on niceness


We’ve become too nice.

I just returned from my second set of intensive courses at seminary, where I had hoped for academic rigor and challenging peers. While I have found both, what I have also found, are saccharine and shallow people, those who’d rather be nice than make a point. In other words, what I have found are people who are fundamentally no different than those I strive to–and went to seminary to–avoid.

We offer people the kingdom of God, but give them a crusty double-wide. Hey, at least there are plenty of doormats.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met some great people there, people serious about their faith and academics. But there are those who would rather be passive and nice than pursue anything meaningful. And they’re in ministry, en masse.

I’m not against being friendly, I don’t think people should be cruel or mean. But persistent niceness is not virtuous, nor is it healthy. It’s ecclesiastical correctness. Think political correctness, but for the 8/9.30/11 AM church crowd.

I’m not cynical enough to say that nice people are nice because there’s nothing else there. But clearly, as demonstrated by this cross-section of church people, there is a line of thinking in this little corner of society that upholds niceness as a preeminent value, a fruit of the spirit. The world is a cold, indifferent place; what makes us think that going from the freezer into the fire somehow makes for evenly-cooked meat? That is to say, taking a frozen steak, slapping it on a hot grill and serving it may look good, but little if anything happens in the middle. It comes out half-baked.

Time and again, I was told that you can’t attract a bear with crap; the metaphor essentially saying that people won’t hear you unless you give them something they want. The metaphor breaks down because truth, and the pursuit of it, is nothing like sating one’s particular taste. Often times, the truth is more like brussel sprouts at the cosmic dinner table: you’re not going anywhere until you put them in your stomach whether you like them or not.

The Christian message, indeed, the Christ himself, was utterly disinterested in the flavor of the day in antiquity, and he, the ultimate truth, was not a flavor for which those who were so anxiously awaiting their messiah were particularly in the mood. For those who desperately needed some sustenance to survive, though, Jesus was the bread of life.

Best of all, Jesus was not polite. Christ did not come from Stepford, nor is his message one resembling happy happy joy joy.

So we had a guest lecturer in one of our morning sessions, a young Ph.D. who gave his talk not only to the class, but to a select number of professors and faculty: he was interviewing for a job with the seminary. The spotlight was on, and our presenter really struggled, and understandably so. The self can be the toughest obstacle to overcome when you’re fighting for a job. Nevertheless, he wilted under the pressure.

After a break, we reconvened without the candidate and the faculty asked for feedback, written and verbal. I volunteered some thoughts that were strong and fair, but firmly in the camp of being concerned about the prospect’s ability to handle a graduate-level classroom. And lo! the class turned to look at me as though I wanted to wrest open the poor man’s jaw and poop in his mouth! The other comments offered ranged from ‘he’s a nice guy,’ ‘I think he did a good job,’ to ‘well, he’s trying’ to ‘he shows humility.’ Forgive me for thinking that mostly whiffing with the classroom opportunity demonstrates something other than humility!

The feedback time ended, and I returned to taking notes, and I found myself feeling bad for offering a loaded critique. Was I too hard on him? Did I treat him fairly in my analysis? Am I mean for giving negative feedback?

At that point I realized that the climate established by those in the classroom was one of blissful ignorance. And it’s not that the school is doing it, but it comes from wherever it is they come from. Our churches are producing what CS Lewis uncharitably, but truthfully called “men without chests”. (Since most churchgoers are women, I choose to also include the equal opportunity “women without chests,” in the most non-bosom way possible. And, while I’m here, why is seminary a sausage-fest when most of our laypeople are female? Another conversation for another day.)

People aren’t nice. Does that mean we ought to be mean? Of course not. Of course, if we are overly nice in a cruel world full of people who do not excel in being polite or downright cheery, how is that a witness to anything other than just being annoying?

Later on in intensives, my professor said something that left quite an impression on me: he said that his commitment to truth surpasses even his commitment to theology. And it makes perfect sense: if all truth is God’s truth (which all is), and the quest for truth helps us understand the nature of God (which it does), then even the study of God’s nature and interaction with the world is secondary. How much less important, then, is being nice as a matter of Christian discipline?

There’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Kindness is an extension of compassion, whereas niceness tends to have no regard for anyone but the self. Unshakable niceness may be covering an existential vacuum, after all. Have you ever seen a nice person let their guard down? It’s not pretty, in fact, it shows how artificial being nice is. In the quest for ecclesiastical correctness, we see how fundamentally incorrect people can be.

I’m not interested in nice people. I don’t need people who incessantly must be cheery. I need people who are unafraid to be, um, people: gloriously human in our joys and sorrows, our anger and peace, our sin and righteousness, and in our positive and negative impressions on events, people, places and experiences. A relationship with God does not exempt us from the all-encompassing realities that comprise the spectrum of life.

And if that spectrum includes disappointment, frustration, anxiety and frankness, we ought not feel shame for expressing them. In fact, I would argue for quite the opposite: so long as the spectrum of experience does not lead us to sin, our honesty is in itself an act of worship.

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