Agree to Disagree
Every few days I feel the futility of saying something on the Internet without saying everything on the Internet.
I compose a public word of thanks or a recognition of resonance with the work of a writer, theologian or artist then, before sending my thoughts into the atmosphere, fear forces me toward the backspace button.
Will someone interpret my words as a wholesale endorsement of the one I’m about to acknowledge? Might an onlooker, unaware of where I diverge doctrinally or politically with that person, misunderstand my beliefs? Who will turn my words against me?
Risk unseats reward, and dissonance wins.
Everyone wrings their hands over outrage culture. But fewer people acknowledge what I call “preface culture,” the distinctly online phenomenon in which we litter our common ground with an airtight arrangement of words and create answers to a dozen follow-up questions no one has asked yet. All because of the constant pressure of critique.
My friend, the writer Kate Watson, hit the center of the mark in a tweet from January.
“What if I told you you can admire someone you do not fully agree with?” she wrote. “And also you can agree with someone who you in no way admire?”
My preoccupation with pop culture proves to me Kate’s right. I sense no strangeness when I acknowledge the grandeur of Arcade Fire’s first three albums in one moment—records which shake something new in me each time I drop the needle—then roll my eyes at their last two efforts in the next. When Amy Schumer takes a sideways glance at patriarchy and rape culture, I count her among the most gifted comics on the planet. When she commences an extended riff on her most intimate spaces, my enthusiasm flatlines. Holding both opinions at once, I still like who I see in the mirror.
We do no violence to our views—or color them any less true—when we agree with someone who doesn’t hold them all. Our love for God doesn’t weaken with an expression of love for someone outside our immediate theological circle. Both types of love work together, growing the other.
Yet theology and politics seem to raise the stakes. We constantly proctor purity tests, perched on the edges of our chairs, ready to catch someone cheating on our party, camp, or church. Obsessed with the false choice between all or nothing, we sacrifice countless opportunities to grow.
Divisions and denominations rarely trouble me; I embrace the Biblical mandate to defend the faith, and understand the desire to push back against anything or anyone who might erode our ability to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Yet, unchecked, the rhythms of preface culture keep us so busy defending our version of the faith that we lack time or energy to serve the cause of a more robust unity. What a tragedy when Jesus frees us to uphold the common ground he died to win. The bread and cup passed between those trusting in Christ alone should hold infinitely more weight than doctrines which are significant but not ultimate. Communion speaks the truer word.
Whether our response takes the shape of shamed silence or fiery furor makes no difference. Something glorious slips through our fingers.
No doubt our capacity to learn from a diversity of thinkers grows with our appetite for spiritual meat, not milk. Craving the taste and truth of the gospel, we enjoy freedom to borrow and benefit from all manner of Christian.
Preface culture not only hinders the very Biblical aim of unity born of diversity. It also weakens love.
Public dialogue around the illness and untimely death of writer Rachel Held Evans nudged preface culture out into the light. Well-meaning Christians added caveats to their prayers for Evans’ healing and condolences at her passing.
Certainly, some wise souls, such as Karen Swallow Prior, mentioned their degree of divergence from Evans as a means to lovely ends—paying Evans tribute by exhibiting how kind-hearted the late writer was in every kind of company.
When divorced from similar intention, these extra words say more about the writer than their potential critics. They say we will bow to pressure and volume rather than stick up for truthmined from another’s words—or, against tough odds, “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
I generally despise the phrase “agree to disagree” because of what it’s become—a way to prematurely end conversations without reaching any understanding. But in the face of preface culture, I long to revive and reclaim those three not-so-little words. Together we can agree to disagree with brothers and sisters where our consciences insist—yet amplify their voices every time and place we can.
This manner of agreeing to disagree preserves Christian unity better than perfect compliance ever could. And it keeps love rich and satisfying, rather than something watered down to the point of being flavorless. They will know we are Christians by our love, not by our prefaces, caveats, amendments, or conditions.
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