To know God and to make Him known.

Counterfeit Bills (Part 2)

In my last article, I argued that the statement, “They teach bankers to recognize counterfeits by showing them REAL bills,” is not a good argument against exposing our children to non-Christian books, as it is usually intended to imply. I argued that the banker-student analogy breaks down for two reasons. First, studying a book is a fundamentally different activity from studying a dollar bill—the former being a rhetoric-level activity involving abstract ideas and the latter being a grammar-level activity involving a “spot the difference” exercise of colors and shapes printed concretely on paper—therefore, Christian homeschooling should feel no obligation to use the Federal Reserve’s training procedure as a model. Second, the very manner in which Christians are to respond to errors is just as different; namely, to preach the truth and convert rather than making an arrest, and in order to do this, students necessarily must not restrict themselves to the study of true ideas only. But neither of these objections is, in my opinion, the real heart of the matter—hence, this second article (read part 1  )

Before continuing I should make a few things clear. Perhaps, in order to have avoided offending anyone, I should have made them clearer in the first place. First, I am referring exclusively to students of rhetoric age; young children should, of course, be sheltered from false ideas because they are still forming an understanding of what truth looks like. The counterfeit money analogy (which I will call the CMA) actually applies quite well to grammar aged students, since the activity it refers to (identifying counterfeit money) is grammatical in nature. Second, though I am writing this article against their viewpoint, I have respect for Christian parents who use the CMA when talking about their rhetoric aged students; I do not disagree with them about which ideas are false, only about how ideas actually affect us—as I hope to explain below. If you are a parent who fears that the works of Aristotle are a counterfeit gospel, dangerous to your teenager’s well-being, I hope to bolster your confidence in your teenager’s ability to defend himself. If you have friends who think this way, I hope to equip you to defend your choices before them in a way that will at least cause them to see your viewpoint.

To make sure I have cleared the air completely, I will say, thirdly, that I respect the level of expertise employed by treasury agents. Saying that their profession engages in ‘grammar-level’ thinking is not the same as saying ‘anyone can do that.’

Now to the main point of this second part—I left off last time suggesting that, in addition to the other ways in which books are not like dollar bills, non-Christian books do not carry an absolute “false” status in the same way that a counterfeit bill does—indeed, it is against the very nature of a book to do so. Here I will argue that they can, in fact, be of great value to your student, which is why they are included in a classical Christian curriculum.

In order to make this point, I will attack another popular “Christianese” metaphor: the Dog Poop Brownie Story (DPBS). I was first introduced to it when it was one of those anonymous, Comic Sans e-mail body forwards that were passed around in the days before any of our homeschooling friends were sure what a hyperlink was or how to send one. If you are not familiar with this metaphor, it is as follows:

My kids asked me if they could go to an R-rated movie. They argued that it had good acting, a good story, and only a little bit of immorality in it. I taught them an object lesson by baking some brownies… with just a little bit of dog poop in them! I told my kids that these brownies contained good chocolate, good butter, and only a little bit of poop. I told them that if they would eat the brownies, they could go to the movie. They didn’t bite. Then we discussed the comparison—if we shouldn’t put poop in our stomachs, we shouldn’t put bad ideas in our minds.

…or something along these lines.

Something about this story always bothered me. Of course we should not put evil things before our eyes, nor take fire in our bosoms and expect not to be burned. But even as a child, I felt that poop-in-the-brownies was not really the same thing—that it was not really the reason not to watch R-rated movies. After all, some of the so-called “bad” things in movies (war violence, for instance) can actually be good, if they are telling a story about virtue, and the audience is mature enough to “get it.” It was not until I was in college that I put my finger on what seemed so wrong about this very convincing word picture. I found that, like the CMA, the DPBS is based on an assumption—namely, that ideas are to movies as ingredients are to brownies or, more to the point, that ideas affect moviegoers in exactly the same way that ingredients affect brownie eaters.

But thinking is not the same thing as eating. This might sound like an obvious statement, but it is not. One may argue that the stomach is the same kind of thing as the brain; both are made up of cells, both are affected by the chemicals that enter them, and both will shrivel up and die without water. But as Christians (or even simply as non-Darwinists) we believe that the stomach is not at all the same kind of thing as the mind. And after all, it is your mind and not your brain, which sorts and examines the ideas you read about in a book or see in a movie.

To put all of this into practical terms, food, when ingested into the stomach, immediately and irrevocably passes through the stomach walls and into the bloodstream, and thence to the cells and organs, where it is translated into nourishment. The stomach does not “think” about what it is doing and you have no choice in the matter—which, by the way, is why poison works as effectively as it does. The same is true of drugs, whether aspirin or something stronger—of course, these can enter the body through pathways other than the stomach. A person could receive a drug into his bloodstream accidentally or unwillingly, and experience the same effect as if he had taken it on purpose.

Imagine a world in which the mind operated this way. As soon as an idea entered the mind (from a book, movie, or even a word spoken by someone else) it would pass, immediately and irrevocably, from the nerves to the muscles, where it would be translated into action. In such a world, your teenage son would jump off a cliff merely because Johnny Hudgins did it. In such a world, we could not reasonably expect him to do anything else, any more than we could expect a patient dosed with morphine not to fall asleep. The idea—jump off a cliff—had seeped into his brain in exactly the same way that his breakfast had seeped into his muscles earlier that day; his brain did not “think” about what it was doing.

This is the very world in which the Dog Poop Brownie Story thinks we all live.

Oh, I do not mean any malice toward the man who wrote the DPBS. After all, I assume he was only trying to make the point that we are fallen, that in spite of ourselves we are attracted to evil ideas, and that needlessly exposing ourselves to them can contaminate our thinking. Good message. But the analogy is beyond bad, because repeating to yourself, “I will not watch that; that is the ol’ dog poop in the brownies,” soon leads you to start thinking, “I will not watch that; things I see are like a morphine pill that will do what it wants to me without giving me a choice in the matter.” By all means, do not watch that, if you think that doing so would dishonor your Father. But please do not tell yourself that you are resisting because your mind is the same kind of thing as your stomach.

Some very intelligent and successful Darwinists have written essays that argue that the mind is the same kind of thing as the stomach, i.e., it is passively shaped by whatever ideas happen to touch it. These men have given us the public school system and a number of other things, and I think they would like the DPBS rather a lot.

The truth is that bad ideas get into our thinking against our better judgment—because, in our sinfulness, we want to be seduced by them, not because our mind absorbs them as undiscerningly as a stomach lining that sucks up brownie ingredients and dog poop alike. The presence of bad ideas in a book is, by all means, something we should make our offspring capable of discerning. But it should not be a reason to reject a book in the same way as, say, the presence of poison in a lemon bar would be a reason not to eat it.

So why should we read secular books? After all, what can the writings of the unsaved do to enlighten your rhetoric aged student? Well, since I’ve come this far by using other people’s metaphors to illustrate my point, I don’t think I’ll stop now.

A word picture that postmodernists like to use to describe truth is that of the blind men bumping into the elephant. One finds the tail and concludes that an elephant is a thing like a rope. One finds the leg and concludes that an elephant is a thing like a tree trunk. Another finds the ear and concludes that an elephant is a thing like a palm frond, and they all fall into bickering about it. This is really a story about how human beings all have rather limited intellects and tend to assume that what they know is all there is. What a postmodernist will use this story to do is to convince us that all viewpoints are equally “correct,” and that nobody should argue about anything.

This is just, plain absurd—and it is the wrong conclusion to draw from this metaphor. I think this metaphor is more Christian than its postmodern proponents realize. Christians can actually agree that, the human mind being the limited thing that it is, nobody has perceived the whole of the elephant except Christ alone. Where the postmodernists go wrong is in their unspoken assumption that every person of every religion gets to perceive equally important parts of the elephant—indeed, that everyone perceives the elephant. Instead, as Christians, we believe there are secular people who correctly perceive parts of the truth—but not enough parts or not the right parts to be saved—there are Christians who have been given the sight to see salvific truth, and there are other secular people who have missed the elephant and are holding onto something else altogether—a poison ivy plant, perhaps.

What this metaphor illustrates for us is not that truth is equally accessible—far from it!—but that one portion of the truth is the most that any person can be expected to grasp at a time, notwithstanding that Christians have, of course, been given access to the most important part of it already. Therefore, to say that one author’s grasp of the truth is incomplete is really just to say that he is fallen, and it is not very new or helpful. His incompleteness should not be, in itself, a satisfactory reason to reject his books and the truths that he does have to say. If it were, even books by Christians would be out of the running!

As a classical student, I acknowledge that although poor, blind Aristotle may think that the tail is the whole elephant, he has more to teach me about tails than I could have learned on my own. Poor, blind Feynman may only have hold of the leg, but he can teach me more about legs than I imagined there was to know. Poor, blind Stephenie Meyer is rubbing poison ivy on her face, insisting that it is good for her complexion. I thank my professors and my God that I know better.

I would not have you believe that non-Christians have any special insight. Indeed, every author who has lived would have written his book better if he had been a Christian. What I am trying to point out is that most of them were not. So far, Christians have made up only a segment of the population of history, and a good portion of the geniuses who have lived and written books or other materials have done so outside of that segment. Since we, as believers, have been given our sight, we can use it to begin discovering the entire elephant; how absurd it would be for us to refuse to look at the portions that smarter men—although unsaved—have spent their lives studying before us! Does reading their work take discernment? Of course it does. There is little that is worthwhile that does not. When hearing truth spoken by those who are still blind, we shall always find it encumbered with falsehood. But in the end, it is easy to sort out. These are ideas, not brownies—and we have minds.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

Leave a Comment