almost every sentence Phil began, and regularly hijacked partially made points to springboard off into something else entirely. Phil struggled to articulate his arguments under the constant onslaught of brash, lengthy interruptions and possessive, arresting noises.
Justin had his hands full to say the least. I have never seen a guest take the show away from him like this. Steve, just like a media-hardened politician, controlled the narrative.
Controlling the narrative
Steve said several times that he wanted a "conversation", however he continuously tried to hold both sides of it. He attempted to get Justin to move on from a point when he got close to the ropes, and he hijacked the times Justin attempted specifically to give Phil a moment to frame an issue. On several occasions he immediately started speaking when a question was very pointedly addressed to Phil. He even told Justin not to "butt in"! At one point, Phil called him on this saying "you want a conversation as long as no-one disagrees with you" and when Phil tried to find common ground, Steve cut across with "endorse the book then."
It was painful. Steve simply couldn’t keep quiet for more than just a few seconds. It felt toxic and uncomfortably authoritarian. He neutralised the moderator, silenced his conversation partner, and got on with his own agenda. Frankly, Steve came across as a bully. A very defensive bully, but a bully, nonetheless.
Fighting study with soundbites
I don’t know Phil, but his scholastic credentials outstrip Steve’s by some margin. This was a genuine opportunity, then, to critically converse on the contentious themes of the book in front of an engaged audience. Rather than respond constructively to the few points Phil managed to raise, however, Steve suggested that Phil’s problem was that he hadn’t read widely enough. It was a case of "your point isn’t worthy of discussion because you haven’t read all the nonspecific stuff that I have."
At other times Phil was dismissed more cavalierly by name-calling, a few of which were "liberal", "imperialistic" and "capitalist". For someone who constantly criticises the judgemental nature of the church, Steve was labelling Phil with all kinds of broad generalities and then hanging him with them.
Some of Phil’s other comments were used as dangerous springboards into some rather wild rebuttals. At one point, Steve refuted a textual comment on a Greek phrase as discussed by Martin Luther as oversimplified. But rather than say why he thought this, or contrast it with a more complex idea, Steve bounced off to Luther being republished by the Nazis. He came very close to suggesting that the imperialist misreading of Paul (which Phil was apparently complicit in) was largely responsible for the murder of millions of Jews. Dangerous, dangerous ground! At very least it was attacking the person rather than refuting the point.
Steve regularly reached for big guns and tugged heartstrings in ways that are just not appropriate when ‘weaponised’ (using his word) in a debate. Within the very first few moments in response to "why did you write this book?" Steve had brought up suicide, misogamy, and Apartheid, as well as the phrases "weaponised" and "used to crush people". Not long after that he reached through a point to label Phil’s ‘type of church’ as alienating women and LGBTQ+ communities – a point that came up at least once more without adding anything to the conversation other than arbitrarily putting Phil on the unpopular side of every issue.
A missed opportunity
Rather than show Phil any respect for stepping up, and without asking a single genuine question, Steve wrote him off as a product of his upbringing who simply hadn’t read enough. He wouldn’t even allow him the grace to articulate his own thoughts without constantly hijacking and painfully interrupting.
Rarely do I call people out publicly, but we must consider the amount of influence Steve has. Steve’s commitment to social action and his incredible success in that arena has afforded him a sizable platform. However, a greater platform comes with greater responsibility.
Steve, your social action – as amazing as it is – doesn’t put you above brotherly accountability. I would suggest that you need to consider the manner in which you engaged with this conversation. You came across – at least to me – as judgemental, authoritarian, egotistic, and rude. The lack of respect for someone who had stepped up to discuss these ideas did not serve your position or reputation at all.
Even in high energy debate, there are ways brothers and sisters should talk and listen to one another. Maybe it’s worth a phone call to Phil?
Tim Gough is the director of Llandudno Youth For Christ, editor of multi-award winning blog, youthworkhacks.com and the author of Rebooted: Reclaiming Youth Ministry for the Long Haul - A Biblical Framework.
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