“She’s a witch! She’s a witch! Burn her! Burn her!”
This oft-quoted line comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a classic spoof on the tale of King Arthur. In this scene, a band of riotous peasants surround a woman comically dressed as a witch, donning a pointy hat and a fake nose crudely tied to her head. They take her to the town authority asking permission to burn her at the stake.
“How do you know she is a witch?” asks the officer.
“Because she looks like one!” the mob shouts.
The officer asks the mob if they dressed her to look like a witch. The peasants look sheepish before one speaks up.
“Well, yes. A bit. A bit. But she has got a wart!”
This famous scene satirizes the sometimes ridiculous Christian witch hunts of the past. It can also be used, however, to satirize Christianity today. We may laugh at outlandish mobs and fake noses, but we take part in witch hunts of our own, often without even realizing it.
A history of heresy
The Shack, an upcoming film adaption of the novel by William Paul Young, is igniting controversy within Christian circles. These hails of heresy are not reserved to The Shack, however. Christianity has a long history with so-called heretics.
Augustine didn’t believe in literal creationism. Heretic.
Galileo thought the Earth revolved around the Sun. Dumb heretic.
C.S. Lewis may have believed people of other religions could find Jesus without knowing it. Heretic.
And the list goes on and on. Vast numbers of people hold arguably unorthodox beliefs. Sometimes it seems like heresy is more orthodox than orthodoxy.
But I’m not concerned with the validity of these heresy claims so much as the joy from which they are shouted. Move over baseball, because exposing heresy has become America’s new favorite pastime.
Like the peasants in Monty Python, we bring forth our heretics with shouts and jeers. We insult Brian McLaren and his books. Sermons are preached against the dangerous ministry of Andy Stanley. I’m sure some seminaries devote whole classes to Rob Bell jokes.
And if we can’t find any heretics to jeer at, we dress someone up with a fake nose. A few years ago, Donald Miller wrote a short article about the Church. Within hours the masses gathered with lanterns and pitchforks. They were angry about things he never said. He had to write a follow-up article denouncing those claims he never made.
If you pay attention, you will see this behavior everywhere. We followers of Jesus endlessly look for something, or rather someone, to devour, and it’s usually our own kind. Maybe we are surrounded by witches because we love the hunt.
But like the movie, this reaction seems comically out of place. Why does it feel like a celebration when Christians gather together to condemn another human being? It’s a curious phenomenon, but I think we can pinpoint the motivations in ourselves.
While some of these motivations to call out heresy are honorable, like Paul protecting the Galatians from the legalistic Judaizers, some of these motivations are not.
Here are a few of the uglier reasons why we tend to witch hunt.
1. It’s easier to destroy than to build.
Pride explains almost all human behavior. Our desire to elevate ourselves is an innate quality tracing back to the Garden of Eden, and this poison often hijacks our theology.
When we label someone a heretic, we are implying that we aren’t. By claiming someone’s theology is incorrect, we are claiming ours is. It’s a roundabout way of elevating ourselves in relation to one another.
In turn, refraining from heresy labeling is to say we might be wrong about some things. We are admitting other people have solid points that demand to be considered. As we are naturally prideful, no one really wants to do this. So, we dismiss them as heretics.
The easiest way to elevate ourselves is not to build ourselves up. The easiest way is to tear others down.
2. We love the game.
This pride that seeps into spirituality creates an atmosphere of competition. In the back of our minds, this is all just a game to see who can be the most right. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”
When Rob Bell published Love Wins in 2011, John Piper sent out a now infamous tweet with only three words: “Farewell Rob Bell.” I respect Piper and his ministry, but this tweet shows that anyone can fall into the trap of theological competition. Piper used a cheeky salute to push Bell out the door of competitive evangelicalism. He wasn’t concerned with Bell’s spiritual health or his ministry, he was just competing. It was one heavyweight theologian taunting another.
When God becomes a game, labels of heresy can be used like a knockout punch to the opponent.
3. We don’t have to engage with challenging views.
The mob in Monty Python lacks any evidence as to why the woman is a witch. She wears a pointy hat, but they must reconcile with the fact that they were the ones who put it on her head. All they know is they want her gone, and any reasonable refute only confuses them. So, what’s the easiest way to deal with the situation? Call her a witch.
We do the same thing with our theological nuisances. These people erupt into our lives, presenting different ideas, challenging the way we think and shaking up our well-groomed world views. So, what’s the easiest way to deal with them? Call them a heretic!
And then we can carry on with our lives as before. After all, why should we listen to a heretic, anyway? We already know their views are flawed. Never mind the fact it was us who placed the hat of heresy on them in the first place without reading their book or listening to them at all.
This isn’t always the case, but many times we cry heresy so we don’t have to engage with challenging views. If there’s an easy way out of a situation, we will find it. Humans are profoundly good at that.
4. By focusing on theology, we can avoid God.
The definition of heresy presupposes that God is a set of beliefs. If your beliefs are right, you’re a Christian. You’re “orthodox.” If your beliefs are wrong, you’re a heretic. Faith, in this sense, is a purely intellectual exercise. You either adhere to certain cognitive beliefs or you don’t.
This world of heretics and orthodoxy is a nice place to live because there’s no danger.
God, on the other hand, is scary. He’s big and He’s love and to meet Him is to die. But intellectual propositions aren’t like that. A system of beliefs isn’t relational. It can’t tell you to drop everything and follow it. It can’t maul you. It’s all very black and white. It’s static.
Jesus says in John 5 that the Pharisees search the Scriptures, but they don’t know the Scriptures point to Him. They refuse to come to Jesus for life, letting their pride and intellect rule instead of relinquishing control to a devouring God. We do the same thing when we make God into a proposition to be defended rather than a well from which we draw life.
This phenomenon of calling heresy is motivated by a strong, innate gravitation toward religious exercise. We love to study the consuming fire, but rarely do we gather near for warmth. It’s safer to know facts about flames than to touch them.
Some may object, referencing the essential role of truth. We can’t just accept any assertion about God as fact. I agree. But truth is hard to write down when it’s incarnate. It’s easy to cry heresy when truth is a sort of celestial constitution by which we all measure our beliefs. It’s not so easy when Truth is a person.
I’m not proposing we stop thinking about God. It’s actually the opposite. We have to engage with foreign and challenging views of God honestly and humbly for the sake of our spirituality, knowing God isn’t defined by what we believe in our three-pound brains. We have to realize this isn’t a competition, and evolving views of God don’t disqualify us from knowing Him.
We shouldn’t be afraid of material like The Shack, or anything else deemed heretical by some. After all, it’s only after we engage with and consider these challenges that we can then accept or reject their ideas. But we must do so knowing pride drives our innate motivations.
Resist the attraction of a witch hunt. These hunts don’t reveal much about the suspect or their message. The hunted may be a witch, or she may be a nice lady with a fake nose and pointy hat. There is only one thing a witch hunt consistently reveals, and that’s the pride and fear of the hunters.