Editorial: Abraham’s Book

To my surprise, I have become the basis for a character named “Pietist” in William (Billy) Abraham’s new book, ‘Dialogues Amongst the People Called United Methodists.’  Drawing upon my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride,’ plus some of Billy ‘s own additions, he constructs the character of “Pietist,” along with similar constructs: Traditionalist, Evangelical, Progressive, and Reconciled.

By writing this blog, I will probably increase the sales of his book!  But I am happy to do that, given I went to seminary with Billy (whom we lovingly called “the firey Irishman”), and we have been friends since 1970.

Using a form of writing akin to Plato’s dialogues, Billy constructs a fanciful conversation among Traditionalist, Evangelical, Progressive, Reconciler, and Pietist–a round-table exploration of selected  key issues polarizing the UMC today. 

To his credit, Billy’s approach shows how complicated the issues are and how difficult it is to establish and maintain common ground among widely-divergent views.  When he and I recently exchanged messages about his book, he admitted the challenge he faced in taking a complex, multi-faceted situation and trying to fit it into the dialogue genre. 

The inescapable problem with this genre of literature is that it is concocted out of the author’s mind; that is, written in terms of how the author imagines things would unfold–which, of course, they never do in real life.  Even though the author of a dialogue is not one the characters, the author’s sense of each character determines how the dialogue goes.  Or to say it another way, there is more Billy in his book than appears on the surface.

Furthermore, for dialogues to work as literature, each character must be exaggerated so as to create a point for reaction by one or more of the other characters.  This style keeps the back-and-forth movement in the book.  But it frequently does so at the expense of truth, leaving the book with a tone that mixes satire and scholarship.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which.

I can see this in the exaggeration of my views, both in naming it “Pietist” (which falls short of both the classical and Wesleyan understanding of the term) and also in escalating my views beyond what I meant when I wrote them down–sometimes far beyond where I actually stand. There are numerous examples, but I will only write about a few.

In Billy’s book, “Pietist” testifies to having had a deeply transforming experience–so far, so good–but he is then portrayed as believing he has been given new revelation from God–revelation that supercedes traditional theology.  And, of course, the other characters have a field day with that–as well they should.

But the fact is, I did not say that I had a new revelation, but only a new vantage point–one that gave me both a voice and the courage to enter the conversation with the hope that schism in the UMC can be avoided.  I do believe the Holy Spirit inspired my motivation to look afresh at some things.  But I go on to say in my book that my vantage must be brought to the round table, along with all the others.  No one must think he or she has an inside track, or a special place at the table.

My conviction here is actually not technically pietistic or controversial.  Scholars debaters, and apologists know that any substantial idea has multiple vantage points, and the only way to move forward is to take them all seriously and treat them all respectfully.

On this one point, Billy’s “Pietist” is more nearly what has been called an “enthusiast” (fanatic), and his depiction blurs the Wesleyan distinction between reason and experience,  and between doctrine and opinion–distinctions I try to maintain in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride.’

I offer this example both to show the inevitable exaggeration that occurs in dialogues, and to illustrate it with regard to my actual position rather than that ascribed to “Pietist.”

Caricature shows up elsewhere through a misrepresentation of “Pietist’s” spirituality as being excessively inward (i.e. “let’s just pray about it”), and his being obsessed with the homosexual issue.  The fact is, I chose that issue because it is the flash-fire topic in the UMC right now–but by no means the only controversial issue we need to face.  And by choosing the two great commandments as the theology of love in my book, I was hoping folks would see early on that the spirituality of my book is both personal and social: a manifestation of holiness of heart and life–inwardly edifying and outwardly transformative, which is precisely Wesley’s call to practice the  Instituted and Prudential Means of Grace.

Moreover, even though “Pietist” is charged with substituting the phrase “Jesus is Lord” for Nicene Orthodoxy, that is not something I do in my book.  I do draw heavily on insights from E. Stanley Jones in my book, but I must here make it clear that he never used “Jesus is Lord” as a summary of theology and doctrine, but rather as a life conviction that motivated him to engage people of differing faith, and no faith.  It was a conviction that there is no part of life in which Jesus is not present and active.  So, far from being a substitute for orthodoxy, it is a major igniting factor within it.

Perhaps the most saddening depiction of “Pietist” is in the section Billy names ‘Fly in the Ointment.’ Without going into detail I will simply say it totally misrepresents me personally, pietism in general, and the responses of Progressives to my book.  In this section of Billy’s book caricaturing deteriorates into counterfeiting.  It is an unnecessary and unfortunate part of the book.  It should have been omitted.

From these examples, I can only imagine that Traditionalist, Evangelical, Progressive, and Reconciler would be able to cite places in the book where their positions are caricatured.  But that is just the way things play out in this kind of writing.  The right mix of information and speculation is almost impossible to achieve.

If you read Billy’s book, keep in mind the kind of literature you are reading.  Allow the book to do what it can do, but don’t ask it to do the impossible; that is to completely and accurately portray how an actual conversation would go.

Realize that the best way to understand a person is to read the person’s writing directly, not a volume written by someone else about the person.

If you want to do that with respect to me, do not take “Pietist” as your defining concept, but rather read ‘For the Sake if the Bride’ yourself.  Here is the link to it through Amazon, in either a paperback or ebook…  http://amzn.com/B00L5KW5HK.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books.
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