I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with Michael– he was talking about some philosophy stuff and started using terms like “straw man,” “red herring,” and “begging the question.” As is often the case, I had but a vague understanding of what he was talking about, yet this didn’t keep me from using the terms in subsequent conversations… completely incorrectly, of course. For a time I found it rather amusing to tease him by shouting “Red herring!” or “That’s a straw man!” when we were discussing something. He always looked a little baffled as he tilted his head to the side, raised one eyebrow, and gently corrected my woefully inadequate philosophical understandings. Ah… Good times.
I’m still not sure that I understand all the proper terms when it comes to the “world of ideas” that Michael inhabits. I do know that I have a better grasp of how to think than I used to. That’s definitely thanks to the countless conversations we’ve had over the years.
One thing that I’ve been noticing (everywhere, it seems) is how our culture often focuses on the completely wrong thing—we ask the wrong questions. It’s almost as if someone were to ask, “What does a circle smell like?” How in the world do you even answer that question, except to say that the person radically misunderstands the basic nature of a circle. The incorrect thinking– the crazy assumption– that a circle is the kind of thing that has a scent leads one to formulate an equally impossible answer. I think this has happened in our society at large in so many areas. As we raise our children, interact with each other, and even get and give counsel, we often focus on false things.
For example, we raise our children to believe they are special snowflakes and can accomplish anything they want. And then when they grow up and do have everything they thought they wanted, they find themselves empty, unhappy, and discontent. We teach them to follow the wrong things… to ask the wrong questions.
When we listen to our girlfriends sob and pour out their hearts because of a bad breakup or because they despair of being pretty enough, smart enough, or generally good enough to find a husband, our counsel most often consists of telling them things will get better. You are pretty! You are smart! Just believe you are the precious snowflake your mama said you were—it will get better! When a dear friend is struggling because she desperately wants to be married and she feels like her present situation is indicative of her forever future, we aren’t doing her a service to simply say, “But you will get married! I know it!” It certainly makes us feel better and perhaps it even helps our friend for a moment. But friends, she is asking the wrong question and it’s one we can’t answer! That’s like saying a circle smells a little like a triangle and a lot like the number seven.
I even see this cluttered thinking from time to time in some leading pastors that I admire and respect. I’ve heard more pastors than I care to admit talk about how “hot,” “gorgeous,” or “sexy” their wives are. In addition to saying they are godly and faithful, they slip in a comment about the physical beauty of their wives. By grouping godly virtues together with physical attractiveness, I think we forget Isaiah 53 that says Jesus “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Yet, it always seems to be open season to comment on a woman’s body, beauty, and sexuality– whether it comes from the media or the pulpit. I think it would be really strange if I publicly commented on how attractive I find my husband, but it seems that we as a culture (even in our Christian communities) are fine with holding up a predetermined standard of sexual attractiveness as a necessary quality for women. The pastors that make comments like this are causing others to ask the wrong questions and then come to false conclusions. I can’t help thinking that the women who hear this message are further indoctrinated to believe they must achieve some worldly ideal of beauty in order to have value, and the men hear their pastor saying they should seek a wife who is hot and sexy (whatever that means) or be dissatisfied if their wife isn’t as gorgeous as the pastor’s wife.
So what are the right questions? What are the true things we should follow?
I understand wanting to raise children to believe they have value and are special. But telling them they are special just because they are your baby and you love them isn’t going to help them when they face a crisis of identity in their early 20’s. We as parents have to help our children understand how the universe works, what their place is in it, and why exactly they have value and are important. It isn’t because they just are…. It’s because they’ve been created by The Creator. As we watch them grow and see their strengths and weaknesses unfold, we don’t lie to them and tell them they can do anything they want, but instead lovingly talk to them about how the Lord gives us gifts for specific purposes. They don’t grow up ashamed because they aren’t perfect at everything, but instead learn to rejoice in the One who gives and takes away.
When our friends are struggling to feel loved and valued, we carefully and gently point them to the Gospel. We help them see that in the midst of an unknown future, there is one thing that is certain—they are infinitely loved and valued by the King. We sit with them in the midst of their sadness, but instead of offering worldly hope, we offer hope that says, “Even if you don’t get married, the Lord’s plan for you is perfect and He will not abandon you.” We help them ask the right questions.
And when we hear a pastor publicly say something about his wife being sexy, we can recognize that he, too, is not unaffected by this world. I’m sure the comments are innocent enough (just as the mama who tells her son he is a precious snowflake) but the effects of such comments rarely are. We need to be able to recognize when something isn’t in line with the Gospel and reject it.
I confess that I am not a rigorous academic thinker, trained in the technical aspects of syllogisms and formal arguments. There’s probably even a straw man or red herring in something I just wrote. But, I am starting to notice how the “wisdom of the world” is like the air we breathe—most, if not all, of it needs to be carefully examined instead of just breathed in and absorbed into our system of thought.