I’m at seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Havard Campus in Houston. I spend my day off each week working to study the various languages, and histories, and theologies, and missiologies, and all the other logies you can imagine (hahaha I just said I go to school to study logies). It’s a fun but exhausting experience each week. (I am blessed to be at the Havard Campus, they have FANTASTIC faculty who work there and brilliant pastors who attend there. What follows is in no way a critique of the school. Good? Good.)
As a young seminary student (I’m 30, so I’m no longer the youngest, but still young even though I am often the veteran minister in my class.) I have great conversations about the “church world.” Gregory Boyd, John Piper, Shane Claiborne, N. T. Wright, Mark Driscole, Rob Bell, Voddie Baucham, T.D. Jakes, and the like are constantly set up as examples to build up or tare down.
Now, there is an ease to attacking a celebrity pastor. You don’t have to get to know them, you don’t have to listen to them, and you certainly don’t have to read their books first. You can just assume that they are what you have made them to be in your eyes, or the eyes of the other person from whom you stole your rant. My favorite one to hear people talk about here is the good brother Claiborne. People who claim to have known him will say things like, “that guy talks about living like Jesus, but he is really just self righteous. He is incredibly arrogant!” or “Yeah, I know Shane Claiborne, he’s a nice guy, but he gets a lot wrong.” It’s a bit ridiculous to say things like that, isn’t it? Aren’t you being self-righteous in making the statement? Beside the fact that he is not in the vicinity to defend himself. (The good brother Claiborne is one of the founding members of “the new monasticism, the simple way community in Philadelphia. You can find out more here: www.thesimpleway.org.)
So, I wanted to take a moment to talk about paper tigers…
To be fare, the concept of “paper tiger” is something I learned from my brother while eating lunch. He confessed to setting up one such theologian as his own paper tiger and then proceeded to tear the poor little tiger to pieces. (For the record, while someone may do this occasionally, it does not necessitate them as wrong, it just weakens their argument.) In further fairness, I set up a lot of paper tigers myself. I’m trying to do less of that.
To define a paper tiger: A paper tiger is someone who is in a seemingly exalted position who is well known, unable to defend themselves against you (often because of your obscurity), and who your listeners often don’t know personally.
So, if you want to make a paper tiger you need a few things. One: a theologian/celebrity pastor who is well known but not personally known by your hearers. Two: a point of view that makes this theologian/celebrity pastor seem frightening and maybe like a three headed monster. Three: a few quipy cynical remarks that alleviate tension. Finally: You’ll need a seemingly solid argument, presented against a loose explanation of the scary paper tiger! Throw in there exclamatory statements like, “Really!?” and “That’s just goofy!” for emphasis and humor. It’s also helpful if you can rip quotations out of context to prove your point. (The more ambiguous the quote, the smarter you’ll sound.)
All in all, paper tigers are horrible ways to prove a point. While they make you look and sound smarter than everyone else, one day you’ll have what happened to my good friend at school who shall remain nameless.
My friend had masterfully set up his paper tiger in perfect rhetorical style. He spoke with such majestic ambiguity that everyone was trembling in fear of this particular theologian, each one of us trying to imagine how we could defeat the tiger. My friend made a mistake when he climaxed his argument by using a quote out of context. I noticed a young man pull out his cell phone and walk away from the conversation for a moment. A few minutes later he came back he quietly ushered my triumphant friend, who was in the midst of receiving the accolades due a man for killing a tiger, off to the side and handed him the phone. Honestly, how could he have known that one of the guys he was ranting to knew this pastor/theologian personally and would subsequently pull out his cell phone to verify the rant. Never mind the likelihood that this young defender of the tiger would, in the kindest manner possible, offer to let the young ranter have an opportunity to talk to the real tiger on the phone!? I watched my friend squirm and respectfully apologize for not understanding. All in all, it was about 20 minutes of awkward, “uh… well… yes sir… no I didn’t mean it like that… Oh, I hadn’t understood it that way… etc…”
Moral of the story, don’t set up paper tigers, it’s just not smart. Someday the real tiger might bite you.