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O Me of Little Faith

It’s impossible to take back a blog post, but I need to take back what I wrote about the decision of Calvin College to disinvite The New Pornographers from a scheduled concert at the university. Yesterday I complained that it was a bad idea for the school to cave in to a few confused individuals. For a Christian university in the business of engaging their culture, it seemed a poor choice to back away from that goal just because some people couldn’t understand the irony of the band’s name. Just because it had the word “pornographers” in it didn’t mean they were connected to actual pornography. It all seemed really dumb.

Then, in the comments to yesterday’s post, we suspected that those individuals who complained were big financial backers, or powerful alumni, and that the university was letting an influential, literal-minded few call the shots — at the expense of the school’s reputation.

Well, I was wrong. We were wrong. 

There’s a danger with snap judgments, armchair commentary, and the immediacy of blogging, especially when you read a news item and realize it has the potential for humor. I saw the press release about the cancellation and asked the same questions everyone did (“Why didn’t they anticipate this backlash at the beginning?”). Then I dug around and found a list of bands that HAD been allowed to perform at Calvin. Barenaked Ladies. Bruce Cockburn. Jimmy Eat World. What if THOSE names were taken literally? The gears of snark began turning, and instantly I had a post in mind. It could discuss Christianity and culture, make a joke or two, and also introduce a thought-provoking point. So I started writing. Fifteen minutes later, I hit publish.

It was easy.

Last night I heard from a past acquaintance who is now on the staff of Calvin College and has been intimately involved in this situation. (I had no idea he worked for Calvin, or had even changed jobs.) But he got in touch, and explained to me a bit of the back story behind this situation.

• The primary outcry about the band’s name has not come from major donors, board members, or people of significant influence at the university, but rather from members of the Calvin community who have been deeply hurt by pornography. Porn addictions. Damaged marriages. Divorces. These families understand the irony of the band’s name, but because pornography has had such an devastating effect on their lives, ANY apparent acceptance of it — even the tacit acceptance of a band with a name that trivializes pornography — has come across as hurtful. Regardless of the rationality of the whole thing, it causes pain. And I totally get that. If someone you loved had been murdered…and then a band came along calling themselves The Happy Murderers, it’s no stretch to understand how that could be painful.

• While Calvin might have anticipated the kind of knee-jerk moral reaction I railed against yesterday, they don’t seem to have anticipated the deeply personal reaction that actually occurred. Upon being confronted with this, they had a choice to make:

1) The university could have compassion on these members of their community who had been wounded by pornography. They could acknowledge their pain, stand in solidarity with them, and cancel the appearance of The New Pornographers. In doing so, they knew they would invite the scorn of the media and the music industry and bloggers like me. It would be inconvenient and would court bad publicity and could damage the perceived relevance of a culturally engaged university.

Or…

2) They could overrule the concerns of these few in the name of cultural engagement and rationality. This would have avoided not only the massive PR hit, but a whole lot of inconvenience, too. They could have enjoyed the show and kept Calvin out of the media. But in doing so, they would know it was at the expense of people they cared about — people for whom the mere mention of pornography caused serious heartache. In the name of relevance and cultural engagement, they asked themselves, is it worth it to further injure someone who is deeply broken? Is it Christian?

That’s the question the planners of the event had to ask themselves. As I understand it, they weren’t under any pressure from board members or alumni or anything like that. No one threatened to withhold or withdraw support. The only pressure came from their own conscience.

Do we listen to the pain of our brothers and sisters in Christ and strive to protect them from additional turmoil? Or do we ignore them so we can have a cool concert and avoid negative publicity?

Calvin College chose the difficult path of compassion, knowing full well what the result would be. They chose to side with their community and to identify with their friends’ pain, knowing it would cost the school greatly. They did it knowing it would make the institution look foolish, but they did it anyway. I can’t think of a more admirable, honorable, and deeply Christian act.

They made this decision not because anyone feared actual pornography would take place on-stage with The New Pornographers, but because pornography has wounded the lives of those they loved and they felt it was important to acknowledge that. They couldn’t in good conscience ignore it.

So I need to apologize. The conclusions I jumped to were the conclusions Calvin College knew their critics would reach. And from the outside, they may still seem valid. But as a fellow Christian — someone who believes in grace, mercy, and compassion and strives (but often fails) to practice it — I cannot and should not fault them for the decision they made.

Jesus didn’t command his followers to be culturally relevant no matter the cost. He did command us to love our neighbor and comfort the broken-hearted.

Calvin College made a tough choice, but I respect them for it, and I offer them my apologies.

You may still disagree with me, and that’s fine. Some probably still think they should have anticipated a backlash at the time of the first invitation, and maybe that’s true. But here’s what I’ve learned:

Rather than thinking too hard about it or investigating the story, I took the path of least resistance and most blog hits. Jokes and snarky commentary are easy.

Calvin could have taken the easy road, but didn’t. They took the hard, compassionate road, knowing how it would come across. They did it anyway. I think they did the right thing. I am impressed.

Mea culpa.

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