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Labels and stereotypes

27 January 2010

Recently Mark Penrith posted a “watchlist” of South African Christian blogs, with a table showing the theological and other positions of their authors. This blog is listed, with three question marks in various columns and one “ü” (I’m not sure what that is meant to represent). This has occasioned a certain amount of discussion, both in the comments section of Mark’s blog, and in other blogs, like Angus Kelly’s.

The trouble with such tables and classifications is that in order to interpret them one needs to know where the classifier is coming from, and they usually tell you more about the theological views of the classifier than about those of the classified. Contrast Mark Penrith’s tables with this one, for example.

Many of the labels end with -ian, -ism or -ist, and that in itself can cause some distortion, as it implies some kind of polatised ideological position. Ok, I’m a Trinitarian, but I’d never have known that I wasn’t a cessationist until I read it on Mark’s blog.

But the most problematic labels for me are “liberal” and “conservative”, “left” and “right”.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, one needs to distinguish between political, economic and theological liberalism. And even there, they mean very different things to different people.

“Left” and “Right” are even worse.

People talk about the “Religious Right” and the “Religious Left”. I suppose that’s OK, since it serves to distinguish them from the irreligious right and the irreligious left. I have it on good authority that I am a religious left blogger.

But sometimes people talk about the “theological left” and the “theological right”, and then I have no idea what they are talking about.

One of the problems is that labels lead to stereotypes.

The term “stereotype” comes from an outmoded technology, hot metal printing. It refers to a kind of paper maché form that makes an image of a page set in metal type on a flat bed, which is used to transfer the image of the page to a metal cylinder on a rotary press. Another term for a sterotype is  “cliché”. The point is that it exactly reproduces the image of the page set in type, and produces identical copies.

But people who are labelled in this way are not identical.

To illustrate this, compare two blogs, both representative of the “Christian left”, both commenting about exactly the same thing, but evaluating it in completely different ways.

The thing they are discussing is an Equality Bill before the UK parliament, which was passed by the House of Commons, and rejected by the House of Lords.

As one of them puts it The Sign Of The Cross: Draconian Equalities Bill has it’s wings clipped:

amendments to the Equalities Bill which could have led churched into legal difficulties with employing people whose public and personal conduct was inconsistent with the beliefs of the church. The government claimed that wasn’t the case but the awful wording of the bill would have given a green light to those opposed to the church to cause untold damage.

Another blog, also from the Christian left, has a completely different slant on it. A Pinch of Salt: Bishops bash law against bigotry: some things are sacred!:

The more conservative among them have been lobbying the other Lord’s to vote against changes in the law would make it illegal for the Churches to continue some of it’s most cherished bigotries: those against LGBT people.Yes the poor persecuted church wouldn’t be allowed to treat LGBT people like second class citizens anymore if the government had her wicked way and bishop’s – poor persecuted people of faith and conscience – couldn’t possibly have that.

Isn’t it great that we have a second house in parliament to sit in patronising judgement on the first. (sic.). It just goes to show that Christians still can’t be trusted with power and will ultimately use it to license abuse of others.

Imagine if everyone discriminated in the way the Church chooses to: no homosexuals would be allowed to earn a living in the UK: 1 in 10 people would be forced to live from handouts or through theft or just die. This is what the Church is asking the right to impose on LGBT people. It is saying, in effect that LGBT people should not be accorded the same opportunities as other people and that the example set by the Church is one that everyone should follow. It’s hideous and shameful and these bigots need to grow up!

Now I am not arguing here about the content of the bill, because I am unfamiliar with it, and I don’t know the people who voted against it in the House of Lords so I can’t tell if they are bigots or not. For all I know, they may indeed believe that no homosexuals should be allowed to earn a living in the UK. Some people on the religious right have said such things pretty unequivocally. But there is no evidence in either of these posts to indicate that any or all of the people who voted against the bill believe that. And it does not follow that because people believe that the church should not be forced by the government to employ people whose public and personal conduct is inconsistent with its beliefs that they also believe that such people should not be allowed to earn a living.

Should the church, in the interests of “equality”, be forced to employ atheists as parish priests? And if people object to the church being forced to do so, does that necessarily mean that they believe that atheists should not be allowed to earn a living anywhere?

Both these blogs represent the “religious left”, yet they hold very different views on the same topic, which to me shows that such labels and stereotypes can be very misleading. And the second example seems to go in for a lot of labelling and stereotyping of its own, and, dare one say it, bigotry, even in accusing others of bigotry.


For Christians who would like to move beyond labels and stereotypes, and discover what Christians from other backgrounds and traditions really believe, there is the Thandanani forum, which I invite you to join.

Thandanani is a Zulu word that means “love one another”, and the forum is intended for Christians of different backgrounds and traditions to engage one another in an atmosphere of love and respect. You don’t have to agree, but you can disagree without being disagreeable.

Click to join thandanani

Click to join thandanani

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 January 2010 8:04 am


    quite sad;

    I often write people off because of my ‘labels’ for them; as I am sure many write me off because of their ‘labels’ for me.

    I’ve found that forcing myself to engage with some of the stuff I disagree with has enriched me; sometimes it has left me reeling in anger and culture shock.

    Thanks for the link!

    • 27 January 2010 12:36 pm

      Hi Gus,

      Thanks for the comment, and I know the feeling of that kind of culture shock. I’ve also experienced it when people impute views to me that I don’t hold, on account of the labels.

      I hope people follow the links, because the discussion and the topic are far wider than what I have said here.

  2. 27 January 2010 10:23 am

    Hi Steve,

    The ü was a bit of a mess on my side. I used a font for a tick symbol that no one else in the world seems to utilise. Live and learn :). It’s corrected and who knows, maybe it now makes more sense?

    I somewhat agree with you on the statement, “they usually tell you more about the theological views of the classifier than about those of the classified”. I had first considered calling the list ‘The-South-African-Christian-Bloggers-Watchlist’ but I quickly realised a) the name was too long and b) my own perceptions come across strongly in my effort, hence the far more personal ‘My-Watchlist’.

    Jenny Hillebrand and Chris Woolley had some very useful comments regarding the application of systematic categorisations to Liberal Theological thinking. It centred less on shared doctrine and more on the subjects expressed views of the person of Jesus Christ (His deity, His incarnation, His immaculate conception and such like). I’ve been giving it a lot of thought however the task of penning it to paper is a bit daunting for me.

    I hope I haven’t stumped communication with you by putting you into a box? I’ve valued being able to chat to you and get some insight into your thought process.

    • 27 January 2010 12:48 pm

      Hi Mark,

      I think your “Watchlist” is very interesting, but I suspect you’ll find it difficult to put some of us into the particular boxes you’ve chosen. For example you have “Calvinist” or “Arminian”. That’s like a fork in the road — which one do you chose. But the Orthodox didn’t go down that particular road, and so will never come to the fork. We’re pre-Calvinist, pre-Anselmian, pre-Augustinian even.

      That’s just one example, and it’s why I think it might be worth discussing some of these things in the Thandanani forum — blog comments can’t begin to do them justice!

  3. 27 January 2010 12:54 pm

    Steve, just as well I’m not a South African as I wouldn’t know where to park myself on that list! As you say, it’s problematic.

  4. 27 January 2010 5:55 pm

    Thanks, Steve. In my own response to Mark, I included the following: “However, there are theological reasons why I eschew categorisation. I believe in the positional unity of believers, which transcends and overshadows categories. Positional unity speaks of a living relationship with God, not a mental arrangement. From another point of view, I minister in a theologically diverse congregation, which makes it necessary, I think, to look beyond the usual classifications.”

    • 29 January 2010 5:49 am


      I’m still not sure what you mean by “positional” but I’ll take your word for it. Orthodox Christianity has a different take on it. There are core dogmas, that everyone is supposed to accept, like the Trinity, Christ as God and man etc. And then there are “theologoumena”, that is, pious opinions, such as whether there are actual toll houses. But people who believe that aren’t given -ist titles, as if it were some kind of fixed ideological marker. Protestants seem to have so many more different theological (or ideological) positions to quibble over (one of the reasons I’m not sure about “positional” unity. I notice that Mark hasn’t even started on some of the eschatological positions, like pre-millennial post-trib and whether or not there is a “rapture”.

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