Speaking Simple Things
On simple truths and giving up on sophistication.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal ran an article where they asked college students who sympathize with Palestinians in the Israel/Hamas war whether they knew which river and which sea were being referred to in the popular chant “from the river to the sea.” Only 47% of students could name the river (Jordan) and the sea (Mediterranean). Once they were shown the river and the sea on a map and informed that “from the river to the sea” meant the annihilation of Israel, 67.8% of the students changed their minds and no longer supported the chant.
It might not be wise to wade into a hot-button issue to prove a different but related point, but the fact that close to 70% of students in a pro-Palestine rally were unknowingly calling for the extermination of Israel because they chanted a slogan that was catchy to say and sounded supportive shows how easy it is to be captivated—literally taken captive—by the sound of words when they play to the desires of our hearts. Having compassion and concern for the innocent Palestinians who are caught up in this tragic conflict is good and noble. Unknowingly chanting for the annihilation of a different people group—one that has a history of being the victims of genocide—a position you don’t even hold is not good and noble; it’s ignorant and dangerous.
My point here is not to talk about the Israel/Palestine conflict. I would be way in over my head. I simply want to point out how easily we are swayed by words and rhetoric more than arguments. I’m currently reading Augustine’s Confessions and this is a something that he discusses. Having doubts about his Manichean beliefs, he was excited that a prominent Manichean teacher, Faustus, was coming to speak in Carthage, where he lived.
After hearing Faustus speak, he was impressed by the way he spoke but disappointed by the content of his speech. Yet Faustus’ reputation for being a Manichean teacher was great, and Augustine’s peers said all he needed was to wait for Faustus to come, and all his doubts would be relieved. That failed to be the case.
Augustine wrote about this experience,
Those who had given me such assurances about him must have been poor judges. They thought him wise and thoughtful simply because they were charmed by his manner of speech.
You [God] had already taught me that a statement is not necessarily true because it is wrapped in fine language or false because it is awkwardly expressed.
You [God] had already taught me this lesson and the converse truth, that an assertion is not necessarily true because it is badly expressed or false because it is finely spoken.
I had learned that wisdom and folly are like different kinds of food. Some are wholesome and others are not, but both can be serveed equally well on the finest china dish or the meanest earthenware. In the same way, wisdom and folly can be clothed alike in plain words or the finest flowers of speech.
tldr: The way something is said has no bearing on the truth of the thing.
This means practically that with each thing we hear or read, we must allow ourselves to sit and ponder its truth and wisdom or folly and falsehood before accepting or rejecting it. While simple in theory, our internet-brained epistemology of retweetable tweets and fast-paced TikTok videos neither encourage nor reward those who slow down and take their time to discern truth from falsehood.
There are two ways this plays out.
There are those who value “the meanest earthenware.” They have no use for eloquent speech, poetic language, or well-reasoned arguments. All truth is common sense; if it isn’t common sense, then it can’t be true. The problem here is that it’s a reductionistic way of viewing the world. Some truths are complex. Some wisdom isn’t common sense. There are things that do require research, rhetoric, and beauty to understand in ways that we simply couldn’t if they were reduced to a simple saying. The Psalms are full of poetic language that teaches truth we couldn’t deduce with our own reasoning. It’s wise for us to resist a simplistic view of the world that relies only on our common sense. It’s Christian of us to rely on God’s revelation of truth and reality rather than our own ideas. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
Yet there is the opposite, and I believe more pernicious, way this plays out. It’s the same trap that those students who blindly chanted a genocidal cry fall into. The trap of believing something because it sounds as if it’s true more than it is true. Or, as Augustine points out, what might be more the case is rejecting a truth because it is poorly expressed or seems overly simplistic. We’re more persuaded by the vibe of a statement than its truth. We’ve become curators of vibes more than lovers of truth and cultivators of wisdom. If the vibe is off, then we want nothing to do with it because we are more afraid of our vibe being off than living in falsehood.
Another example: there is nothing fashionable today about saying the simple sentence, “God wrote the Bible.” It feels antiquated, overly simplistic, and ignorant to the modern ear. Yet the church has always understood God to be the author of scripture, working through the human writers without overwriting their personalities or cultural customs.
Just for one example, let’s turn to Augustine in Confessions again:
…the Scriptures were delivered to mankind by the Spirit of the one true God who can tell no lies.
There is a way of talking about the Bible as authored by God that is not true. There are ways of talking about God’s authorship of scripture that are “awkwardly” and “badly expressed.” But that doesn’t make the phrase “God wrote the Bible” false simply because it grinds against our contemporary sensibilities to affirm such a plain statement.
When we hear a phrase like “God wrote the Bible,” we immediately want to include a dozen or more asterisks behind it to try and prove that we’re not ignorant, uneducated, and anti-intellectual. We want to sound sophisticated and enlightened, having moved beyond the simplistic statements we were taught as children. We want to signal to others that we’re not like those Christians who just accept everything on blind faith.
But when I feel this impulse both in myself and in others, I can’t help but think of the bell curve meme with the simpleton on the left, the monk on the right, and the angry man in the middle. The simpleton and the monk always say the same things, albeit for different reasons or in different ways. It is the angry man in the middle who is always contrary or caveating. The monk understands all that the angry man is saying, maybe even agrees, and yet can peacefully say the same thing as the simpleton.
Maybe I’m only speaking to myself, but I’m increasingly convinced that this fear of being perceived as unsophisticated is more the fear of man than the desire to be accurate. Of course, there are times and conversations to dive into all of the intricacies of beliefs and to articulate them with beauty and tact. But what concerns me is the inability to affirm the simple truths at all. In refusing to affirm simple truths, we more easily allow ourselves to be swayed by pleasing lies. By caveating everything, we rest in nothing.
My mind might need and be compelled and stimulated by the nuances of inspiration and how the canon came together, but what my soul needs in a time of trial is “God wrote the Bible.” Or maybe “Jesus died for my sins.” Or “I am saved by grace through faith.” Or “Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.” No caveats needed. Not now, at least.
So now I have to weigh the balance. What should I be more afraid of? Appearing unsophisticated to others or losing the most basic and nourishing truths for the sustenance of my soul?
I’ve become more afraid of the latter than the former.
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