To know God and to make Him known.

Counterfeit Bills

“They teach bankers to recognize counterfeits by showing them REAL bills.”

The statement referenced above is offered by many Christians as a reason against exposing children to non-Christian texts. The reasoning asserts that: If we are to raise children to know the truth, why expose them to untruth? As classical educators, however, we expose students not only to Christian authors but also to secular and pagan authors. As classical educators, you have therefore probably heard the reasoning given above uttered by well-meaning friends—and perhaps have wrestled with its implications yourself. The analogy of counterfeit money sounds so good that it demands an answer.

In researching this analogy out of a personal curiosity, I found that bankers and treasury agents are indeed trained just as the analogy says: They do not bother to handle counterfeits, but real money—lots of real money. A treasury agent does not bother to study lists of known counterfeiting techniques (because such information would be incomplete or it would soon be outdated). Rather, a treasury agent is steeped in the real thing, so that he may know the weight, appearance, and smell of a real dollar bill. Then any new deception a counterfeiter throws at him can be immediately detected.

But a treasury agent’s function of detecting counterfeits is not exactly analogous to the task of a Christian knowing the appearance and smell of truth. Here, I will argue that the ‘counterfeit money’ analogy is a poor one based on three reasons:

  • Discerning real money from counterfeit is an act of recognition and knowing the truth requires not just recognition but also understanding.
  • Even if we assume that secular writings contain no truth—that they are absolutely counterfeit—a Christian is not called to simply detect falsehood but to respond to it.
  • Secular writing does, in fact, carry value in a way a counterfeit dollar bill does not.

A treasury agent engages in a fundamentally different process than a Christian does: Truth and the Bible are made up of ideas, while paper currency is made up of facts—shapes, colors, and patterns. Therefore, what a treasury agent is doing when he is looking for counterfeits is a fundamentally different activity than what a Christian is doing when he is learning about truth. The treasury agent studies the patterns, shapes, and colors printed on the money. He does not employ any understanding of economics, of the leaders depicted on the bills, or even of the values that the numerals signify. Theoretically, the treasury department could recruit a person who did not know how to spend money wisely and who did not know good economic policy from bad, train him to recognize all the right patterns, and put him to work quite successfully picking out counterfeit bills. His job requires him to recognize money, but it does not require him to ‘know’ money.

This is because his job is to discern whether one thing matches a certain set of standards found on another thing. This is a grammar level activity (albeit an activity which only a trained expert can do). A Christian’s job requires a different, and higher, kind of discernment. He is to ‘know’ truth—to have a rhetoric-level understanding of it, in which he does not only ‘read’ the Bible, recognizing the patterns and print on the pages, but also contemplates the ideas he gathers from reading it.

I feel I should explain my last statement by pointing to the very nature of reading: No one learns to read merely for the purpose of reading. A student who gains the ability to read —to recognize the patterns of black and white which we call ‘writing’—looks forward not to a lifetime of continuing to recognize these patterns, but to receiving the ideas that are expressed in the writing. Reading words is not an activity that is valuable in itself, rather, it is a means to experience the ideas expressed ‘in’ the words.

Thus, in the question of Christians studying secular texts, the counterfeit money analogy does not relate to the situation actually being described. The treasury agent employs the skill of recognition. The Christian must cultivate understanding. It should come as no surprise that he should pursue this in a different way than a treasury agent pursues his skills! The falsehood (and the danger) of the counterfeit money analogy is that when a Christian compares the study of secular books to the study of counterfeit money, he is making the inadvertent assumption that studying books is like studying money—that a Christian in search of truth should want to search like a treasury agent in the first place. Comparing money to books (even books that contain false ideas—which I will speak to in a moment) is not only a misapplication but a grave error indeed, implying that a grammar-level ability of playing ‘spot the difference’ is all the acquaintance with a book—or with The Book—to which we should aspire. Such is my first reason.

As to my second reason, it is important to talk about another inadvertent assumption built into the counterfeit money analogy, namely that non-Christian texts are false in some absolute way, such that they warrant an ‘F’ instead of a “T” with a #2 pencil on a set of standards in some scantron machine. In other words, they are ‘counterfeit’ versions of the truth. Having read thus far, it may come as no surprise that I reject this—not because secular books do not contain any ideas worthy of an ‘F,’ because certainly they do—but because I believe books are too complex to be summed up with a simplistic True/False paradigm. I venture that there are many criteria in which a book can have truth value; one could ask, does it warrant a ‘T’ or an ‘F’ in its presentation of economics, politics, gender roles, historical fact, epistemology, eschatology, soteriology, or a host of others? To ask “is the author a Christian?” may well be the most important of these questions, and for asking it I applaud those Christians who are using the counterfeit money analogy—but it is not the only question to ask. Treat it as though it carries two difficulties: It denies us the political insights of, for example, a statesman of the stature of Jefferson; it also denies us the historical observations of a historian such as Plutarch—indeed, it may even put us at the mercy of some particular fraud.

Laying out this assumption is a bit of a preface to my second reason, which is this: Even if we accept that non-Christian texts are false in the absolute sense of the word (and, by implication, that a text is a thing to which that sense of the word ‘false’ can be made to apply), then the analogy still does not lead us to respond to those false ideas in a Christian way. When a treasury agent sees the kind of error for which he is looking, he calls the authorities, for the kind of error he knows how to detect is not the kind of error that can be corrected.

Here again the analogy does not apply, for in fact, it is not enough for Christians to simply ‘detect’ error in this way; rather Christians are to detect and then to ‘correct’ error and call for repentance. Doing so requires a deeper understanding of the error than simply identifying that it is one (a grammar-level accomplishment as I have argued above). Doing so requires us to ‘know our enemy;’ it requires us to study the counterfeits. Even if non-Christian writings are empty of truth, we ought to throw ourselves into them in order to be better able to combat those errors, rather than hiding from them in fear as if they will miseducate us (which, I feel I should point out, is not the reason that agents in training avoid studying counterfeits; rather, for their job, counterfeits are not worth the time needed for study).

After all, as some of my Christian friends like to say, St. Paul was acquainted enough with paganism to convert the philosophers at Mars Hill. Knowing the ‘enemy’s books’ is invaluable, perhaps even mandatory, as an evangelism tool. Yet as a classical student I will hazard the provocative claim that this is not the only reason to study them, and that I am not certain myself whether it is even the biggest benefit these books can yield…but I fear that this, my third reason, is an article unto itself

Tobin Duby will next contribute to Writer’s Circle on May 9, 2012.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

Leave a Comment