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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files #11, Ad Hominem

Every week, I haul out my old persuasive writing notes and handouts and share another argument fallacy with my readers.  This week I'm a little late, but I'm still posting it, as usual.

I still believe that knowing how to debate skillfully is important for all Christians--even those who aren't sharing their faith with others.  You still have to know how to defend your own faith from those who would confuse you.  Think of it like fencing classes.  I'm just sharing classic mistakes that, if identified, could help you go for the kill when something important is on the line.  When it comes to the things of God, even small things are important, like the pebbles that slew Goliath.

Ad Hominem Is Not About Hominy

The first time I heard the name of this argument, I joked that it meant a request for more of a certain classic Southwest canned vegetable.  Actually, it's a fancy Latin phrase that means "to the man."

People that use the Ad Hominem fallacy are getting desperate to win, and they've run out of logical proofs that could sway their audience.  It's that moment in Robin Hood when Basil Rathbone realizes Errol Flynn is getting the better of him, and goes for the dagger at his waist.  The debate and all its proofs (which are crumbling) is thrown aside, and the losing debater starts insulting his opponent's parents or his choice in hair pieces.

Okay, now I'll define it more clearly: This fallacy is mudslinging, or generalized character attacks on the opponent or the opposing issue, often based on emotional appeals rather than logical evidence.  This is why Ad Hominem is probably the most familiar and easily identified argument fallacy I will cover in this series.  That doesn't mean it isn't used in formal debate, or that you should be any less wary of it.

Example: She doesn't know which end is up most of the time, so why would I take her advice on anything?

Example: At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane."
"I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable.  The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.  King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do."
Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts 26: 24-28 NIV).  (In the familiar King James Version, Agrippa's reply was "Almost thou hast persuaded me to be a Christian," which really highlights what I mean by the desperation of those who use this argument fallacy.  They were afraid of losing their position in this religious debate Paul had drawn them into.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's in a Name?

As I think I've mentioned before, I have a college degree in English.  One of the areas of study was linguistics, and if you know me personally, you know that I tend to reference linguistics topics all the time in common conversation (I'm always afraid it's getting annoying, so I try to keep to a minimum!).  Linguistics is by far my favorite study,  particularly language history.  If I had the time, I would read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, but of course I don't.

Anyway, I thought I'd put this fascination with word origins and root meanings to good use today by turning my attention to the Bible.  If you've ever looked closely at it, you will notice a pattern of names that have significance--both people and places.  What I find particularly fascinating is the number of names that are spectacularly fulfilled by the individual's life choices, or are fulfilled in miraculous ways many years later in Israel's history.  I couldn't possibly cover all of them in one post (or even a million!) but there are some that stick out more than others, and I couldn't resist talking about a few of them today.


  •  Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah-- God renamed both of them, so we should give special focus on this when we study Genesis 17Abram meant "exalted father," and was changed to Abraham, "father of many," because God planned to make his descendants into many nations of peoples.  The meaning of Sarai is unclear, but the meaning of Sarah is generally thought to be "Princess," or "Lady." This suggestion of high honor in her name was probably an acknowledgment of her status as the mother of the child of promise, Isaac.
  • Isaac--His name means, "He laughs."  How he earned that name has long been my favorite of those sort of stories.  When Abraham heard from God that Sarah was going to have a son, the Bible says that "he laughed to himself," (Genesis 17: 15-17 NIV).  Then, when Sarah hear the news from the three heavenly visitors in the tent, she laughed to herself also, although she denied it later when confronted about it (Genesis 18: 10-5 NIV).  So when Sarah had a son as predicted, she and Abraham named him Isaac.  I've always seen it as an acknowledgment that God had the last laugh on the whole situation.
  • Jacob/Israel and Esau/Edom-- Jacob was born clinging to his brother's heel, which was a figurative image at that time, meaning "deceiver."  So, his name was Jacob, which means "he grasps the heel/ deceiver," and he fulfilled that part of his name by tricking his brother out of his birthright in exchange for a pot of soup.  Later, God renamed Jacob Israel, which means, "He struggles with God."  This is both a reference to the night he spent wrestling with God, and the behavior of his descendants, the nation of Israel, who have been locked in a struggle to obey or disobey God throughout their history.  Esau meant "hairy," which must have been a pretty good description of the man, since Jacob could wear goat skins and deceive his blind father into believing he was Esau.  His later name, Edom, meant "red," and was possibly a reference to the red soup he got in exchange for his birthright.
  • Moses--An Egyptian, not Hebrew name, meaning "drawn out; born."  It was a pun, of course, since he was drawn out of the waters of the Nile in the basket his mother had hidden him in.  It is interesting, looking at his history, that God used him to "draw out" the newborn nation of Israel from among the people of Egypt.
  • Joshua-- Originally named Hoshea, or "Salvation," Moses changed his name to Yehoshua, or Joshua, which meant "Jehovah is Salvation." Significantly, his name in a Greek derivation is Jesus.  Joshua's name change reflects a personal change.  Perhaps he was once devoted to saving himself or trying to save the people around him, but he came to know that God was his deliverer, and he relied on God to save his people.  Joshua led his people into the Promised Land, just as Jesus later made the way for all believers to enter into God's rest, which is God's presence in the New Jerusalem.

Place Names

  • Bethel--Means, "House of God," lit. Beth--house (dwelling or family) + El--God.  This is where Jacob first confirmed the Abrahamic covenant with God, that he and his descendants would serve God.  Later, it was associated with the tribe of Benjamin, and was a temporary resting place for the Ark of the Covenant.  Jeroboam installed a golden calf there for worship after Israel was divided, and the mixing of calf-worship with the worship of God that continued there until king Josiah's time caused Hosea to prophecy against the city, calling it "Beth Aven," lit. "House of wickedness." 
  • Bethlehem--Means, "House of Bread." It was possessed by the tribe of Judah, and was the home of Ruth and Boaz, and later David (so it was known as "The City of David").  Jesus was born here, fulfilling the name because He called Himself "the Bread of Life." Bethlehem was considered the last stop on the way to Egypt, and was a tiny spot on a main highway, even in Roman times. From Bethlehem Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to hide from Herod.
  • Nazareth--Probably derived from the word netser, or shoot, as from the roots of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1): Jesus, a descendant of Jesse, fulfilled God's prophecy there.  This was Mary and Joseph's hometown, in a valley near Galilee.  Apparently it had a bad reputation morally in Jesus' times (John 1:46), but Jesus changed that, because Nazarath or Nazarine became a title of honor among His followers.
  • Jerusalem--A name that shows up in quite a few languages, both before and after Israel named it as their capital.  Jerusalem means "The City of Salem," that is, "The City of Peace."  Salem means "Peace," as evoked in the greeting, "Shalom," or "Salaam," in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.  Jerusalem has been the sight of many wars because of its historical significance, but God chose it to be the place where He would establish His peace with humankind, through Jesus, and intends later to set up His kingdom there at Christ's Second Coming.
I could keep going, but I have other duties requiring my attention today.  However, the name research doesn't have to end here.  This time I thought I'd leave you with two "take away" questions.  I look forward to your comments!

  1. Do a little research on a place name or a person's name from a passage you have recently read in your Bible, and share what you learned in the comments section.  I would suggest using a Bible dictionary if your Bible doesn't contain annotations.
  2. Do you know what your name means, and does it seem to have any significance in your own life?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files #10: Misleading Statistics

It is always my habit to begin these short posts with a brief explanation of why I'm writing them.  After all, what do argument fallacies have to do with the Bible, or any Christian topic, anyway?  Well, personally, I believe it has everything to do with those things.

For too long, now, Christianity and even the Bible has been accused of being illogical.  Obviously, as with any belief system (even beliefs about politics or sports teams), there is an element of emotion and faith involved in belief.  However, nothing can be believed for long if it can't be logically analyzed and defended.  It's just part of human nature to reason and to analyze things.  Eventually questions will arise that need answering, and the answer ought to be satisfying.

Unfortunately, many Christians fail to give a complete or satisfying answer when asked to defend their faith.  Weak and illogical arguments just seem to prove to skeptics that what we believe is not true, and this denies them a real chance to truly know God and see His power in their lives.  Their decision to walk away is their own, but our failure and lack of study is something we Christians can change.

Alternatively, I've seen far too many Christians giving up on critical elements of their faith after they failed to recognize fallacies in the arguments they were hearing.  This happens partly because of a lack of Bible study (or forgetfulness about something they studied), and partly because they fail to recognize the weaknesses within those false arguments.  Seeing the weakness is one part of the solution; knowing how to counter it successfully is the other part.  And that takes lots of reading, study, and contemplation.

Misleading Statistics: When the Numbers Lie

It's wonderful when statistical data supports what you have to say, but it's dangerous territory when the numbers get too-far separated from their source, and end up as vague final percentages that seem to support the debater's conclusion.

Just Say "Side Efectz"
How many people or items were analyzed to get this percentage?  What has been left out because it creates a problem for the debater?  How was the data gathered and processed?  Someone using misleading statistics will often "fail" to answer these questions.

Example: Seven out of ten test subjects experienced a complete reversal of their condition when they used this drug.  (Were only ten people tested?  How were they chosen?  How long were they treated?  Did the effect last?  What happened to the other three (30%)? )

Example:  There is not enough of us to defeat the giants living in the land!  (Numbers 13: 26-33).  The statistical odds of winning are changed and exaggerated in this passage, getting worse as the story moved along.  There are many weaknesses left out of the spies' stories, like the element of surprise; the reputation that preceded Israel and might work in their favor; the real number of Anak's descendants (at first, there were only a few, then everyone was suddenly giant-sized); and most importantly, the size and power of the God who promised to fight for Israel.  Joshua and Caleb recognized the odds as they really were, but all the others fell for the misleading data.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rivers in the Desert

Big Open Spaces
This past week I took a road trip with family, and we spent a lot of the time driving through the desert.  A lot of time. For those of you who grew up in the desert areas of the U.S., or maybe other deserts in the world, it may not be a big deal for you to drive many miles (as much as a hundred) down a major road before you come to a town, or even a gas station.  For all the rest of us, we can hear talk of all the "big open spaces" in the West, but until we drive through them, the sizes and distances really don't register.  Where I come from, you can drive a few miles before entering the next town, but there are plenty of businesses, farms, etc. along the way.  No traveler needs to worry about, say, running out of water or gasoline while passing through.  Help and human company are always near.

Cedars in the Desert
I took plenty of pictures out the car windows (which explains their generally sub-par quality).  Then we passed a sign that announced that the parched landscape around us was the headwaters (origin point) of two major rivers in my home state.  That was a very evocative image to me--to think that my green state was watered from the desert sand so many, many miles away.  It is so Biblical.

The more I see of what God has done, the more I appreciate Him.  I can't understand how people can see the wild places in the world and still deny that God exists, or that He cares.

Since I'm late in posting this, I thought I'd just share a few of my better pictures and pair them with a Bible passage that speaks to this sense the desert left me with--a fresh awareness of God's power and miraculous provision for mankind.
Barren Heights from which Rivers Flow
The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst.  But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.  I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys.  I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.  I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.  I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know,  may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Isaiah 41: 17-20 NIV)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Weekly Trivia Series #9 : Ad Ignorantium

For those of you who have been following this trivia series for awhile, I doubt you need a reminder of why I'm doing it.  It's not because I'm particularly interested in false argument/debate techniques.  It's only that I understand that even somewhat boring things can be useful. In this case, studying argument theory can improve your testimony as a Christian, helping you to present the facts about your faith in the strongest and most logical way.  It can make you look like a more rational person overall, which also helps your testimony.

Still, I think the most useful quality about this study is that it might help you catch on to bad argument techniques so that you don't fall for them. Just like they tell you on a plane flight, if you don't save yourself first, you won't be around to help anyone else.

Ad Ignorantium, Arguing from Ignorance

Because of the Latin name of this argument, it does sound pretty clever, and perhaps it is.  This argument is based on a subtle change in sides on the part of the debater.  In real, logical argument, the conclusions are always positive, in essence, they argue for something to exist or happen.  Even if the debater is trying to convince an audience that something doesn't exist or shouldn't happen, he or she has to bring proof of that position to convince the audience.  For instance, whether you are arguing that unicorns exist or arguing that they don't exist, you have to bring proof of your position.

Ad Ignorantium doesn't bring proof; in fact, it insists that something might happen, simply because no one could bring proof to the contrary.  Therefore, unicorns must exist, but are very clever at hiding, since no one has been able to summararily prove, one way or another, that they don't exist.  This fallacy tends to reduce an argument to an indefensible position and then challenge the audience to try to disprove that position.

Example: "The Bible doesn't specifically say that I'm not supposed to say this curse word.  There isn't a list of words I can't say, anywhere in the Bible.  So when you tell me I can't curse, you're just trying to take away my freedoms.  You can't prove that I'm doing anything wrong."

Example: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman.   "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3: 1-5 NIV). (I have always read the words, "You will not surely die," to mean, "You don't know that for certain.")

Example: "Just because you can't see God doesn't mean that He doesn't exist."

Let me make myself clear about the last example.  I do believe God exists, even though I cannot see Him, but I am aware that such a statement seems to indicate that I have no other way to prove God exists.  In fact, I do; therefore, I don't recommend using that point in a debate.  It is weak and easily dismissed.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Don't Fear the "Dictionary"

In grade school, I put off looking up words in the dictionary because I didn't like discovering that I'd been spelling them wrong for the umpteenth time.  It seems funny to me now, since I have a degree in English and every time I mention that to people, they joke that they need to watch their spelling and grammar around me.  What good was it doing me to avoid opening the dictionary, anyway?  It was still misspelled, whether I knew it or not, yet somehow ignorance really did feel like bliss.

Some Christians feel the same way about the Bible.  So many people out there preach how we are "free in Jesus," and that statement is no lie.  Unfortunately, we too often misinterpret that sentence to mean things that it shouldn't.  Do we know better, or are we just afraid to look?

As I've said before in my post, "To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice," total freedom is actually anarchy.  Rules and laws are important to protect our freedoms.  When we say we follow God, we are saying that we obey Him and accept His rules and His leadership.  Before we knew God, our lives were various degrees of anarchy against rules and order, but when we became Christians, we voluntarily gave up our so-called freedom to rebel, to hate, to harm others, to act out against the way God wants our lives to be.  We gave up the stress of keeping up an outward attitude of holiness (aka an act), the fear of getting caught, and the hard work of keeping all the lies and tricks from catching up with us.

So when I speak of being free in Jesus, I mean that when I am obeying God and living the way He planned and designed me to live, rather than doing my own thing, I feel somehow freer than before.  It feels better than it did the first time I looked up a word in the dictionary and discovered that I had spelled it right.  Jesus wasn't exaggerating when He said, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11: 30 NIV).

The problem with the phrase "free in Jesus" as it is usually used is that many use it to lay claim to freedoms that God doesn't offer Christians,  such as freedom and entitlement that doesn't take into account other people's freedom and entitlement (anarchy).  Sometimes people are trying to get away with something by claiming that "freedom in Jesus" allows them all these freedoms, but many just haven't read God's Word enough to know what God calls off-limits.  Often they choose not to look or search deeply into their own hearts, for fear that they might have something to repent of.  I don't know if this is laziness, a vague sense of conviction they are trying to brush off, or a type of immaturity that is unable to accept the consequences of their actions.

Whatever the reason, the Bible says that God doesn't wink at ignorance (Acts 17: 29-31).  At the end of our lives, we will have to explain to God why we did everything that we did.  Whether we know what to do but choose not to, or just willed ourselves ignorant, we will still have to account for everything we have done.  If you ask me, it's best not to get into trouble at all, but if you're going to anyway, you should at least know what you did to deserve the punishment.  When it comes right down to it, most people know in their hearts when they are doing something that might get them into that kind of trouble.

So to get back to my point, the real bliss, the real freedom in Christ, is knowing God's ways and walking in them (Jeremiah 7: 22-24), not living in fear of breaking rules we are not aware of or don't fully understand.  When we've made God's rules part of the framework and habits of our lives, we suddenly are free to live greater, happier, easier lives.  There are no laws against doing what is good (Galatians 5: 22-23); there is nothing really to fear for doing what is right, except the opinions of those who still fear being "found out" by the dictionary, so to speak, and their opinions don't ultimately matter.  When it comes down to it, it is better to know what God asks of us and do it than to live in fear of His displeasure.  Ignorance is not bliss.

The Test of Freedom

I don't ask you to think about this--whether the freedoms you claim in Christ really come from God--without trying to help you test them for yourself.  It isn't a good idea to make your spiritual decisions solely on what someone else says.  Ultimately you need to know what God thinks about something, not what other people think.  Not even my opinion, or your pastor's opinion, or your mom's opinion means more than what God's Word says.  I can't give you a cumulative list of all the do's and don'ts of the Bible, but I can try to give you biblical pointers to help you judge whether something you are doing is okay with God.  The rest is up to you.

  1. Does it show Christlike love to someone else?  The Bible says, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another," (John 13: 34-36 NIV).  Paul also wrote that we shouldn't do something in our freedom if it causes another person to sin (Romans 14: 21-23).  If it doesn't show real love and consideration for those around you, you should question whether you, as a Christian, should be doing it.
  2. Are you doing it to get glory and attention for yourself?  The world's way seeks to get on top or put yourself first, but God's way is to be humble and serve others (Luke 14: 7-11).
  3. Is it the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit? (See Galatians 3: 22-23, linked above).  The fruits of the spirit are characteristics of God's nature.  If it truly is the opposite of God's nature, there is probably something written in the Bible that tells you not to do it.
  4. Do you feel guilty about what you are doing?  Does it make you wonder if God would disapprove?  If so, you know on some level that something about what you want to do goes against something you've read in the Bible or heard preached.  You need to find out what that is.
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, it's time for some serious Bible study.  God wants you to be free, but He knows that living with sin and guilt in our lives is actually bondage and suffering (Psalm 38, Isaiah 42: 6-8).  That is why Jesus came.  God has made an easier way than living in fear of the "dictionary," always afraid of what it is going to say about you.  The Bible says, "The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice," (Proverbs 12: 15 NIV).  The best advice I can give you is to seek God's advice, which He's put down in His Word so you don't have to wonder about it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files #8, Come Along

As I always do, I'll remind my audience again that I'm going through all these argument fallacies (errors in reasoning) to sharpen our skills for presenting our faith when asked.  I don't assume that everyone who reads this post does street-corner witnessing or prison ministry on the weekends.  I do assume that if you live like a Christian, you are going to get asked a question our two about your faith from time to time.

I will also remind readers that the Bible is the best resource for information on how to present our faith intelligently, but I believe secular resources can sometimes help, when used with discernment.

The Bandwagon: A Peer-Pressure Technique

Chances are you have personally experienced the "Bandwagon Appeal" at some point in your life, especially if you were making a high-stakes decision.  The Bandwagon technique singles out it's victims, making them feel isolated, left out, or outdated if they choose not to go along with the crowd.  My professor called it "sneaky guilt."  The whole technique rides on the perception that a large number of our peers want something, and we shouldn't be one to stand in their way.  But does this crowd really exist?  Even so, should we define certain decisions (especially moral and ethical decisions) based on what the crowd wants us to do?

Example: "Thousands will be voting for State Question 270.  Don't forget to vote 'yes' on State Question 270 tomorrow, and be counted among those who are voting for a better tomorrow for our state."

Example: "The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, 'Look, as one man the other prophets are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably,'" (2 Chronicles 18: 12 NIV).