I have been listening to an audio version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The other day I heard the chapter in which Huck stumbles into the middle of a feud between the Grangerford and the Shepherdson families. Buck Grangerford tells Huck about an episode in which old Baldy Shepherdson shot down a young Grangerford in the middle of the road. Huck says “I reckon that old man was a coward, Buck.” But Buck won’t let anybody disparage his blood enemy:

“I reckon he warn’t a coward. Not by a blame’ sight. There ain’t a coward amongst them Shepherdsons–not a one. There ain’t no cowards amongst the Grangerfords either. Why, that old man kep’ up his end in a fight one day, for a half an hour, against three Grangerfords, and come out winner. They was all a-horseback; he lit off of his horse and got behind a little wood-pile, and kep’ his horse before him to stop the bullets; the Grangerfords staid on their horses and capered around the old man, and peppered away at him, and he peppered away at them. Him and his horse both went home pretty leaky and crippled, but the Grangerfords had to be fetched home–and one of them was dead and one of them died the next day. No, sir, if a body’s out hunting for cowards, he don’t want to fool away any time amongst them Shepherdsons, becuz they don’t breed any of that kind.”

Buck Grangerford’s praise for the Shepherdsons caused me to reflect on the idea of the worthy opponent. Let us lay aside for a moment the fact that the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons were engaged in a meaningless feud, as well as the fact that anybody with good sense would  agree with Huck Finn that Baldy Shepherdson acted in a cowardly manner when he shot down an unarmed fourteen-year-old. Buck Grangerford is confused on many counts. Mark Twain is being utterly ironic here. Still, I can’t help admiring the respect and even affection that Buck affords his mortal enemies. The Grangerfords’ honor in the feud depends on the Sheperdsons’ honor.

Again, I understand the fact that the fight in Huckleberry Finn is a meaningless fight, and the participants’ honor is a false honor. But not all fights are meaningless, and in the real ones–the meaningful ones–it is exceedingly important that we honor and even value our opponents. This principle is true in household arguments, and it’s true in public arguments. In the current climate of political, cultural, and theological discourse, the worthy opponent appears to be a threatened species. It seems to be standard practice to dismiss one’s opponents as halfwits or degenerates or worse. But we cheapen our own side of the argument when we cheapen the other side.

I thought of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons the other day when I read a piece that Christopher Hitchens wrote about his own impending death. The most articulate and prolific of the “New Atheists,” Hitchens is a man of outlandish verbal and reasoning powers. He has brought those powers to bear in opposition to the beliefs that I hold most deeply. Still, I can’t help but be sad at the thought that his voice will soon be silent. His kind of brilliance doesn’t come along very often. I wish he had begun from different premises. I wish he had ended up as a GK Chesterton for our generation; he seems to have the wit and energy for it.

Hitchens has said not to expect any deathbed conversion. That would indeed be a most unlikely and unexpected event. Then again, every conversion is a miracle. Here’s hoping God works that particular miracle. But even if he doesn’t, let me say that Christopher Hitchens has helped move me down the path of humility toward the place where every believer ought to live: that is to say, toward the truth that God is my defender and not vice-versa. As Spurgeon* said, “Who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.” Hitchens, that great hurricane of a thinker, has made me glad that it is not really my job to defend the faith.

*Corrected from the original, which attributed this quotation to Chesterton.

  • Janet Ann Collins
    3:42 PM, 24 May 2011

    After many of us fought to eliminate racial prejudice decades ago it’s shameful that political parties in America are working to increase prejudice against each other. 

    • Jonathan Rogers
      10:26 PM, 24 May 2011

      True enough, Janet Ann. Not a lot of conversation happening in our public discourse these days. 

  • Sally Apokedak
    3:00 PM, 25 May 2011

    Oh, I was with you until the last paragraph, because…what do you do with Jude? And really, so much of the Bible is about contending for the faith.  
    I agree on the worthy opponent part. I think the first worthy opponent is Satan and so many try to make him out to be a funny looking red man with horns. He is actually beautiful and powerful and brilliant and that makes his fall so much sadder. In the same way, to a lesser degree, Hitchens’ fall is sad. 

    But to say we must value and respect our opponents or we’ll cheapen our side of the argument, indicates that there is an argument. So who is to do the arguing? I agree that the Lord is my defender and not vice versa And yet, we are God’s yokefellows. God can feed the hungry, but he commands us to do it. He can convert the sinner, but he chooses to do so by having men preach the gospel. We are the tools in God’s hands. We are the secondary causes. I have always thought that the Psalms that speak of God fighting our battles are speaking about how we need not defend OUR OWN causes. If you attack me, I need not defend myself. God will take care of you in due time. But I have never thought they meant we were not to defend God’s cause. History is full of people who have fought for God’s cause. I don’t mean the crusades. I mean people who have preached the truth when all the world was telling them to shut up. People who have fought to the death to tell the world that God is holy and man is sinful and Christ died to breach the gap. 

    The humble position is to obey God. Maybe that means sometimes we are to be silent. But this move toward relationship and conversation and and away from preaching and gently rebuking in love and, sometimes, denouncing loudly, is not a good thing, the popular ditty about preaching the gospel at all times and when necessary using words, notwithstanding. 

    • Jonathan Rogers
      3:35 PM, 25 May 2011

      Sally, I don’t imagine we’re very far apart here. I’m not opposed to arguing for the sake of truth; as you say, God uses secondary means (his people, frequently) to do what he means to do. But in the end, my (or your) skill as an arguer isn’t going to carry the day. If I were to enter the lists with a Christopher Hitchens, I would be carried out on a stretcher unless God himself intervened. Humility in these matters doesn’t equate with a refusal to wade in (though, admittedly, I am disinclined by both temperament and talent to enter into controversies).
      Is the phrase “defend the faith” a biblical phrase? A quick search of KJV, NIV, and NASB on BibleGateway.com doesn’t turn it up. Not knowing Greek, I’m in no position to split hairs here, but to my mind “contending for the faith” seems a different thing from “defending the faith.” 

      Tim Keller addressed some of these issues in his blog yesterday: http://redeemercitytocity.com/blog/view.jsp?Blog_param=361. The best thing about that blog post is that it links to John Newton’s letter “On Controversy,” which is a truly remarkable piece. (http://books.google.com/books?id=-TI3AAAAMAAJ&lpg=RA1-PA80&ots=NK9GHOkiEb&pg=RA1-PA79#v=onepage&q&f=false).

      Newton talks about the importance of praying for one’s opponent in an argument, and then he says this:

      “If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab, concerning Absalom, are very applicable: ‘Deal gently with him for my sake.’
      “The Lord loves him and bears with him, therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself….And though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.

      “But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit ), he is a more proper subject of your compassion then of your anger. Alas!” he knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the Gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes and not his. Of all people who engage in controversy, we who are called Calvinists are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.”

      • Jonathan Rogers
        3:48 PM, 25 May 2011

        I accidentally ellipsesed out my favorite part of the Newton passage. In the paragraph re: arguing with fellow believers, he writes:
        “In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.”

        One of the chief pleasures of heaven, I suspect, will be to laugh at our own foolishness.

      • Sally Apokedak
        8:54 PM, 26 May 2011

        Well you won’t get any argument from me on any of that above. Keller is absolutely right and so is Newton. 
        My only disagreement was with the idea that it’s not our job to defend the faith. Sure, we should do it with humility and in love. But we should do it, all the same. To defend the faith, giving glory to God, and pleading with sinners to turn and be saved, is not hateful or arrogant. The goal is to give no offense with delivery, while at the same time, not being afraid to let the gospel offend. No one cries out, “What must we do to be saved?” without first being cut to the heart, as the men who heard Peter’s sermon were cut. 

        And if Hitchens won’t be saved we defend the faith, perhaps some of his audience will be. We don’t just stand by while someone mocks God. If God can kill Goliath through David, he can surely use any one of us to defend the faith before Hitchens. We may look like ants in our own eyes when we stand in front of him, but compared to God, he’s a wisp of vapor. 
        Yes, Hitchens is a worthy opponent, as Goliath was. Give credit where credit is due. I agree with that. And yes, we should love Hitchens and pray for him and pity him and speak in love to him and about him. But while the armies on both sides are listening, we should probably tear down his arguments. He’s a giant intellectually. Who cares? Why can’t we say, “You come against me with great intelligence and wit, but I come against you in the name of the Lord, whom you have defied. This day, those gathered will know that it is not by intelligence and wit that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s.” Hitchens is not beyond God’s reach. God can slay the old man and give birth to a new creature. And he can do it through anyone who is willing to stand up and preach the gospel. Hitchens is not stronger than Goliath who was slain by a boy with a sling.

  • Drew
    1:41 PM, 26 May 2011

    Was that Chesterton or Spurgeon? Madame Google points to Chesteron quoting Spurgeon.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      1:49 PM, 26 May 2011

      You’re right, Drew. I misspoke. I’m fixing it now. But it does sound like something GKC would have said, don’t you think?

      • Drew
        2:47 PM, 26 May 2011

        Oh yes! Actually, I meant that comment to be full of levity an’ all, but I’m still gettin’ used to this new comment thingy.

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