*If you haven’t read it yet, check out Theology of Bullshit Part 1: Re-reading John 8*
Richard Beck, Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, writes at Experimental Theology. I found his series “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology” online as I was reading about bullshit a few years ago. His five part series is fantastic, and you should read the whole thing.
In Beck’s third part of his series, he argues, referencing philosopher Scott Kimbrough’s essay Letting it Slide, that we are more tolerant toward bullshit than lying because we can’t do without it. To make his point, Beck tells the story of Nick Saban who in 2006 prophetically declared “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” while closing out the season as the head football coach for the Miami Dolphins. Less than two weeks later, Saban announced that he would be accepting the head coaching position at Alabama. Saban claimed afterwards in response to allegations that he lied, “I get asked questions that I really shouldn’t answer. You should have the opportunity to weigh those options and I didn’t have the opportunity to do that.”
Beck argues, “Saban realized that his speech prior to the end of the Dolphins season could not be engaged in truth-claims. To do so would distract his team. But neither did Saban wish to lie. So what does he do? He bullshits. And his defense is basically this: If you ask those kinds of questions prior to the end of the season you cannot legitimately expect truth. It’s an inappropriate question requiring a bullshit answer. And you should know this. Thus, to retrospectively call me a liar misses the whole dynamic of the December 21st exchange. The context of the conversation should have clued you in that you would only get bullshit from me. Not truth, not lies. Bullshit. Note Saban’s actual words: “I get asked questions that I really shouldn’t answer.” His point? If you ask those kinds of questions you are going to get bullshit answers. And bullshit, technically, isn’t a lie.”
Beck is claiming that in this situation bullshit is preferable to both lying and truth telling. If Saban would have said “Yes. I will be leaving the Miami Dolphins for The University of Alabama following this season,” it would have been disastrous for his team. If he answers, “No comment,” then the rumors will fly, his players will be continually asked about his future and it will become a distraction. He also doesn’t want to lie which could hurt his credibility with players and management. So his speech becomes disconnected from the facts of the situation. He misrepresents himself, rather than just misrepresenting the facts. He said afterwards, “In my eyes, when I said that, it wasn’t a lie. The circumstances changed and I made a different decision. That’s not lying.”
Bullshit being preferable to both lying and truth telling is not limited to coaching football. It permeates almost every part of our social lives. “Honey, what are you thinking about?” “Hi Jim! How are you today?” “Sorry I didn’t respond to your email. I’ve been very busy.” “Welcome to First United Methodist Church! We’re glad that you joined us for worship today!” “…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic** church.” “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Beck argues that in some social situations due to the necessities of politeness and concealment (not publicly acknowledging disruptive material in a conversation), what we say isn’t dishonest, it’s “a form of pro-social bullshit.” Pro-social bullshit not only makes our lives and the lives of others easier, it also makes us more productive. The interactions we have with the coworker we despise, the married friend for whom we have romantic feelings, or the person to whom we were just introduced are all made easier and are all allowed to be productive through the pro-social bullshit of politeness and concealment.
While politeness and concealment may make bullshit both inevitable and often preferable to other alternatives, these two categories are clearly not what is driving Jesus in John 8. By shaming the scribes and the Pharisees and calling them sinners, Jesus is not being polite, and while Jesus is clearly concealing information in his public debate with the scribes and the Pharisees, it seems to be in response to the trap laid out by his opponents rather than a desire to maintain relationship. Furthermore, the opinion that Jesus is concealing, that stoning in general is lawful under the Torah but not lawful under Roman law, is shared by the scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus certainly has an interest in concealing his opinion to prevent being arrested and killed, but in John, Jesus already knows this is going to happen anyway. Delaying the inevitable hardly seems to be his motivation. Rather, I believe, Jesus’s bullshitting in John 8 isn’t so much a defense of his life as it is a defense of his mission. It’s not a defense of “the woman caught in adultery” as much as it is a defense of his followers. His followers are people who are subjugated and humiliated by the scribes, the Pharisees and other clients acting on behalf of the Roman Empire. By shaming them, he brings honor to himself, honor to his followers and legitimacy to message.
In addition to politeness and concealment, we can add in defense of the marginalized to our list of acceptable situations in which to bullshit as Jesus is bullshitting to protect himself publicly and protect the honor of those that follow him. Also I would add in response to bullshit as an acceptable situation in which to bullshit because Jesus is clearly responding with bullshit when first confronted with it.
If you read through the Gospels with this in mind, you will certainly find numerous examples of Jesus with his speech separated from the facts of the situation (bullshit), but he does so according to an identifiable pattern. He often bullshits in public addressing his opponents, but he never does so in public addressing the crowds that follow him or in private to his disciples and followers. For Jesus, bullshit is reserved for responses in public to his opponents who initiate bullshit. Examples include John 8, Luke 18:18 (but not Mark 12:28), Luke 20:20, and Mark 15:2.
Search the scriptures for yourself. Look for Jesus’s interactions with his opponents by searching for keywords of “scribes”, “Pharisees”, “Herodians”, or “Romans”. You will find Jesus speaking to these opponents often with outright hostility in humiliating fashion. You will also certainly find Jesus speaking while trying to get away with something and not always acknowledging the facts of the situation. This speech pattern, however, disappears when he speaks to the crowds, and when he’s speaking to his disciples, sometimes the hostility returns but the bullshit is missing. When he rebukes them, he’s not hiding anything.
If Jesus bullshits, and if it is a necessary and inevitable part of human social interaction that is often preferable to its alternatives, then our churches will naturally be full of bullshit – we are human after all. But if Harry Frankfurt’s critique of bullshit is correct, that bullshit erodes a respect for the truth in manner even more dangerous than lies, then the church should reflect seriously on how their bullshit is used, when it is necessary, and what harm it may bring. After all, the truth of the Gospel, the truth of God’s creation, and the truth about ourselves are central to the mission of the church.
The 3rd part of Theology of Bullshit continues on Monday. Hope you join me. If you like this kind of thing, help me out by liking or sharing on facebook.