Listening Over Labeling: Refusing the Easy Way Out

Pigeons in holes, courtesy Wikipedia.
Pigeons in holes, courtesy Wikipedia.

Viggo Mortensen, perhaps now most famous for his portrayal of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is one of my favorite actors. A few years ago, he was cast in an adaptation of the 1981 play Good; he played a mellow literature professor in Germany in the 1930’s who wrote a book on euthanasia that heavily influenced the Third Reich. It was such a different role from the sort of character he’s often portrayed: the rough, rugged, sometimes violent protagonist (consider A History of Violence, Hidalgo, and The Road).

Well, for many film fans, it was somewhat discomfiting seeing Mortensen act in such a drastically different role. In a 2009 interview in The Telegraph, Mortensen talked about people’s reaction to his being cast in Good:

“People like to pigeonhole you. It’s easier.” 

The Via Media Methodists stated goal is to “hear both sides” (read more in our about section). We have tried, in our short existence, to do just that, all the while realizing we will never live up to some people’s demands expectations. Tom Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, an evangelical United Methodist group, has been a frequent conversation partner, commenting on several of our posts and interacting on other social media sites. David Nuckols, a member of the board of directors of the progressive Reconciling Ministries Network, has also been a supporter of VMM and has been actively engaged with us. We at VMM truly believe that both progressives AND conservatives have so much to offer The United Methodist Church, and a via media can mine the richness of both traditions. 

Rev. Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity recently wrote a post in which he levels all sorts of criticism at the writers of this blog; namely, that we have mischaracterized and not adequately included progressive voices. While we have had a self-described progressive write for us (you can read Dennis Sander’s piece here), Smith casually dismisses this inclusion as “token” and “parroting” (I’m just not sure if Rev. Smith realizes how offensive and inappropriate it is to refer to a gay African-American man as such). He also attempts to pigeonhole us as a “conservative” blog, a charge rejected by others across the theological spectrum who have engaged with our work.

What Smith’s post reveals is that those firmly entrenched in one camp or another, be it progressive or conservative, seem to not be able to deal with difference in such a way that avoids pigeonholing and defaults to easy labeling. For many of those on the left, if something doesn’t fit the progressive narrative, it is immediately labeled conservative. The same goes for those on the right. When our blog doesn’t include more self-identified progressive guest writers, it is called conservative. On the other hand, we’ve been called leftists in many comments on our blog posts (you’ll find some upon on a quick perusal). 

This pigeonholing reveals a misconception regarding the very nature of the via media. The power and beauty of the via media is that it isn’t a position; it’s a process. The via media is not about adhering to one static set of standards; it is a hermenutic, an interpretive lens, that draws from the best of a variety of paradigms — from progressives and conservatives alike— with prayerful discernment. It stands firmly in the tradition of the Wesleys, who were both/and folks: evangelical and sacramental, concerned with personal holiness and social holiness, committed to tradition and innovation. This does not mean that those of us in the via media lack core convictions; just the opposite! We believe in the need for doctrine, and Stephen, Drew, and I embrace orthodoxy as elucidated in the creeds of the church along with a strong and thoughtful social witness. We believe we need both progressive and conservative voices — along with those who don’t adopt either label — to truly have a via media.

Where we have failed to account for multiple voices or have mischaracterized them, we apologize. We are, after all, human. But we ask that you, dear reader, refrain from pigeonholing or thoughtless labeling. All that does is perpetuate the culture of echo chambers that has so damaged our society. Listen to us; engage with us; tease out that rich nuance between progressive and conservative. Make this a spiritual discipline.

Pigeonholing is easy. Don’t take the easy way out.

As always, we welcome your comments.

6 thoughts on “Listening Over Labeling: Refusing the Easy Way Out

  1. I’m a traditionalist (Ah, labels! They do limit us and are problematic, but how do we adequately explain what we mean without them? Pigeonholing does seem to take that to another level.) I think you all do a great job of accomplishing the goal you’ve set for yourselves. Grace and Peace.

  2. While I appreciated Rev. Sanders’ piece on VMM, I don’t think it addresses the same concerns that Rev. Smith raises. Talking about the need for a group like VMM in another mainline denomination is not the same thing as engaging questions of theology, doctrine, or congregational renewal from a progressive lens. I saw Rev. Sanders’ talk more about what progressives lack than what they contribute, which is what I understand to be the heart of Rev. Smith’s concern.

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