Michael Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, wrote a piece at Patheos the other day called, “The Fundamentalist War on Wokeness is a War on Christian Love.” The post is of interest here because it touches on several topics that are important to the justice discussion in relation to false ideologies becoming ever more popular within the church. The post also implicates Owen Strachan, a Southern Baptist professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a supposed fundamentalist war on love.
Bird on Dirty Words
Bird begins with a story about Jeff Durbin to illustrate an issue he has with those he labels ‘fundamentalist.’
My daughter recently came to me late one night, rather upset, and she showed me a video that her Bible study had been watching, and it was rather staggering. In the video, a certain Jeff Durbin – who I’ve never heard of, but looks like he’s trying to do a 2005 Mark Driscoll impersonation – said:
The woke evangelical whore is a slut who lies down in the middle a burning city, spreading her legs to the rioters and looters, spreading her legs to Marx, Engels, Alinsky, and Sorros …
Setting aside the oddity of Bird’s daughter and Bible study group watching a video from the recent Fight Laugh Feast Conference in Tennessee, it may be worth noting that Durbin’s uses of strong language, sexual themes, and a swear word to make his point were met with no small amount of push back on social media for days on end after the video was released. The most intense criticisms came from within the group of people who agree with Durbin about the social justice movement. For example, Durbin was charged with wrongly wresting the apostle Paul’s use of skubalon from its context in order to warrant his use of foul language. Although no fault of his own, Bird’s assessment of the situation fails to account for these criticisms from within what Bird identifies as the ‘fundamentalist’ camp.
One wonders why Bird raises the issue of the Durbin speech in relation to Strachan anyway. Bird writes, “In addition, Owen Strachan, who I have cordially met, has delivered a series of talks decrying wokeness and its influence on the evangelical churches. This has met with much commentary.” What does Bird mean when he writes, “In addition”? Apparently, he means to characterize Strachan in light of Durbin’s diatribe. But Strachan does not use such language in his lectures, nor is there any reason to suspect he would, especially given those within the fundamentalist camp who, as already mentioned, take issue with what Durbin said or at the very least the way in which he said it. Bird has poisoned the well.
It must also be noted here that Strachan’s lectures have been met with very little commentary, presumably because nobody wants to drudge through six plus hours of material in video format to write a substantial critique. (Bird never responded to me when I asked him whether or not he had viewed Strachan’s lectures before writing his post.) What has received a lot of attention is a short clip from the aforementioned lecture series wherein Strachan calls for church discipline in relation to particular types of wokeness. More on that in a moment.
Bird on Melbingrad
To his credit, Bird attempts to sympathize with Strachan, but conflates wokeness with progressive politics in the process.
I know wokeness, believe me, I live in Melbourne, comically known as Melbingrad, one of the wokest cities in the world, where the Government is so progressive it makes California look like Alabama. The State govt. even created a second COVID wave by hiring security guards to operate quarantine facilities, who were trained in diversity awareness but not in infection control (which is why I’ve spent the last three months living under quasi martial-law).
I have written for political mags critiquing the progressive authoritarianism that demonizes the working class for voting for BREXIT and Trump. I’m an eager consumer of news outlets like Quillette, Heterodox Academy, SpikedOnline, and follow authors like Douglas Murray, who are dedicated to standing up to the bohemian bourgeois on subjects like freedom of speech and women’s rights.
Nevertheless, Bird returns to ideological issues in particular when he writes, “I also know very well that the progressive identity hierarchy divides everyone into either the oppressor or the oppressed, it imputes to ethnicities certain immutable moral characteristics, and (worst of all) it viciously attacks minorities if they do not obediently perform their roles in the identity hierarchy.” Strachan, of course, agrees with each of these observations, and says as much in his lectures, although he uses even more specific examples, and this is where the rubber meets the road. Bird’s observations raise an interesting question that Strachan is addressing in his clip (mentioned above) that went viral on social media. Would Bird believe church discipline proper in the case of someone who, “divides everyone into either the oppressor or the oppressed…imputes to ethnicities certain immutable moral characteristics, and…viciously attacks minorities”? Strachan would, and Bird should too, or else he is not really ready to address the topics of progressive identity hierarchy or white supremacy in any meaningful manner.
Bird in the Boat
So far, Bird has no significant disagreement with Strachan, a fact he attempts to spin in his favor when he concludes, “So you might expect me to be sympathetic to the anti-woke rhetoric of Durbin and Strachan, but I’m not, so let me explain why.” Not so fast! The careful reader will see that Bird has not actually provided any examples of Strachan’s supposed “anti-woke rhetoric.” Yes, Bird links to Strachan’s lectures, but he never addresses what, exactly, he finds offensive in them. Rather, Bird cites a source of controversial language within what he would call the fundamentalist camp and then acts as though Strachan is somehow related to it. At best, this move on Bird’s part is sloppy, and at worst, it is dishonest.
Bird bases the next part of his critique on a popular false dichotomy that leads one to believe that those with concerns about ‘wokeness’ and Critical Race Theory do not or cannot acknowledge instances of injustice or racism. He complains, “The whole anti-woke and anti-critical race theory trope strike me as not so much interested in opposing progressive authoritarianism and its divisive racial politics, as much as it serves to deny ethnic minorities have any grievances and white churches have any responsibility to do anything about it.” Bird implies that if “anti-woke and anti-critical race theory” was “interested in opposing progressive authoritarianism and its divisive racial politics,” then he would be interested in it as well. But Strachan clearly is interested in such opposition, as anyone who has listened to his lectures will almost immediately realize. Strachan spends several hours talking about a biblical theological approach to the topics in question, addressing the horrific racist nature of our history in the United States of America, and speaking to modern day justice issues like police shootings. Strachan does not deny that ethnic minorities have grievances nor does he claim that white churches have no responsibility to do anything about it. If anything, Strachan’s lectures leave one with the sense that Christians must do something about it, but not in line with the progressive policies Bird has already outlined for us. Presumably, Bird would agree.
Herein lies just the inconsistency that makes Bird’s post so troubling. Why is anyone to suppose that Bird, who agrees with Strachan on the issues of “opposing progressive authoritarianism and its divisive racial politics,” is any different from Strachan? What makes Bird’s glib references to the grievances of ethnic minorities and responsibility of Christians to address them any more significant than Strachan’s careful evaluation of those topics in his lengthy lecture series? Why does Owen Strachan merit the ‘fundamentalist’ moniker in these instances while Mike Bird does not?
Bird and the Straw Man
Bird continues, “In my mind, acknowledging the reality of racism, discrimination, and injustice – whether historical, cultural, institutional – and determining to change it, does not require adherence to a Marxist narrative, or becoming Woke.” Here again, if Bird is suggesting that Strachan said anything like this he is either very seriously mistaken or else lying. Strachan explicitly states the opposite in his lectures. If Bird is not talking about Strachan here, then who is he talking about? Perhaps Bird means to reference Durbin, but – and this may be difficult for some – Durbin and Strachan are not the same person. This misguided line of thinking permeates Bird’s post. He writes, “So don’t buy into the lie that acknowledging a history of racial injustice and prioritizing the pursuit of racial justice is wokeness. Don’t buy into the lie that all social justice is driven by Marxist ideology. It is not!” Of course social justice is not driven by Marxist ideology when we understand the term ‘social justice’ to be defined in a way that it is not at home in a Marxist ideology. I doubt that even Durbin would disagree with that tautology. But note that when Bird says not all “social justice is driven by Marxist ideology” he is simultaneously conceding that some social justice is driven by Marxist ideology. Strachan has a problem with that. Does Bird?
Bird concludes, “Let me be clear, love of neighbour requires you to be concerned for the just treatment of your neighbour, whether they are Black, Hispanic, First Peoples, LGBT, migrant, Muslim, working-class, or even Baptist. Any derogation of a Christian’s duty to be concerned about the welfare and just-treatment of their neighbour is an attack on the biblical love command itself.” What would lead Bird to believe Strachan would object to that? Certainly nothing by way of what he has provided in his post. If Bird wants to interact with Strachan’s lectures then he should listen to those lectures. If he wants to engage Strachan on differences over secondary and tertiary matters related to these difficult topics, he should absolutely do so. That would advance the conversation. Bird’s post attempting to paint his apparent opposition as a fundamentalist leading a war on love does not do that.
Given what I have written here, it should come as no surprise that I do question whether or not Bird really is, “that rare voice of reason in this asylum of politics and religion.” Bird’s post comes across less as a careful consideration of the serious topics under discussion and more as a hit piece on a Southern Baptist professor. Kudos for the amusing joke about the duty to love one’s neighbor even if he is Baptist, but by my lights Bird failed to live that out in this instance.