To Tell Truth From Error: The Church’s Teaching Responsibility

We don’t know how to tell truth from error, and it’s time for the church to take responsibility.

The Roman Catholic Church in New York is promoting Jesus Christ as “The Original Hipster.” I saw that on yesterday’s news, just a day after I found out  an online poll by Prospect magazine had Richard Dawkins being named the world’s top thinker.

Neither of these speaks well for the state of thinking in our world.

Richard Dawkins is a prolific popularizer, which is hardly the same as being a great thinker. My co-authors and I have argued in True Reason that he and the New Atheist movement he leads are beset with irrationality (see here for an excerpt from the book.) I am no world-class thinker, and yet I find Dawkins to be almost embarrassingly easy to refute, on almost everything he says about Christianity. Still he was voted to the top of the list among thinkers in the world.

Meanwhile a church puts forth a campaign to attract people to Jesus based on identifying him with hipsters. Now, one evidence of my non-hipsterness is that I had to look up “hipster.” Urban Dictionary’s take on it includes a strong emphasis on “fashion sensibilities” along with a “bohemian lifestyle.” Hipsters are apparently responsible for/represented by VICE Magazine, which you do not want to google: the name is descriptive enough. Jesus was no hipster, original or otherwise.

This is not so much an indictment on New York Catholics — other churches have made similar errors, and the secular world has made false-image-based selling a science. Instead it underscores the same conclusion I draw from Dawkins’s being voted a top world thinker. He has crafted an image for himself as a thinker in spite of all reality. Meanwhile the Church in New York is marketing an image. In J.P. Moreland’s memorable phrase, the make-up artist is more important than the speech writer.

We can no longer tell good thinking from poor. We no longer expect anyone else to think well, either. And it is we who are allowing this. I am speaking to my fellow believers now. In fact, with our various versions of hipster “Jesus,” we’re promoting it.

This is part of the mission of the church: to teach how to distinguish truth from error. Too often instead we’re collaborating with contemporary culture’s curriculum in telling popular from unpopular, hip from drab. (Is it hip to say “drab”? I don’t know and I don’t care.) I don’t recall any instruction in the Bible to develop that skill in the church.

To recognize truth involves spiritual readiness (see 1 Corinthians 2 and 3). It requires knowledge of the Bible, the trustworthy guide to truth. Churches typically emphasize both of those. To tell truth from error also takes mental preparation: the ability to assess evidence and reasoning. Churches don’t often teach that.

There may have been a time when we could count on the schools covering that skill, but no longer. If anyone is going to fill the gap, it’s going to have to be the churches — and not just through Christian schools and home schools. Many of them are doing an admirable job of teaching logic and rhetoric, but they are too few to do all that’s needed.

So the church must pick up the responsibility. Either that or we could continue as we are. We could say that it’s not a sufficiently spiritual topic to spend time on in church.

And we could keep on trying to sell Jesus with confused and false imagery, and voting Richard Dawkins the world’s top thinker.

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