The Atonement And The New York Times

Critical thinking is the mantra of a modern humanist education. For the chattering classes, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, there is no higher intellectual virtue than empathy, of understanding diverse points of view, and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs.

When this ideal is met, education truly takes place. The mind -- the soul -- is broadened. But as any observer of what passes for intellectual life knows, critical thinking, as practiced by the media and academic elites, goes one way. 

Recognition of cultural difference is always good, in this world view, while stereotypes are always bad. Yet few seem to be able to make the connection that stereotypes, whether good or bad, are in fact descriptions of cultural difference. The moment a writer generalizes about a culture’s or people’s distinctive qualities they are constructing a stereotype.

If pushed to explain this contradiction, the response of the modern mind is that the problem is not all stereotypes but negative stereotypes -- which means stereotypes of anyone other than white men, Evangelicals, Catholics or Americans.

In an otherwise commendable article on an abuse story from England, the New York Times offers stereotypical stock characters. While the facts are there in the story, the call to empathy, understanding diverse points of view and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs is noticeably absent. 

Here’s a news flash for the New York Times: evil exists and can be found in all times, places, peoples and cultures (not just in white, upper middle class men educated at private schools and professing an evangelical Christian faith.)

Evangelicals are sadomasochists. Catholic priests are pedophiles. Muslims are wife beaters. Jews are money grubbers. Hindus are smelly, and Mormons are Republicans. This article falls to this level of offensive stereotyping in seeking to explain the John Smyth saga.

The New York Times, March 4, 2017, article entitled “Dozens say Christian leader made British boys ‘bleed for Jesus,” recounts a story first reported in England by Channel 4 News on February 2, 2017, that subsequently received extensive coverage in the British press.

Channel 4 reported that during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, John Smyth, QC, a prominent barrister and onetime leader of director of summer camps run by the evangelical Christian Iwerne Trust that catered to boys attending Britain’s top public schools, was a sadomasochist. 

Smyth befriended teenaged boys he met at the camps run by the Iwerne Trust and boys affiliated with a Christian forum at Winchester College -- an elite British public school located near his home in Hampshire. He would invite the boys to his home on weekends and developed close relationships with many, encouraging them to pursue careers in the church or military, while also propounding conservative evangelical Christian teachings.

And, in furtherance of these teachings, the reports allege, Smyth would beat some of the boys with a cane seeking to drive out the sin of masturbation or carnal desires.  The articles report that after one boy attempted suicide after he was invited to return to Smyth’s home, the Iwerne Trust commissioned an investigation and in 1982 found the reports to be credible. No sexual abuse was found to have occurred -- just sadomasochism.

Smyth was banned from the camps and Winchester College, and encouraged to leave the country -- eventually settling in Zimbabwe -- where he is said to have continued his criminal behavior at camps he set up. The New York Times piece reports that while the investigation concluded Smyth had engaged in criminal behavior, the police were not informed until 2013. 

The article uses a different verb to describe Smyth’s departure from the UK, saying he was “sent” to Zimbabwe by the Iwerne Trust, when the other press accounts say he was “told to leave” the country by trust officials.

The story had a number of returns to the public eye in the British press because the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby served as a counselor at one of Smyth's camps when he was a teenager. Welby said he had no knowledge of the abuse, and to the delight of the press the Bishop of Buckingham told Channel 4 that he did not believe the archbishop was telling the truth on that point.

It subsequently emerged the Bishop of Guilford attended one of Smyth’s weekends and was abused by Smyth, which prompted another wave of news articles and opinion pieces.

The New York Times piece, arriving rather late in the game, developed its own angle to the affair by interviewing Mark Stibbe, one of the victims, and others affected by the abuse.

If the New York Times had stopped at this point, it would have saved the story. However, the editorial decision was made to explain the backstory of the abuse, and at this point the stock characters come forward. 

The New York Times offered the Rev. Giles Fraser a soapbox to explain what all this meant.

The church’s reaction has been to paint Smyth like a one-off single incident, but it’s not,” said Giles Fraser, a priest and journalist, who recently wrote a column about the beatings he endured at boarding school.

“It’s about a mind-set that allows this to happen. This sort of muscular Christianity enforced by theology, education and the cane that dominated the public education system and produced your caricature Englishman — strong, emotionally incapable in some ways, reserved and superior,” he added.

“I think the idea that this is just about Smyth is in itself a cover-up,” Mr. Fraser said, “and it’s because the church is desperate for people not to say how all of this grows out of theology.” 

The theology made Smyth do it, Fr. Fraser would have us believe. As an opinion columnist (not a journalist) with the Guardian, Fr. Fraser is free to offer his dismissive views on conservative Evangelicalism. Yet the New York Times makes the category error of not identifying these views as coming from a theological school of thought at odds with the worldview held by those affiliated with the Iwerne camps.

New Zealand commentator, the Rev. Peter Carrell argues the claim put forward by Fraser and accepted as true by the New York Times that “Smyth represents an unchecked development in evangelical theology” is untrue.

The article does not “bring forth one further example of a Smyth at work within evangelicalism. Not one. Let alone, say, 100 caners or even 1 published author boldly declaring caning as the logical outcome of Romans and Galatians on justification by faith. Now, that would be a sign of evangelical perversity. Rather, Fraser links Smyth to the general theme of British public schools, that caning was essential to discipline and to ensuring that young men grew up morally upright. Reputable newspapers and popular columnists ought to do more work than this lazy elision from one rogue, viciously obsessive evangelical to a whole system of education as a sign of evangelicalism's nasty ills. 

Dr. Carrell further takes issue with conflating British Empire building, muscular Christianity and evangelical Christianity, noting that they are not identical terms. Not all muscular Christians are evangelical Christians, nor were either agents of the British imperial venture.

The New York Times also misses the deeper issue of the theological dispute over the nature and purpose of the Atonement that lies behind Fraser’s arguments. Over the past thirty years a debate has arisen within English-speaking Protestant theology over the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, which claims that Christ died as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and, in our place, Christ bore the punishment that we deserve. The classical evangelical position is best summarized in the Cross of Christ by John Stott -- himself a product of the Iwerne summer camps.

Against this viewpoint has arisen a school of thought that sees the penal substitutionary atonement as a form of “divine child abuse.” In 2003, British Baptist Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Trust, wrote in The Lost Message of Jesus:

“The fact is that the cross is a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a construct stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil.” 

From this camp has arisen accusations, made by the Bishop of Buckingham in his Channel 4 interview about Smyth, that the evangelical belief in penal substitutionary atonement creates a culture of violence within evangelical circles. The theology really did make them do it.

The essential problem with this article is that the author did not understand what he was hearing. The reporting – the who, what, when, where is fine. It is the “why” that falls short because the author of the article did not understand to whom he was speaking and what his words meant. 

And when he was listening, the author was not hearing. Mark Stibbe is quoted at the top of the article as one of the victims, offering his testimony to the story line. Yet Stibbe also was in the British press criticizing the Bishop of Buckingham and Giles Fraser and all those who sought to equate evangelical theology with the abuse of one man.

Writing in Christian Today, the news portal’s new editor Ruth Gledhill (formerly the religion correspondent for The Times) noted Stibbe’s disdain for the conflation of evangelicalism and sadomasochism. She wrote that Stibbe: “tweeted that Bishop Wilson was treating victims like a 'theological test case' rather than people:"

Bishop Alan Wilson treating us victims like a theological test case at seminary not people. Epic fail @cathynewman @Channel4News #livid 

Simply put, the New York Times accepted the worldview of a Guardian editorial writer as the proper conceptual framework in which to place the story -- as the last word -- rather than one voice among many in a controversial theological debate.