by William Trollinger
In this time of wretched culture war – with its hateful rhetoric and threats of violence fueled by an increasingly unhinged Christian Right – it really is quite striking to encounter someone who relentlessly and joyfully shares a message of hope and love, a message that insists it is possible (and necessary) to have meaningful dialogue with the “other,” even if that “other” resides on the opposite side of the cultural divide.
I have written about Harold Heie before. My first dean at Messiah College – he and I were both hired in 1988 – Heie was a model of collegiality who refused to impose a top-down “command and control” structure, and who trusted faculty to follow their pedagogical instincts. Not surprisingly, he was beloved by a great many faculty members. But also not surprisingly, given that Messiah is an evangelical school, in the process of treating faculty members as colleagues Heie ran afoul of the president’s determination that faculty hew to a conservative line (thus reassuring the college’s constituency that Messiah was an ideologically and theologically “safe” school). So in the summer of 1993 he was summarily fired, to the great chagrin of many of us . . . and a year of faculty resistance did not bring Heie back as dean.
One could imagine a lesser and less-hopeful person taking from this experience the message that collegiality and cooperation are simply not possible in contemporary evangelicalism. But that’s not Harold Heie. As I wrote last year:
After his firing he moved on to a role as Founding Director of the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College. And since his “retirement” in 2003, Harold has been busy in the project of “Respectful Conversations,” in which he has sought – working against the Christian Right takeover of white evangelicalism – real conversations among evangelicals on political discourse, human sexuality, and the like. And in the past year he has published Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation.
And now, from Cascade Books, comes Heie’s newest publication: Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines through Inclusive and Respectful Conversations, a book warmly blurbed by Randall Balmer, Brian McLaren, and Mark Noll. This is how Harold describes the book:
The premise that is foundational for my book is that to listen carefully to those who disagree with you and to then talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of the love of others to which Jesus calls all those who claim to be his followers.
Aspiring to model this premise is starkly counter-cultural in America today because of the tribalistic tendency to demonize those who disagree with you, even within our Christian churches and denominations. Therefore, my book concludes with concrete, practical recommendations for how churches should, and should not, navigate disagreements among their members on such contentious issues as same-sex marriage. These recommendations flow from two primary convictions: (1) Churches need to embrace a strong sense of “belonging” wherein a member who disagrees with you is “embraced as one who is beloved by God”; and (2) Churches need to embrace a strong sense of ‘peace” that goes beyond “absence of conflict” (by not talking about our disagreements) to “shalom,” where all members flourish together in the midst of their disagreements by respectfully talking to and learning from one another about those disagreements.
It is because of these concrete recommendations and my honesty (“personal candor”) in reporting what has worked, and has not worked, in my own efforts to orchestrate respectful conversations that Richard Mouw, in his Foreword to this book, suggests that it will treat the reader to “the practical character that is often missing in studies of civil discourse.”
A message of hope indeed. Let’s Talk might be just what you need as 2021—which began with an attempted coup — comes to its fitful and uneasy end.