Monday, October 10, 2005

Pleromaphobia: The Fear of Fullness

I’d like to introduce another word into our English vocabulary: pleromaphobia (play-row-ma-foe-bee-uh). It comes from the Greek words for fullness or completeness, and fear. Pleromaphobia is the unusual distaste for anything fully argued or completely stated.

We live in an age of sound bites and little snippets of ideas. Today, bumper stickers have to suffice for exposition, and emoting has nearly replaced thinking in all too many spheres—including Presbyterian governing bodies. These days, a brief opinion may be tentatively offered, but presenting a solid, well-conceived case is considered arrogant or presumptuous.

We inhabit an era of pleromaphobia. People just don’t seem inclined to stick around long enough for a solidly stated, well-explained, thoroughly documented, masterfully argued, logically impeccable, fully orbed idea to be presented. They roll their eyes. They sigh and fidget. They lose interest. And finally they become suspicious, or even a little hostile, spouting things like “Methinks thou protesteth too much.”

One of the places where pleromaphobia often shows up is in people’s response to theologian Robert Gagnon. Gagnon is a thorough writer who uses irrefutable logic and scholarly knowledge to absolutely devastate specious arguments. He’ll find a dozen solid reasons why a statement is absurd and will thoroughly and convincingly document each.

So, is such outstanding scholarship valued? Is it appreciated? Not necessarily. Some people seem destined to get sidetracked in commenting on Gagnon’s workmanlike thoroughness and ignore altogether his absolutely brilliant assertions that have been masterfully crafted and proven. They talk about the number of points or volume of words, and forget altogether that he devastated their half-baked arguments.

Back on September 16, a snide and snippy John McNeese noted in Presbyweb how a response was “unusually concise and succinct, at least for Gagnon,” and how “Mr. Gagnon will not let anyone have the last word.” Never mind the SUBSTANCE of what Gagnon wrote, which thoroughly shredded another writer’s flimsy ideas. McNeese’s pleromaphobia made him comment on the letter’s length, which meant he didn’t bother to submit to the overwhelming truth of what Gagnon had written.

In a like manner, the Theological Task Force dealt superficially with a single article by Gagnon and generally ignored his masterpiece work, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which by all rights ought to have had a major influence on their report. Pleromaphobia at work in the Task Force?

And sometimes mere fullness of a reply can cause the recipient to posit motivations of anger or obsession: “You must have been really bent out of shape, or you wouldn’t have written so much.” No, perhaps the writer merely wanted to be clear and thorough, backing up assertions with facts and examples, rather than just tossing out banalities and only sketching out vague notions. Pleromaphobia causes the recipient to focus on the length rather than the weight of the writing.

I must confess, as a pleromaphile, I VALUE a complete and compelling case. But I’ll stop here, before people start fidgeting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Don't get me wrong. If Dr. Gagnon didn't exist, someone would have to invent him. The church owes him a huge debt of gratitude for the weight of effort he's expended explaining and defending the Biblical witness.

That said, my old teacher does tend to have, well... brevity problems. His basic method of argumentation is to bury his opponents under a 100-foot heap of Biblical citation. (I know. I've been on the receiving end.) What he doesn't do well is offer short, pithy, memorable talking points. That's particularly true in debates. Audiences leave with the overwhelming sense that he's torn his opponents' arguments to shreds, but they can't easily describe how he did it, except to say that he applied the Bible.

I feel shallow and ungrateful just writing that last sentence. But it's true, and it's a real weakness. Intellectual battles aren't always won by the side doing the heavy lifting. They also require a good deal of wit and rhetorical flourish. It's been pointed out a hundred times by now that in the PCUSA (and for that matter, among mainline protestants as a whole) the evangelical side of the aisle has greater scholarly heft than its opponents. But on the whole, we lack modern-day Lewises and Schaeffers who can take that scholarship to the masses in winsom, entertaining and rhetorically devastating fashion.

None of this is to disparage Dr. Gagnon's immensely valuable work. It's only to say that his strengths are also, to some degree, his weaknesses.

Yours in Christ,
Andy Scott
First P.C., Bentleyville, Pa.

P.S.: I'm well aware that Dr. Gagnon will probably read this (he seems to read everything that even remotely touches on his work). But he's a good sport.

1:13 PM, October 11, 2005  
Anonymous dan vraa said...

Jim, Wow! I'm full !!!

Dan Vraa

6:34 PM, October 11, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Jim. I've never understood the complaint that "he beat the stuffing out of my argument seventeen different ways when he only needed three".

Bruce Byrne

4:28 PM, October 12, 2005  
Anonymous Rev. John Erthein said...

It is very revealing that Dr. Gagnon's critics have generally not dealt with the substance of his arguments, preferring to attack him personally or to refute straw man arguments.

7:22 AM, October 16, 2005  
Blogger Mainline Protestant said...

I'm not sure what to make of this post. You cite a major trend yet only offer one example of it - a month old example at that. I followed your link to John McNeese's "snide and snippy" letter at Presbyweb and it doesn't exactly match up to your description.

It is a letter to the editors of Presbynet. Anyone who has written letters to editors knows that the best chance of publishing success is limiting the letter to one main point and making the point as succinctly as possible. If you don't, the editors will start editing.

McNeese seems to be doing just that by focusing on one of Gagnon's points:

“that Recommendation 5 will disempower the sexuality standards in G-6.0106b.”

Ironically, McNeese agrees with Gagnon's assessment. The difference between the two is one of perspective - Gagnon believes disempowering G-6.0106b is a bad thing while McNeese believes it is a good thing.

No where does McNeese try to take down the totality of Gagnon's writings with this one letter. He is clearly focusing on one solitary point by Gagnon.

I don't think you've done a very thorough job of backing up your point.

P.S. to Rev. John Erthein: If Gagnon or anyone is making strawman arguments, then it is the duty of the debater to refute them as quickly as possible.

7:36 AM, October 21, 2005  
Blogger Mainline Protestant said...

I followed your link to Gagnon's home page and read one of his pieces: The Open Letter Regarding the Hate Crimes Amendment.

Gagnon does have the gift of gab, making 25, count them - 25 dire predictions of a future of sadness and woe if the hate crimes amendment passes.

However, it is not necessary to refute his predictions with a massive tome. His predictions are based on a logical fallacy: He is using the history of Canada to predict the future of the United States.

This makes no sense. It would make much better sense to use the history of the United States to predict the future of the United States but I'm thinking he didn't want to do that as our history doesn't really support his case.

One need only look at racism and the civil rights movement in America to undermine most of his predictions.

While racial discrimination has been clearly outlawed, it still doesn't prevent hateful Americans from speaking aloud their racists beliefs. Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis alike are free to build their web sites, publish their books, and record their music and even march down the street.

Private schools are free to pick and choose their students based on any criteria they wish. Churches are free to deny marriage to anyone they choose.

The only place where discrimination is prevented outright is in business. And this makes sense in a country built on capitalism. The government's job is to regulate business for the good of the country.

Actively stopping private business owners from discriminating is good for business and thus good for the country.

So, I'd suggest that if Gagnon wants to stay in the prediction business, that he get a crystal ball made in America, not one made in Canada.

7:58 AM, October 21, 2005  

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