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  • kmathison6

You Keep Using That Word

The Princess Bride is one of the all-time greatest film comedies (don't argue with me), and much of its success is due to the brilliant portrayal of Inigo Montoya by the actor Mandy Patinkin. He steals scene after scene. In the early part of the movie, the character Vizzini (portrayed by Wallace Shawn) exclaims, "Inconceivable!" several times. At one point, Inigo responds, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Adventures follow. Hilarity ensues. And in the end . . . well, if you haven't seen it, go watch it and see how it ends.

I find Inigo Montoya's phrase popping into my mind on occasion as I observe people (Christians and non-Christians) arguing on television or online. In the heat of an argument, someone involved in the debate will often toss out a word or phrase to label the person with whom they disagree. Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if they actually understand the meaning of the word they are using.

Those on the left end of the political spectrum, for example, are quite fond of using the word "fascist" when arguing with or talking about political opponents. Now, fascism is a real ideology that caused indescribable suffering in the twentieth century (Fascism and Marxism seemed to be in a contest during much of the twentieth century to see which one could cause the most death and despair). What I wonder is how many of those today who refer to their opponents as "fascists" really know what fascism is. If you take a look at scholarly books or articles on the subject, there is quite a bit of disagreement about its precise nature even today. It makes me wonder whether those using the word in such a cavalier manner have read anything on the history of fascism. Or are many, as I suspect, using the word as a convenient label to demonize an opponent because they've heard that fascism is bad in some way? Demonization of opponents has a long track record in political discourse.

Christians sometimes seem to do the same kind of things in their arguments. In recent months, for example, I've seen a number of Christians suggest that another person is an advocate of "critical theory." While this may very well be true, sometimes I can't help but wonder if the person making that suggestions knows what those words mean. I wonder, for example, if the person making that charge would be comfortable if someone asked them to get up and give an impromptu fifteen-minute introduction to and explanation of critical theory. Would they be able to give even a basic level introduction to its philosophical roots, its key early proponents, its development, the ways it was incorporated and used by various other movements, etc.? If someone does have a clear understanding of what it is, then they may be competent to detect it when it arises. On the other hand, if someone doesn't really know what it is, they probably ought to refrain from pretending they do.

Among other things, my job involves teaching college students. One of the fundamental rules for teachers is not to pretend to understand a topic they don't understand. No one should do this, but if a teacher does it, it is usually discovered very quickly. If a teacher who did not really understand critical theory, for example, were to bring it up in class and suggest that so and so has clearly been influenced by critical theory, he or she is asking for trouble because eventually an intelligent student is going to raise his or her hand and ask the teacher for an explanation of critical theory. If someone is faking an understanding of something online, he or she can ignore such questions. That doesn't work in the classroom. Of course, sometimes a student will ask a question about an issue that the teacher didn't bring up and about which the teacher is not sufficiently informed. In those cases, the teacher has to be honest and say, "I don't know."

I think most of us instinctively get this when it comes to practical skills or knowledge we lack. Imagine, for example, that there's a downed high voltage power line on the street in front of your house, and a crew of linemen are there to fix it. Imagine you know nothing about the work electricians do and nothing about high voltage power lines. Can you imagine any situation in which you would walk out of your house and start offering advice to these workers about how to do their job all the while tossing out words you do not comprehend: "Hey guys! I see that you found the short circuit. I was thinking you could probably lengthen it by a couple of watts if you alternate the current to Hertz instead of using Avis. My Facebook friends say that would violate Ohm's law, but what do they know? Right?"


Christians have to be engaged in discussions on important topics, and Christians need to be discerning in order to notice when and if false teaching is creeping into the church, but Christians need to be well-informed before attempting either. It's a matter of simple honesty and integrity. If you have heard, for example, that critical theory or some other -ism is making inroads into the church and you are concerned, do some homework before saying anything. When we do not do this, the possibility of our violating the ninth commandment goes up exponentially.



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