The waters, chummed and roiling

Well it didn’t take long for my post on Kenny Bishop’s new website to awaken old familiar feelings and resurrect the standby rhetoric of holy condemnation that had been resting since the last Kirk Talley flare up (see here and here). It would be interesting if it weren’t so predictable that almost everyone seizes on Kenny’s Story (to the exclusion of pretty much everything else on the site), especially those parts where Bishop starts trying to talk about his vision of Christian life and ministry that were born of his struggles (public and private) over the last decade or so. It’s not surprising to me that the “confess and repent” crowd is riled up about some of what Bishop has to say. In a lot of cases, this says more about them than him. Many evangelicals often interpret stories like Bishop’s as elaborate rationalizations for sin or refusals to submit to God’s will (which the confess-and-repent diehards seem to have a better handle on than everyone else). Bishop’s experience very quietly and politely explodes the happy myth of uncomplicated piety so many Christians rely on to get by. The world is full of situations and lives that defy the creaky, brittle absolutism of much of contemporary evangelicalism. So when a Kenny Bishop comes along and insists on the authenticity of his religious belief, somewhat at odds with evangelical orthodoxy, forged in the fire of trials most of us can thankfully only begin to half-comprehend, a lot of absolutists feel like they’ve been put on notice. This is usually the point at which scripture starts getting cherry picked and bandied about in a conversation-stopping way.Bishop’s other vignettes and essays are worth reading. Some are better than others, and occasionally Bishop goes for the easy morality lesson distilled from everyday life when a less pat conclusion would have been more effective. But the real value of these writings is that when taken in sum, they start to suggest a fuller profile of Bishop than his “story” alone might convey, since they show and the “story” has to mostly tell.

Bishop has obviously worked hard and thought even harder about how to make sense of his life within the context of religion and faith, rather than outright rejecting it. It’s not as easy you might think (or as someone like Bishop makes it look) to write a genuine account of personal experience that remains fit for mixed company, true to experience, and avoids the boilerplate testify-by-number system so prevalent in conversion narratives and spiritual autobiography. I guess a lot of people do have spiritual lives that develop along remarkably similar lines as the story of the prodigal son or the woman at the well or other recognizable templates of redemption, but at least as many people’s lives don’t fit those old molds. And it is a testament to how conditioned we are to expect some variation on these traditional accounts of forgiveness or rededication that nontraditional stories of spiritual discovery or religious (re)awakening (like Bishop’s) incite so much hostility or frustration among so many.

Like many sg fans, I’ve heard the gory gossip and sordid details that have swirled around Bishop since the Bishops broke up however many years ago. And it’s pretty clear that one of the biggest challenges Bishop faces here - beyond those inherent in accurately portraying his religious experience itself - is being honest about his actions without being unseemly or, more problematically, revealing the kind of titillating details that would overtake anything else he had to say. Because let’s face it, many of the people who howl the loudest about how abominable this or that sin is sure do seem to positively thrill - with righteous indignation, they assure us - to the detailed recitations of indiscretion.

Bishop chose to take the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted (or just plain disliked) in order to say what was on his mind. Good for him. But though I tried not to prejudge the content on what I thought or think I know about Bishop’s past, still I must say I do empathize a bit with the people who read Bishop’s story and felt it was difficult at times to know exactly what he’s driving at. The clubbing ministry clearly is the most obvious example here. It’s not that “bar and club” ministries are unheard of. It’s that Bishop describes just enough of what his means by “clubbing ministry” to suggest it’s not exactly like, say, Dwight Moody smashing a chair on a busy street corner in a seedy part of town just to get the sinners’ attention and then preach God’s judgment upon them. But Bishop doesn’t do more than tell us what it isn’t - presumably because to say what it is would require him to disclose the kind of information he feels compelled to withhold (see above: in re titillating etc). So we’re left filling in the blanks (he certainly seems to imply he’s more than a passive spectator), and the human mind is pretty incapable of making the imaginative leap necessary here without ending up in places that we had tried so hard not to go, back when we promised ourselves we wouldn’t prejudge this thing. If this is true of someone like me, who doesn’t necessarily assume that “Christian” and “club” are mutually exclusive, imagine what happens with people who came to Bishop’s site looking for proof of their earlier assumptions.

The bottom line, though, is that Bishop has far too sharp a political and strategic mind to have not thought out almost all the possible scenarios associated with launching this website. So you can bet he probably has (or ought to have) prepared himself for everything from the skeptical (”he’s not contrite and repentant enough!”) and the mean (”he’s a profligate trying to con us one more time!”) to the savvy (”he’s laying the groundwork for a grassroots political career of his own!”) and the cynical (”he’s preparing himself an escape route if Ernie Fletcher’s governship implodes in scandal!”). None of these strikes me as especially remarkable reactions. All well within the predictable. And anyway, truly gifted performers have a way of melting the defenses of even the stoniest of their critics once the house lights go down and the concert begins.

My only real concern is that by cloaking so much of his experience in obliquities and evasive language (however necessary), Bishop risks, not eliciting strong responses, but no response at all. Along these lines, one reader wrote

I doubt anyone is going to get the point of it all. On either side of the fence. Just too ambiguous for anyone to care. I mean, if you’re going to give a redemptive testimony then, by god, give us the gory details of what you’ve been saved from!! … This is what every god-fearing Southern Baptist Singing News subscriber wants too. As Norma Glenning in the church I grew up in said, “Well, how are we gonna know what to pray for if we don’t know the details?”

The point here is not that Bishop doesn’t have a right to his privacy. I think what the reader means, instead, is that the power of faith resides in the measure of the lives it transforms. “If you could see,” the old song goes, “where Jesus brought me from to where I am today, then you would know the reason why I love him so.” At times, it’s difficult to know where Bishop has been brought from to where he is today. This is a problem, but not only or even primarily for Bishop. His experience is no less profound for what we cannot know about it. Perhaps the ones who stand to lose the most are those in the religious culture to whom Bishop is speaking (and I include myself here) - people who may be tempted to assume the confusions and elisions and obfuscations in Bishop’s story justify dismissing it.

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