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Janie B. Cheaney: Questioning points of view


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Questioning points of view

Two writers escape evil ideologies through good questions

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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 17th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. World Commentator Janie B. Cheaney now on the creators of a popular podcast, and their rediscovery of the wisdom of the Bereans. That’s a reference to Acts 17, by the way.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: She held signs with shocking slogans even before she was old enough to read them. In her late teens she was an ardent apologist for her group’s controversial views and confrontational style. At the age of 23 she opened a Twitter account to reach a wider audience, but instead found her beliefs beginning to unravel. Too many tweets pointed out too many contradictions for her rational mind to process, and at age 26 Megan Phelps-Roper left the cult founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps.

Westboro Baptist Church gained notoriety in 1998 for protesting at a gay college student’s funeral, and they made news again in the early 2000s for picketing the funerals of fallen servicemen. Their chief beef was the swift march of LGBT activism, a stain on America that they said brought down God’s wrath in the form of slain soldiers and school shootings. “God hates” was their central message, a word they believed America and its soft-bellied churches desperately needed to hear and heed. Though Fred Phelps died almost ten years ago, the Westboro Baptists still faithfully picket concerts, political events, and other churches.

Phelps-Roper’s crisis of faith began in her Twitter feed, with direct challenges to dogmas she’d never questioned. Doubts entered her mind for the first time, clashing with family love and loyalty. During her intellectual and emotional dark night, she developed a series of questions to help her distinguish truth from dogma. She shared these in a viral podcast with J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who came under fire herself years ago for challenging the dogmas of transgender ideology. The questions Phelps-Roper posed to herself are:

  • Can I determine the evidence I would need in order to change my position?

  • Can I articulate my opponent’s position in a way they would approve?

  • Am I attacking ideas, or people?

  • Am I willing to cut off relationships with people who disagree with me over secondary issues?

  • Am I willing to take extraordinary measures against them, such as forcing them out of their jobs or damaging their reputations?

  • Do I celebrate their misfortune?

Rowling added another question:

  • Do I get a kick, or righteous rush, out of attacking a perceived enemy on social media?

This seems like a worthy list for a culture mired in bad-faith arguments and strawmen. Neither Rowling nor Phelps-Roper is an ideal model: the former is leftwing and the latter, according to her memoir, has settled on no particular faith since leaving Westboro’s twisted interpretation of Christianity. But both strike me as people I could talk to. They recognize that hellfire flame-throwing and woke canceling are of the same self-righteous seed. They seem open to questioning where they are wrong. But what criteria do they use to determine where they are right?

Biblical truth is our criteria: precious, reliable, and easy to pervert. Like the Bereans, we should search the scriptures daily to see if what we are being told is true. And that includes questioning our own interpretations from time to time.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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