One of the principal goals of My Jesus Project, a yearlong effort to better understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus, is to practice and embody right-heartedness, or what I call “orthopathy.” I believe that, though our beliefs — orthodoxy — and our actions — orthopraxy — are important, both are anemically informed and out of balance in a Christ-like life if the so-called heart work doesn’t come first, to inform the other two.
Some of which I saw when reading prominent voices within the Southern Baptist Convention criticize Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, known as one of the most influential voices in preaching in the past century, before his body was even in the ground. Craddock, who was 86 and had struggled with Parkinsons for a long time, died on March 7. He left behind a family, an extensive publishing library, and a nonprofit — The Craddock Center — that has done tremendous work for those trapped in poverty in Appalachia.
Two days after Craddock’s death, Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., reduced in a blog post Craddock’s lifetime of preaching work to “a mild-mannered man encouraging mild-mannered people to be more mild-mannered” — on March 9, the day of Craddock’s funeral.
He also called Craddock’s essential claims to be “dead wrong,” claiming that it led to “no true preaching.”
Criticism of Craddock by members of the Southern Baptist Convention is not new. Albert Mohler, the current president of Southern Seminary, suggested in 2008 and 2009 that Craddock had lost confidence in the authority of Scripture, and that those who followed his teaching “are left with little to say and no authority for their message.”
But there’s a big difference between lodging criticism a half dozen years before a man’s death and doing so the day of his funeral.
Jesus said we should let the dead bury the dead, but I have to imagine he would also look down on someone effectively kicking the body into the grave plot. In doing so, Allen comes across as opportunistic and highly insensitive, if not to the legacy of Craddock himself, then at least to his family and other loved ones. But perhaps more significant is that Allen brazenly demonstrates one of the greatest dangers in what I have often called “valuing our ideology over others' humanity,” which dehumanizes and denigrates as a result.
This dehumanization does not play political or ideological favorites, either — any of us can fall prey to this trap when we hold our beliefs closer than our love of God, neighbor, and self.
On a more technical note, there’s also the matter of what “authority” really means when it comes to both preaching and to Scripture. What Allen seems to hold to is the more “fundamentalist” idea that authority means “it says what it says, and we believe what it says, period.”
Aside from this whitewashing over millennia of cultural and linguistic influence, and the inevitability — in my understanding — that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted text or sermon, I think he overlooks an important second opportunity we have when talking about “authority.”
An author gives life to something. They cultivate it, give it form, piece together the chaos into something beautiful, and that has a voice of its own. But part of authorship is the vulnerability of letting that thing go once it is birthed. People will see it differently than the author, they will feel differently about it, and there is no possible way for the author to guarantee that their intent will be received as such by the recipient. For me, authority is more about being that which convenes, calls into being, and then sets loose. Otherwise the thing that has been created can never have any life of its own.
Consider this when engaging the first verse in the Gospel of John. The Word preceded all of creation, given its impetus and potential by the Great Breath that preceded it. But once a Word is uttered, the resulting impact is released by the Author.
It’s also interesting that, in the second creation story in Genesis, God doesn’t say “I’m making light” or the others that followed. God says “Let there be…” which inherently is a phrase that concedes some control — a requirement of any great Author.
I’ll confess that when I began writing this, I had to work hard at not “writing angry.” I’ve met Fred Craddock, heard him speak and preach many times, read his books, and he even has personal ties to my family. So in responding to Allen’s comments, I had to give myself a day to try and consider how to live out my aims to be more Chrtist-like in my own path, even when addressing those who seem to have strayed from their own path of Jesus-following.
It’s also important to note that the Southern Baptist convention is not unified in their condemnations of Craddock’s legacy. He was invited to, among other places, Southeastern Baptist Seminary, the Baptist General Association of Virginia annual meeting, and the sixth annual Southern Baptist Forum. So I don’t want to presume that Allen speaks for all within the SBC. However, as president of one of only six recognized seminaries within the SBC, his statements are inevitably married to a larger resonance within the greater body.
As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a season for everything. There are times when it’s incumbent on us to speak against what we believe is fundamentally wrong, and I will not begrudge Allen for staking such claims. But to do so in such an insensitive way, and on a day that seems to be more of a grab for public attention than a heartfelt reflection given at an opportune time, he is simply in the wrong.
Christian Piatt is the author of postChristian, Blood Doctrine, and the Banned Questions book series, among others. He is engaged in a year-long effort called My Jesus Project to more deeply and honestly follow the life, teaching, and example of Jesus through prayer, study and action. Follow along his journey, and even join in, at www.MyJesusProject.com.