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A Plea for Round-Table Discussion, not Debates

June 3, 2018

My posting about the publication of the interestingly early fragment of GMark elicited a number of comments, a few of which caused me to wonder about the persons writing them.  One, for example, citing the erroneous claims of a first-century fragment of GMark made in some public fora over the last couple of years, kept alleging these were lies and the speakers liars.

I won’t publish the comment.  For one thing the language of “lying”, “liars” would, in a good many courts, likely be deemed libel.  And if I published the comment I could be judged complicit in the libel.  But also, how does somebody who simply repeats what they’ve been told become thereby a liar?

This kind of vituperation clearly reflects an aspect of what is now called the “culture wars” afflicting the USA.  People on both sides of what they see as the chasm of differences  give no quarter to the other side.  It’s not quite (yet) as crazy as Northern Ireland during the “troubles” in the 70s-80s, but the analogy does come to mind, as far as mindsets are concerned.  North of the 49th parallel and on this side of the Atlantic, it all seems so bizarre.

Part of the problem, I think, is that many American “Evangelicals” unthinkingly link themselves also to so-called “conservative” political and social stances (when, actually, there is no necessary connection  . . . at all).  So if someone appears to affirm some kind of traditional Christian theology, others (who espouse more “liberal/progressive” stances on the social issues) will quickly label him/her as “the enemy”.  And those espousing a “conservative” stance will likewise demonize those who take a different view.

But back to the fragment of the GMark.  The erroneous claims about the GMark fragment were sometimes made in the context of a public debate, which seems to have become a now-staple feature of what passes for scholarly discussion in some circles.  Now, I was a very successful high-school debater (top level in the National Forensic League), and I know how to debate.  But I don’t do debates on issues that are scholarly in nature.  Debating is a win/lose contest, little subtlety or complexity allowed.  It doesn’t make for the sort of careful consideration of matters that is most often required. It certainly doesn’t allow for people to grow, develop/alter their understanding of matters.

Why not, instead, have round-table discussions, in which participants of various points of view could air their position, and engage more in dialogue with those of other views?  A round-table (if properly run) allows people to talk to those of other viewpoints.  There’s no win or lose, just an effort to try to understand one another, and, hopefully, clarify issues.  Participants can remain in disagreement thereafter, but a round-table ought to encourage respect (essential) for others, and careful presentations of viewpoints.

Just a thought.


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  1. Beau Quilter permalink

    Though I agree that discussion would be far more productive and create less animosity than debate, in the case of Wallace’s announcement of a “First Century Mark” fragment in his debate with Ehrman, it’s not clear that a discussion would have changed anything. Even in a discussion, Wallace still would have retreated to the “nondisclosure agreement” if asked for clarification.

  2. The internet ought to be (and to some extent is) an educative instrument allowing an exchange of ideas. But the downside is that people retreat into the bubbles of opinion that reinforce their own prejudices and those in other bubbles are ‘liars’.

  3. John Ronning permalink

    And round table discussions would likely be a lot more interesting than listening to lectures. A parallel idea – why not allow letters to the editor in journals so one can respond briefly instead of having to write a “scholarly” tome to reply to others.

  4. In practical terms, this would require both listening and asking questions.

    Fortunately, there is good precedent (Luke 2.46), although it may be something of a lost art.

  5. john pryor permalink

    Thank you, Larry, for these very timely comments. Sadly, such language has found its way into Christian life in general here is Australia. Recently, I heard one member of our church evaluate the sermon of Bp Curry at the ‘royal wedding’ with the simple words, ‘He’s a heretic’. End of discussion! In my part of the world open discussion and a willingness to listen to another’s views are treated as a sign ‘theological liberalism’ – whatever that is!

  6. Agreed. I prefer moderated discussions to debates whether the topic is scholarly, theological, or political. Debates are merely cheap entertainment for people who enjoy spectator sports.

  7. epinoia11 permalink

    It’s a very good thought!

  8. Stephen C. Carlson permalink

    I do prefer the round-table approach for the reasons you’ve noted, and I suspect that most of the academics in these debates do so too (though some enjoy the scrum). It is the organizers of these events that like the debate format because controversy sells or at least sparks interest among the general audience.

  9. Back in the olden days when I had to work for a living, I taught high school history and government. When class discussion turned to a current problem on the world stage, like the capture of the USS Pueblo or the US embassy in Tehran, the student’s first reaction was, “Just nuke ’em.” I’m afraid the American culture prefers carpet- bombing to negotiation. When it comes to Christianity, it’s my way or the highway. My complete understanding of God means you are wrong. Perhaps not. As I told my students, I did make a mistake once.

    Thnaks for your post. I wish our national leaders would take note as well.

  10. Tim permalink

    No connection at all, really? I love your books and really enjoy your blog but that statement seems to strain reality.

    • Tim: Sorry to strain you! But, in theological terms, there is nothing that obligates Evangelicals to vote for the Tea Party or Trump or . . . you get the idea.

  11. Well said!

  12. I think some of the problem is caused by what appears to be open hostility towards evangelicals in some scholarly circles, such as evidenced in places like The Jesus Blog and even earlier through the Jesus Seminar. Throw in “The Gospel of Jesus Wife”, Bart Ehrman and a DaVinci Code and you end up with believing Christians who are tired of their faith being attacked by so-called experts. As well, conservative opposition has been beaten down in Canada and Europe, where there’s no difference between liberals and conservatives anymore. America is the last western country is possible to be openly Christian.

    • Byron: You really need to (1) get correct information on the countries you mention (there’s no oppression of Christians or erasure of theological differences in Canada or Europe); and (2) possibly see someone about what appears to be an emerging paranoia. It is possible to “openly Christian” in any of the Western countries. And, to judge from the behaviour of a good many who claim to be “Christians” in the USA, it’s not clear that they actually are.

  13. MANOJ MATHEW permalink

    Great ..I agree..thanks Dr. Hurtado..

  14. Yes!! Exactly. I get tired of debates because they aren’t often very instructive. Wins and losses are mostly illusory, as illustrated by both sides claiming they “won”. They don’t advance understanding as well as dialogue. I really just Justin Brierley’s podcast Unbelievable for that reason. He usually has people with polar opposite views on his show, but it’s more of a discussion than a debate and, therefore, much more informative in my opinion.

  15. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    I think the culture war in America, has many facets, not just the result of alliance between evangelicals with rightwing politics. For example, American evangelicalism’s embrace of creationism (young-earth creationism, anti-evolution, Intelligent Design) creates tension with the scientific community and secular society, and the impression that Christianity is anti-science. American culture wars happen between theological liberals and conservatives, as well as between Christians and secularists.

  16. Would that the values you espouse here were emulated in many of the places which now suffer, from their lack

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