Archives For Argument

Out of Context

December 14, 2021 — 13 Comments

Journalists quickly learn the skill of taking the words of people they dislike out of context. By doing this, they can make absolutely brilliant men and women sound like simpletons.

If the person is a public figure, with lots of material to sort through, you can find partial quotations (or obviously humorous or sarcastic remarks) that make the object of their ridicule sound like nearly anything – from a compassionate philanthropist to a conniving fascist.

That’s one reason some people who hope to tarnish the reputation of C.S. Lewis consciously avoid citing his work in its totality (or each piece in its honest context). Thus, as this article suggests, intelligent readers understand Lewis’ writing is “exceptionally good,” while some infantile critics regard it as “dodgy and unpleasant.”

(Do you appreciate my skillful use of adjectives in the previous sentence? They, of course, represent another dishonest method of undermining the arguments of people with whom one disagrees.)

Returning to the idea of taking things out of their context, I offer the graphic (meme, if you will) that I created for the top of this column. It was inspired by “The 12 Most Inspiring Verses In The Bible” in the Babylon Bee. The brief article humorously illustrates how excising words from their context can make them sound rather bizarre.

These examples (mine included) are offered in a light-hearted way. However, the internet teems with examples of malicious attacks on God’s written Word. And many of these rely on the tried and true[false] technique of ignoring the immediate or full context to construct their strawman.

Strawmen or strawwomen are another dishonest form of argument, as “Logical Fallacies 101” explains.

Strawmen, scarecrows, and mannequins all have one thing in common: they are, by nature, flimsy objects that are easy to knock down. In the context of logical fallacies, a “straw man” argument is an argument that is framed in such a way that it is easy to “knock down” or dismantle.

How many times have you been in conversation with someone—someone who holds an opposing viewpoint to yours—who frames your position in a way that you have not? Then once they frame your position in that way, they attack it, supposing that by doing so they have won the argument?

In “Lewis on the Atheist’s Straw Man,” the author quotes a concise argument provided by C.S. Lewis “in Mere Christianity, [where] Lewis warns about over simplifying Christianity (something some people who call themselves Christians sometimes do), and the straw man Atheists often build from this. It’s definitely worth the read.

Biblical Verses that Demand Knowledge of Their Context

Admittedly, there are some passages in the Scriptures that are challenging to comprehend, apart from the whole. Intervarsity Press even has a website “Hard Sayings of the Bible,” subtitled “A Difficult Passage Explained Each Day.”

In “Encountering Difficult Passages,” the author charts a helpful course in how to discover their meaning. Here’s a sample of their sound advice:

Be extra careful with Google. I know. It’s so easy. It’s so tempting. You think, “Google tells me where to go when I’m physically lost; why can’t it help when I’m lost in the Bible?”

The problem is that Google only shows you what’s popular; it cannot differentiate between sites that provide truth and sites that provide ignorance. Avoid your natural impulse to click the first link that appears in a search. There are good websites out there to find answers, but you have to be discerning.

Some of Jesus’ own teachings were difficult for the disciples to comprehend. This was especially true of his announcement that he must die as part of the divine plan to deliver us all from the consequences of sin. When he announced the marvelous mystery of the eucharist (Lord’s Supper) he said “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. . . . This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6).

While the twelve who become the Apostles continued to follow the Lord, some fell away in confusion because “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’”

The Bible Truly “In Context”

Christians understand that the Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Return of Jesus Christ is the final, ultimate Word of the Bible. The Word himself, through whom all things were created, is the central, life-giving message of the holy Scriptures.

Because of this truth, we can evaluate the entire, comprehensive meaning of the Scriptures. We recognize the clear significance of those passages dealing with the Savior of humanity are vital, while those dealing with the nutritional value of locusts are rather less so.

While many people consciously practice this Christocentric reading of the God’s Word, one of its great champions was Martin Luther. If you wish to explore this subject in detail, I commend to you “All Scripture is Pure Christ: Luther’s Christocentric Interpretation in the Context of Reformation Exegesis.” You can find the entire volume in which this essay appears here.

As Martin Luther puts it, “To him who has the Son, Scripture is an open book; and the stronger his faith in Christ becomes, the more brightly will the light of Scripture shine for him.”

Christians are not Gnostics, who believe the Bible is hiding divine secrets from the uninitiated. Quite the contrary. However, the only way to truly understand the meaning of the Scriptures is to read them in their full context. And that context is Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Have you severed ties with a friend or relative because you view the question of vaccination policies differently?

Apparently this tragedy is growing in frequency. Just last week, a person very, very dear to me declared that we had “come to a parting of the ways.” I pray for a restoration of the relationship when emotions cool, but for the moment, it seems I am “dead” to my sister.

She is one of the people who find themselves at one end of the vaccination spectrum. There are, of course, some who believe those who receive vaccinations are dupes, endangering their health with possibly unnecessary medicine that may have lasting side effects. At the opposite end, stand those who consider anyone unwilling to be vaccinated as tantamount to being a heartless murderer.

Sadly, those of us who lie midway along said spectrum—who understand precisely how others might arrive at those extreme positions, and call for reasonable, respectful conversation—are typically regarded with contempt by each extreme.

Ironically, my wife and I eagerly received our injections at the first possible opportunity. Yet, because our adult children (intelligent and mature, one and all) have made a different decision, we have suffered this separation from some of our extended family.

A report published this week revealed 14% of vaccinated respondents said “they ended things with friends who refused to get vaccinated.” That suggests that approximately one out of seven people are unwilling to place friendships on pause; they apparently prefer to terminate them.

“Stress from the Pandemic Can Destroy Relationships with Friends—Even Families” describes the tragedy in the following way.

The pandemic’s toll on friendships goes deeper than mere political polarization — the confusion of a mask with support for “big government.” It’s more about discovering personality differences between you and your relatives and friends, including different levels of risk-tolerance and what might seem like irrational optimism on one side vs. hysterical alarmism on the other.

At a time when many of us are losing sleep, picturing ourselves or someone we love gasping for air in a crowded emergency room, these differences are painfully relevant.

Taking these words to heart should help us all be more tolerant of our varying responses to the strain of living during this pandemic.

I hope that you have not experienced the pain of ruined relationships. And, I beg you, if you are inclined to write off friends who disagree with you on this controversial subject, please reconsider. After all, as C.S. Lewis wisely said to those who claim to be followers of Jesus, “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (The Weight of Glory).

You Should Read This

I just finished the best article I’ve read on this subject, and commend it to you. Pastor Peter Leithart authored the provocatively titled “Why I Didn’t Get the Covid Vaccine.”

The title is a little misleading, since Leithart’s rationale is that as a covid survivor he currently has the resulting “natural immunity.”

The article is quite enlightening, however, because it is not an argument for or against the treatment per se. Rather, it is a very brief historical reminder of a perhaps more perilous ailment. He approaches the subject through the work of an Italian philosopher.

As Roberto Esposito put it in Biopolitics, political authority was traditionally the authority to kill. Under the reign of biopolitics, rulers care for and manage life. Once upon a time, the ruler bore a sword; now, a syringe.

“Body politic” is an ancient metaphor, but in biopolitical regimes the body becomes the real place “where the exercise of power [is] concentrated.” Public health takes center stage in a “limitless process of medicalization” as health care is “superimposed” on politics. It’s now the government’s job—its primary job—to keep us safe and healthy.

“Life becomes government business,” Esposito writes, and “government becomes first and foremost the governance of life.” To manage life, governments have to exercise social control, keep populations under surveillance, maintain constantly-updated databases, and, as necessary, isolate and separate sectors deemed dangerous to the corporate body.

In an article written more than a year ago, entitled “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus,” the writer describes the evolution of the concept of biopolitics since the 1970s. He warned then, “Instead of worrying about the increase of surveillance mechanisms and indiscriminate control under a new state of exception, I therefore tend to worry about the fact that we already are docile, obedient biopolitical subjects.” One can only imagine what he might say today.

Back to Relationships

I am no philosopher, and it is not the purpose of this post to answer the big questions. What I believe is simple. The vaccine is good for some, but not all. And disease is terrifying, especially when it can be terminal.

Oh, and I believe one other thing. We should discuss such matters civilly. Graciously, even. Because differences of honest opinion about debatable matters are insufficient grounds for destroying lifelong relationships. After all, true friendships are precious . . . and rare.

C.S. Lewis discerned a little-known truth about the importance of friendships. One that reminds us they should not be discarded in the passion of a moment. Lewis describes here how there are eternal repercussions related to our actions. Refer to salvation, the resurrection and heaven as the “glory” God desires for all people, Lewis writes:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. . . .

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations [heaven or hell].

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours (The Weight of Glory).

Powerful Names

September 30, 2013 — 16 Comments

missilesIt’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming (or labeling) something wields great power.

Whether it be a concrete object, or an idea, the power to name carries the power to shape perceptions.

Philosophically, we might agree that:

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet).

But, if we are perfectly honest, calling it “skunk cabbage” might affect our perception of its aroma.

A classic example of the power of naming comes from the era of Norse exploration. In the ninth century, Vikings began settling in the inhospitably named “Iceland.” The island was majestic, and its spectacular glaciers and volcanoes still allowed room for extremely fertile farmsteads.

Less than a century and a half later, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland. He sailed west and established the first colony on a much larger island that he enticingly named Greenland. Erik’s brilliant advertising ploy was quite effective, and hundreds of settlers joined him in the much harsher climes to Iceland’s west.

The specific appellations which led me to ponder the power that resides in naming once again,* actually came from a much more modern source—weaponry.

Military leaders have a knack for generating striking names. Often they are brilliant; occasionally they completely miss the mark. In either case, it’s curious to note the message their choice of nomenclature seeks to emphasize. Consider for a moment two different American missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire and the LGM-118A Peacekeeper

The reader naturally assumes the purpose of the former is to rain sulfur and brimstone down on the enemy, while the mission of the latter is to benignly maintain peace. One suspects, however, that being at the epicenter of either explosive device would be equally disastrous.

Another example we might consider is a bit more controversial, but fascinating nonetheless. Consider these labels for movements involved in the abortion debate.

Self-Preferred  ||  Used by Opponents  ||  Used by the Media

Pro-Choice  ||  Pro-Abortion  ||  Pro-Choice

Pro-Life  ||  Anti-Choice  ||  Anti-Abortion

It doesn’t require a brilliant intellect to comprehend the tone each of these labels evokes. Nor should it come as a surprise how the mainstream media tends to line up in the debate.

It’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming something wields great power.

C.S. Lewis was a master of language. He knew names exercise significant influence on how things are perceived. In the following passage from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he describes how a powerful word—in this case “mercy”—can be dangerously misleading when applied to something inimical to itself.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

In another essay, “‘Bulverism:’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” Lewis actually coins a word which has found favor with a literate subculture. The peculiar word he created conveys a sense of obtuse, opinionated self-smugness. (Yes, I may be reading just a little bit into “Bulverism,” but I really don’t think so. The aristocratic or remote sounding surname “Bulver,” the “ism” suffix and, of course, the “Bul” prefix all combine to engender an odd and unappealing impression.)

The subject Lewis addresses in this work is the unwillingness of disagreeing parties to honestly debate the merits of an issue. Instead, they rush to employ the invalid (and terribly effective) ad hominem approaches that characterize so much of modern politics.

C.S. Lewis is so talented (and ingenious) that he provides us with a biographical note on the fictional creator of the deficient form of “debate” prevalent in the modern era. “The modern method [of argument],” Lewis begins, “is to assume without discussion [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

. . . Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason.

Sadly, Bulver’s disciples continue to increase, rather than diminish.

Since it was military missiles that initially got me thinking about the subject of the power of naming, it might be fitting to end with a few more evocative labels. They certainly elicit a wide range of impressions.

Condor: Argentina’s avian contribution

Piranha: Tiny but vicious and straight from Brazil’s Amazon

Velvet Glove: Canada’s mixed message

Sky Sword: China’s blending of the ancient and modern

Apache: French, which confuses this American veteran**

Meteor: A European offering sure to land hard if it doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere

Martel: Anglo-French venture they surely don’t want Islamists to think is a tribute to Charles Martel, Hero of the Battle of Tours***

V-1 Flying Bomb: Got to Hand it to the Germans for straight-forward labeling.

Rhinemaidens (Rheintöchter): There’s apparently Teutonic Poetry as well

Fateh: Iran’s “Conqueror”

Zelzal: Iran’s “Earthquake”

Sejjil: Iran’s “Baked Clay” (well we can’t expect all the Persian names to be winners)

Jericho: From Israel where we know whose walls tumbled down

Spike: Israeli and probably not a reference to Jael and the Book of Judges****

Hatf: Pakistani “Vengeance” (derived from the gentle sword of Muhammad)

Hyunmoo: Korea’s mythical “Guardian of the Northern Sky” (mayhap a reference to their aggressive northern neighbor)

Penguin: Those Norwegians really know how to frighten their enemies

Malakhit (Малахит): Just one of Russia’s curiously named explosives in their “mineral missile series”

Umkhonto: South African “Spear” from the Zulu tongue

The Brits are uniquely creative when it comes to naming missiles. They include: Blowpipe, Brimstone, Green Cheese, Rapier, Sea Skua and, of course, Fairey Fireflash and it’s less intimidating companion Fairey Stooge.

For some reason, I find a missile named “Green Cheese” particularly disconcerting. Whoever named that specific weapon was devilishly clever. If I were a world leader, I’d surrender immediately, rather than face a foe confident enough in their military prowess to use that sort of twisted culinary nomenclature for their armaments.

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* I have written on the subject of personal names in the past.

** It just may translate as “Ruffian,” but I don’t think I want to go there, since it hints at political incorrectness.

*** It’s actually a combination of the missile’s guidance options: Missile, Anti-Radiation, Television. I’m sure the parallel with the Frankish defender of the Christian Church is a mere coincidence.

**** The fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.

punctuation personalitiesWordsmiths love wordplay.

In fact, they love to toy with everything related to language, including punctuation. The entertaining illustration to the left was created by Carrie Keplinger and inspired me to produce my own supplement to her study.

The idea behind the graphic is to play on the meaning of different punctuation symbols and describe the type of personality they represent.

I took the notion a step further, and based some of my psychological diagnoses on the appearance of the images themselves. I also fudged a bit and included a couple that are common symbols, albeit not punctuation.

In the past I’ve shared here my fascination with fonts. This extends to pictographic languages like Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Consider this example:

horus

One may not know this particular image is associated with the Egyptian god Horus, but it’s immediately apparent it represents a familiar part of human anatomy.*

If you find the subject of hieroglyphics interesting, you may enjoy reading this article I recently discovered. The author briefly compares the thought of C.S. Lewis with that of the ancient philosopher Plotinus. He writes:

The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts.

For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

Returning to the Subject of Punctuation

Punctuation is a fundamental tool of writers. And, like the broader subject of grammar, it is incumbent on us to do our best to use it properly.

“Improper” usage is not necessarily wrong, however. On numerous occasions we may intentionally make an “error” to achieve a specific purpose. Or, we may object to certain conventions and challenge the ever-evolving status quo. For example, I avoided unnecessarily capitalizing “internet” long before it became acceptable. I also dropped the hyphen from email, etc. prior to that becoming fashionable.**

Naturally, when we are seeking publication of our work, we need to conform to whatever stylistic standards the venue follows. However, in our “personal” writing, I long ago learned there is no value in being enslaved to “official” literary conventions. After all, these seemingly rigid rules themselves are fluid, shifting with ever more frequent speed.

I began with the declaration that lovers of words inherently enjoy wordplay. I certainly do. One evidence of that is found below, in my supplemental list to the chart at the top of this column.

Immediately upon reading “punctuation social personalities,” my own mind, unbidden, began to consider additions. A moment later I had pen in hand, and the rest is history.

Belated Warning: You may experience a similar irresistible response. 

punctuation personalities 2

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* A variation of the eye of Horus is actually found on American currency . . . at the peak of the pyramid that adorns the one dollar bill. (It’s officially called the “Eye of Providence,” but its association with the pyramid makes that title rather unconvincing.) It is actually reproduced on America’s money because it is found on the reverse of Great Seal of the United States. Yes, it’s portrayed on the hidden side of the extremely familiar eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows that we see all of the time.

** I’m not suggesting I am a trendsetter . . . merely that I anticipated the eventual elimination of these superfluous elements early on. Well, it’s due to that prediction combined with my own typographical prejudices, such as disliking the over-hyphenation of the English language.