I wrote recently about Glenn Beck and how he mis-states the position of his opponents in order to “disprove” the phantom view. The problem is, that what he disproves has no relation to what his opponent was saying.
This seems to be a general symptom of debate in our society these days. Much of public discourse in both the political and religious sphere seems to involve fabrication of extravagant claims regarding the most extreme boundaries of opponents’ statements. Then, once the fake argument is set up, the audience is entertained by the show of striking it down. A current example in the Christian world appears in the September 13, 2010 issue of the Christian journal, The Layman. An article in that journal accuses the Vice Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, of asserting that the Bible was not the Word of God. Did Whitsitt really say this?! Well, it depends.
As with most lies, a kernel of truth is manipulated so as to lend credibility to the whopper. In this case, Whitsitt did say something which struck a nerve, but his critics won’t allow him to elucidate or explain or try to draw finer nuance. They just want to proclaim, “Gotcha!” Taken all together, the issue is: “What did Whitsitt mean; what was he trying to express?” His critics don’t really want to engage in dialogue about that, they just want to jump on him for saying one thing, which they take out of context, as impugning their view of the significance of the words on the page of the Bible.
Ad hominem. Straw man. Argumentum ad logicum.
These are the names for the basic logical fallacy of misrepresenting the position of one's opponent and then attacking the false argument and "defeating" it. Seemingly, ad infinitum! The problem is that the argument so "defeated" is a straw man and not a real one – it has no real resemblance to the true position of the opponent. If Whitsitt really believed the things he is accused of – saying that scripture is not authoritative – not only would he never have been ordained as a minister, it’s more likely he’d never have any motivation to call himself a Christian in the first place. Instead, his position has been misrepresented precisely so that it can be easily burned in effigy: a classic straw man. That why Argumentum ad logicum describes exactly what has happened here.
Vice Moderator Landon Whitsitt has merely stated the obvious: the “mind of God” [a metaphor in and of itself] is not "contained" in scripture any more than it can be "contained" in human thoughts or brains. I hope that most mainstream Christians agree that whenever we begin to limit God to expression that falls solely within the constraints of human language, and even more so when we subject that language to a literal interpretation, we make the grave error of remaking God according to our own likeness.
By reframing Whitsitt's point as an extreme view, claiming that he doesn't believe the Bible is authoritative, Whitsitt's detractors have gravely misstated his position. They fail to address in any way Whitsitt's actual observation, which is that disagreement over social issues facing the denomination is really just a symptom of a deeper disagreement, which is to ascertain how do we decide what this writing MEANS, with respect to how we address this social issue? Must we always pay homage to literal interpretations of scripture, choosing the literal over the metaphorical in every instance? Whitsitt thinks not. If the detractors were honest with themselves, I imagine they would not adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible in every instance, either. Not only have Whitsitt's detractors committed logical error, they've also violated a basic tenet of scripture itself. Namely, the duty to speak truthfully regarding our fellow Christians: "Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body." This logical fallacy -- misstating the view of one’s debate opponent -- is also a specifically enumerated sin!
To my way of thinking, these men commenting in the Layman are modern day Sophists: seeking to be wise, they become fools. They reveal themselves as fools not just because they speak untruths, but because they are thinking in a small minded way, at odds with deeper spiritual principles. For when one member of the body of Christ is injured, we all are injured. When even one is wounded, Jesus weeps. I’m not going to quote a chapter and verse for this. The detractors, if they are familiar with their Bibles, should know those.
The comments in The Layman by Whitsitt’s detractors make it appear that they think they are winning and scoring points, as if they were playing in a game of one-upsmanship. Strutting like gamecocks, writing letters with headlines like “More Liberal Drool,” and “Stay and Risk Decay,” they congratulate and encourage each other in finding fault with church leaders. "Oh, I see you’ve located one more reason to proclaim the mainline denomination is going to hell, let’s congratulate each other on how bad it is!" One imagines a figurative patting on the back, a scorekeeping where the writer checks a box that says “one up”. But what they are really accomplishing, is nothing less than to wound the body of Christ.
I know that I certainly feel insulted, belittled, betrayed, misrepresented, and misunderstood by this kind of "trash talk" aimed in my general direction. And I’m not the only one. We who are wounded would rather find common ground with these other Believers, yet we find ourselves feeling spat upon, figuratively speaking, by the scornful attitude and deliberate misrepresentation of our earnest and sincere efforts when we attempt to engage in dialogue with them. (What Whitsitt actually said can be heard HERE.)
In spite of, and not because of, their thumping on its cover and proclaiming it as the “Word of God,” I will continue to think that the Bible is one of the most beautiful writings ever. I will continue to believe that to literalize the Bible, trivializes it. To the extent that the Sophists proclaim that my refusal to trivialize the Bible means that I don't think it's the "Word of God," they lie and mis-state my position. How dare they! To the extent they are willing to engage in hyperbole and deliberate mis-statements, they should be ashamed.
Great for boosting TV ratings, great for selling magazines, great for strutting and shooting pot shots. Terrible for dialogue. Tragic for the church. Once again, Screwtape, take note!