Carried Away by Every Form of Rhetoric

You are being manipulated. Every day. The news doesn’t really tell you what’s happening, it tells you what you should think about what is happening. Every hour spent watching most mainstream news is like a catechesis class in moral preening and faux outrage, especially now in the age of Trump, where the sky is always falling.

Christians, more than any other group, should not be carried away by the swaying emotions of the wider world. We stand on the Rock. The world ebbs and flows with the tide, its moral positions and sense of outrage as malleable as the sand on the shore. But we stand on the Rock.

We should not base our moral positions on the emotions we feel when we see, for example, a picture of a crying child. And yet, this happens all the time, especially on social media. We grab a talking point from the world, and then slap a verse on it to make it sound better, and then maybe we mutter something about “widows and orphans.”

Stephen Wolfe writes in his wonderful article The Sorry State of Evangelical Rhetoric:

Rarely does their moral reasoning begin with moral principles and systems and then logically proceed to conclusions. Rather their thinking begins with an impression or reaction of goodness or badness; and then, as part of their moral thinking, they supply a broad principle, which serves only to christianize the impression. That is, the principle (or line), which I will also call the “christianizing device,” elevates the impression into Christian public morality. The actual moral conclusion or determination precedes the moral principle. So their reasoning has a two-step sequence:

1) Have a negative, moral reaction to something, a reaction that one is socialized to perform (perhaps on social media) upon encountering some event.

2) Christianize the moral impression by confidently stating an extremely broad principle or statement from the Bible (“love your neighbor”) or some other Christian-like statement without any attempt to make distinctions or qualifications or systematize or consider competing goods.

This moral thinking does not begin with a nuanced principle and then proceed to a moral conclusion. Rather the conclusion is already decided due to one’s moral socialization and the principle is subsequently supplied.

Our feelings are committed, and so we must justify it. Usually by carefully (ever so carefully) choosing some verses from the Old Testament that superficially confirm those feelings.

And we only choose a position that has already been baptized by the world as acceptable, and will get us applause (or likes on Facebook). Wolfe continues:

Since their moral conclusions are already socially acceptable (and their opponents’ are not), they can simply assume the moral conclusion and therefore do not have to undergo the hard work of moral reasoning – they are, after all, with society on the question. And being socially acceptable, the conclusion is asserted as obvious, lacking the necessity of demonstration.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone, in support of open borders, has waved their hands and said “sojourners” as if it was some magic incantation. They are not contending with any sort of argument, but rather just dressing up their emotions so they look more respectable to the right kind of people.

The Old Testament does indeed have a wealth of wisdom we could use to help us navigate the issues of the modern world. But rhetorically-challenged Christians are not using it as a compass. They have already arrived at a destination, and now they have to scramble to finger-paint a map, splashing paint everywhere in the attempt, so they can pretend they followed said map to get where they are.

As Doug Wilson aptly wrote:

Something happens that makes MSNBC sad, and CNN sad, and so by good and necessary consequence, it makes some Evangelical Thought Leaders (all rise!) sad as well. The sadness is a given. The sadness is the conclusion. The sadness is the imperative. All we need now is a verse.

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