Thursday, September 9, 2010

Making the Right Argument

Pop quiz:

Question 1: What do my friend Duncan's fingernails, the Pope having syphilis, and cheesy Contemporary Christian Music have in common:

Answer: They are all the easy argument.

Question 2: What do James Earl Jones turning into a giant snake, the Bible, and theological weakness have in common?

Answer: They are all the right argument.

When it comes to debating issues of controversy, theological and otherwise, there are easy arguments to make and there are right arguments to make. 

So, in debate, your job is (theoretically) to discredit an idea or philosophy, to show why its wrong.  But discrediting an idea is hard.  It is laborious.  It requires you to be familiar with the idea, to understand it, to know why others hold to it.  And coming to such an understanding requires you to do things like reading and study and research.  Furthermore, in order to bring those who have been led astray back to the truth, you need to make them understand the entire issue as well.  You need to teach them clearly what your argument is, why you hold to it, where the authority behind your views comes from, etc...  So it takes a lot of time and a lot of work to make the right argument.

But making the easy argument is...well, easy.  The easy argument is essentially an ad hominem, an attack on the person espousing the issue rather than the issue itself.  And attacking the character or the credibility of the other person never takes much work.  It doesn't require familiarity with the issue.  It doesn't ask you to learn about ideas or understand human experiences.  All it requires is that you find something wrong with the guy standing at the other podium.  Which usually takes about two seconds.

So the easy argument, the ad hominem, works.  Sort of.  It works in the short term.  It's a great way to win a quick battle.  But when it comes to actually winning the war, when it comes to getting to the heart of the issue, the easy argument will only last as long as it takes for the other side to present a debater who doesn't have the same faults as the previous guy.  And so, when it comes to the worship wars, when it comes to debating contemporary vs. traditional worship (or whatever other loaded terms you want to use) we defenders of the historic liturgy and hymnody of the Church will never make any real progress unless we commit ourselves to making the right argument instead of the easy one.

To flesh this out a bit, let's return to my pop quiz and analyze a few examples of the easy vs. the right argument.

1. Duncan's Fingernails

Back in college, my friend Duncan and I used to debate which movie was better: Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Destroyer.   

The Easy Argument: Duncan wears Lee Press on Nails.  (Technically, Duncan only wore clear nails on his right hand and did so because he was a classical guitar major, but that is beside the point.)  Therefore, Duncan is a girl, rendering him unable to judge which film exuded more awesome manliness.

Analysis: While it may have been an effective move to dismiss Duncan's opinion based upon his girl hand, I did not actually prove my case.  In fact, I could have made the same argument without ever having seen either film.  That is obviously not a good thing.  Furthermore, if there happened to be some non-fake-nail-wearing man in the universe who stepped up to the plate in Duncan's place, we would have been back to square one.  In conclusion, the easy argument did not resolve the issue to any degree.

The Right Argument: Conan the Barbarian has a scene where James Earl Jones turns into a giant snake.  Seriously, look:

Conan the Destroyer, however, has no such scene.  And swordy action movies where guys turn into giant snakes are better than swordy action movies where guys don't turn into giant snakes.  Therefore, Conan the Barbarian is better.

Analysis: This argument proves effective in the long run because, even if a dude without fake nails comes to the podium, he can't argue that a snake transforming scene takes place in Destroyer.  His best shot is to argue that Giant Genghis Wilt Chamberlain Kahn is better than snake transmorphing.  Which it is obviously not.  While making the right argument requires me to watch both movies and to analyze the awesomeness of Snake Earl Jones, the right argument ultimately wins in the long run.

2. The Pope has syphilis.

Back in the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther and his fellow Lutherans found themselves immersed in debate with the Roman Catholic Church over how a man was justified, or declared right, before God.  The Lutherans taught that it was by grace through faith alone.  The Roman Catholics taught that it was through faith and love working in the individual (i.e. faith + works).

The Easy Argument: It is believed that Pope Leo X, the guy who excommunicated Luther, had syphilis.  Same with his predecessor, Julius II.  Also, the guy a few popes before him had syphilis as well and had at least seven illegitimate children (these are among the tamer accusations leveled at Alex).  Since these men were such scoundrels, the doctrine they confess must be untrue.  Therefore the Lutherans are right.

Analysis: Had the Lutherans made the easy argument, it most likely would have produced some pretty quick results.  By and large, people will get angrier if their religious leaders are having (or condoning) illicit sex than if they are teaching false doctrine.  But such an approach would not have lasted long.  In all reality, the Pope's sexual desires had no bearing on whether Rome's doctrine was true or not.  And without having nailed down that issue, as soon as Rome elected a non-degenerate Pope, you'd be back at square one.  Likewise, the minute a sexual deviant arrived in a Lutheran pulpit, you'd be in no better shape than you were at the beginning.

The Right Argument: The Bible teaches that a man is justified by grace through faith apart from works of the law.  It teaches that our salvation is won for us and delivered to us solely through the work of Jesus Christ.  

Analysis: Granted, making such an argument requires work.  It requires you to familiarize yourself with Scripture.  It requires you to wrestle with the passages here that seem to contradict the passages here.  It requires you to listen to the opposition, to hear what they're saying in order to point out the holes in their arguments.  And it requires you to teach everything you've learned to everyone else involved in the debate.  It's hard work.  But in the end, it's worth it.  Because when you can show that you have the Word of God on your side, you can show that your confession of faith is right and theirs is wrong, even if you're the worst guy who's ever lived and he's the nicest.

3. Contemporary Christian Music is cheesy.

The easy argument: Musically speaking, CCM is schlocky and not as good as historic hymns.  Therefore churches shouldn't use it.

Analysis: While it may not seem like this is an ad hominem attack, it essentially is.  By saying that CCM is cheesy, you're essentially leveling the accusation that those who make it aren't the greatest of musicians, that they aren't as talented and/or creative as those working in other fields.  Granted, I think that accusation is, by and large, true.  But when you make your argument based on the inferior quality of the music, you've made no progress in the debate as soon as a ridiculously talented musician comes around.  If a guy or girl appears on the scene who writes really utterly fantastic pop style songs that are real and honest and have good theology, then, just like with a non-fake-nail-wearing dude and a non-syphilitic Bishop of Rome, you're back to square one.

The Right Argument: CCM is theologically weak, whether in lyrical content or in musical presentation.

Analysis: Last week, I made the argument that, regardless of lyrical content, CCM isn't fitting for divine worship because its musical style emulates genres that have no component of fear.  In other words, even if you sing the right words about God, you still teach something wrong when you sing them in the same way that you'd sing to your boyfriend.  And that must be true whether that song to your boyfriend is a really bad one or a really good one

Granted, arguing this way isn't an easy thing to do.  It requires a tremendous amount of Scriptural study.  You have to come to a very firm understanding of what the Bible teaches about worship, how it's to be done, what it means for the Church to be united in their song of praise.  Likewise it also requires a very solid background in the history of music, the theological heritage found in various genres and styles, etc...  It's very tough work.  And it's always easier to walk up to the microphone, roll your eyes and say, "come on, guys, this stuff is lame."  But, in the end, we'll make much more progress if we can convince people that CCM isn't the way to go, even when that particular piece of CCM is really, really, really good.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.


Matt Carver (Matthaeus Glyptes) said...

How would anyone even think that Destroyer could compete with Barbarian? ::boggles at concept::

Pastor Fiene said...

I know. It's ridiculous. If Duncan weren't one of the greatest people in the universe, I'd be worried about him.

Maanum's Meandering Musings said...

I told Jen the last time we watched Destroyer that there would be no way that Wilt "I slept with 2000 women" Chamberlain would have left Olivia D'Abo a virgin for long. A man can only suspend his disbelief only so far.