Sophism: false argument, one intended to deceive. Sophist: captious or clever but fallacious reasoner. Sophistic: related to sophism. Sophisticate: sophisticated person, related to sophism. Sophisticated: worldly-wise, cultured, elegant, highly developed and complex.
The Oxford Dictionary of Current English (1993)
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things.”1 But I think that today such sophistry has become “sophistication” and it is the thing our generation covets the most.
We see examples of this on a daily basis. Recently I heard the word “iconographic” (usually used in reference to art) used in reference to words and language that defend morality and truth. The speaker was arguing that words are merely icons (symbols, but not the reality) that have come to mean certain things, depending on how culture has affected them. For example, I may say “adultery is sin” but the word “adultery” is only a symbol that has been crafted to produce a certain connotation in my mind. It may or may not have anything to do with the actual act. In this way “adultery” is iconographic.
These thinkers would insist that Puritanical Christians of generations past decided to attach a negative meaning to this activity by calling it adultery. But today’s liberated thinkers are not bound by such moralizing. Remove the attached label, or icon, and all such cultural prohibitions are also removed. In such ways, today’s cultural sophisticates have become verbal iconoclasts. Or, as William Bennett just wrote, “They have persuaded many that the sophisticated thing is to dismiss the scandalous as irrelevant.”2 They are effectively reaching into every area of sacred honor and belief and toppling every word that carries moral meaning.
We children of the sixties laughed when the Beatles sang, “I want to hold your hand” because we knew that Mom and Dad thought that’s all they meant. But now we are reaping what we sowed. We groan to hear the most powerful man in the world, himself a product of the sixties, say that adultery is not adultery. He has traded a sacred trust for a mess of iconograhic porridge and he has “found no place of repentance,” even in tears.
As we continue to move from a print-based society to a visual, image-based society, such pillaging of words will continue. The soil is ripe. Attention spans will continue to drop while the demand for entertainment in media will increase. Personal accountability in society and culture will wane while escape to virtual worlds will broaden beyond belief. Reasoning, based on commonly accepted word meanings in conversation, will grow scarce if not disappear altogether. The dictionary will become obsolete.
Technology, far from deepening our mental and verbal skills, has destroyed and replaced them with easier alternatives. Neil Postman wrote, “To every Old World belief, habit, or tradition, there was and still is a technological alternative. To prayer, the alternative is penicillin; to family roots, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal established through scientific polling.”3
A specific irritant in this emerging new age will be the preacher, the heralder of “thus saith the Lord,” one who must insist that a written text carries specific meaning, including the word “sin.” He has no right, being only a messenger of the King’s words, to negotiate with the text. His is only to proclaim it. Of course, it will become difficult enough to relate specific truths from specific words to an illiterate society who has become too technologically sophisticated to listen.
The preacher will become contentious for Jude, the Lord’s brother, said he would have to contend. He will need to define meaning and refuse multiple choice answers to eternal questions. He will judge between truth and error by an unchangeable standard, and thus commit society’s greatest offense—that of judging something to be wrong. He will be busily running behind the iconoclasts and propping the words up again, only to see them fall as soon as he walks away.
Lest we end our thinking here, on what could easily be defeatism, let me suggest the good news with the bad. The bad news is that the western civilization we have known for a few hundred years, a civilization greatly influenced by Christianity and theistic thinking, is being overrun by paganism. This paganism is bringing with it a whole new way of defining and coming to truth—a way that leads unto death!
The good news is rather ironic. If our job as heralders of God’s truth is to put ourselves in a biblical frame of mind with the biblical writers, then our world has now become much closer to theirs and our job is much easier. Their world was awash with pagan thinking about gods being known through nature, experience being the basis for truth, the natural world enmeshed with the supernatural world and therefore as changeable as the seasons, and (something we forget) sex being an integral link between physical experience and celestial significance. History had no significance to the pagan because meaning could only be secured at the moment. “The supreme norm is always the status quo.”4
There is apparent danger with the good news. We may grow to like the pagan world and begin to think too much like it rather than in a biblical way. Our gospel is based in history. Our Savior is a fact of history. Our message is a revealed truth given in propositional form that transcends centuries and cultures. And our task is now very much like those apostles who first delivered the gospel. We are bringing light to darkness and hope to despair. However sophisticated we become, whatever contextualizing we do, we now have the blessed opportunity to participate in “like precious faith” with them.
Notes: 1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Pub., 1994) 5. 2. William J. Bennett, The Death Of Outrage (New York: The Free Press, 1998) 10-11. 3. Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) 54. 4. David Wells, No Place For Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 268.