Mr. Kalsbeek is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan.
“And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.”
Rudyard Kipling was a great storyteller. Perusal of a few of the stories he wrote for his “Best Beloved” daughter Josephene in the collection Just So Stories will illustrate the point.
One of the classics in that collection of stories is “The Elephant’s Child.” The elephant’s child was full of what Kipling calls “satiable curiosity.” As a consequence the elephant’s child asks “a fine new question that he had never asked before. He asked, ‘What does the Crocodile have for dinner?'” What response did he receive? No answer to his question was forthcoming, just spankings. He related his sad experience to the Kolokolo Bird, “My father has spanked me, and my mother has spanked me; all my aunts and uncles have spanked me for my ‘satiable curtiosity’; and still I want to know what the Crocodile has for dinner!” The Kolokolo Bird, with a “mournful cry,” had a suggestion for the elephant’s child: “Go to the banks of the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.” So that is exactly what the elephant’s child did. His expedition to the Limpopo River would have far-reaching (no pun intended) consequences for himself and all his elephant relatives, and all this with some timely help from the Bi-Colored-Python-Rock-Snake, of course. (If this has piqued your“satiable curiosity,” by all means go to your local library or the Internet for “the rest of the story.”)
Interestingly, what for Kipling in his day were “just so stories” would in today’s world sometimes qualify as valid arguments in debate. Today’s “argument/stories” may not be quite as fantastic as those of Kipling, but they are stories nonetheless. And often those who would question the legitimacy of using such stories as arguments are repeatedly chastised like the elephant’s child. This we will try to demonstrate in this article. But first let’s go to the root of the problem.
That stories would qualify as arguments in today’s world is a consequence of the postmodern thinking that has permeated our age. Postmodern ideas were greatly advanced during the counterculture movement of the 1960s. At that time many young people, especially those on the college campuses under the influence of their liberal professors, began to question the fruits of Western society and especially the authority that underpinned Western society. They sought instead a way of life free of moral and rational restraint. Thus it was that the peace symbol and the slogan “free love” were much bandied about as representative of the thinking behind the movement.
Though difficult to define, what postmodernism stands for has been expressed ably by Gene Edward Veith Jr., who explains that, according to postmodernism,
Truth is relative, dependent on the individual’s experience and culture. Morality is also relative, a function of the individual’s choices and prevailing cultural norms.
If truth is relative, one idea is as good as another. In the absence of any reliable means of arriving at truth—with both revelation and reason discredited—the only criterion for adopting a particular idea, if only provisionally, is desire. Reason is replaced by the pleasure-principle. Instead of people saying they agree or disagree with a proposition, we hear how much they “like” or “dislike” a particular idea. People pick and choose what they enjoy from a wide range of theories and religions, dependent solely on their personal preferences and choices. The intellect is replaced by the will. Moral issues are similarly relativized. “You have to decide what’s right for you,” we are told on the talk shows. “What’s right for one person might not be right for someone else.” “Who are we to judge?” Moral issues are not seen in terms of absolute transcendent standards as in the Bible, nor in terms of what is good for society as a whole, as in modernism. What makes an action moral or immoral is whether or not the person made a choice.
In a relativistic climate, the only remaining virtue is tolerance. The only philosophies that are wrong are those that believe in truth; the only sinners are those who still believe there is such a thing as sin.¹
This is exactly why postmodernism is such an ardent foe of Christianity. Not only does the postmodernist reject the truth claims of the Christian, in the process of the discussion he elevates stories (which often are simply appeals to the emotions) to the status of serious arguments: stories which in his view carry as much or even more weight than well-reasoned arguments. Some examples will help to demonstrate this.
How it works in the world
E.J. Dionne spanks President Bush for his veto of Congress’ $35 billion expansion of the children’s health care program known as SCHIP. In opposition to the veto of SCHIP, Dionne’s “just so story” relates:
A car crash in December 2004 left two of Halsey and Bonnie Frost’s children comatose, Graeme with a brain stem injury and Gemma, his sister, with a cranial fracture.
The kids were treated, thanks to SCHIP. The Frosts spoke out so the public would know that real people lie behind the acronym.
…The real issue here is whether uninsured families with earnings similar to the Frosts’ need government help to buy health coverage. …The answer is plainly yes.²
Long and hard as one may look in the article for reasoned arguments in support of expanding the SCHIP program—arguments concerning whether or not health care programs are the business of the federal government, how such a program can be financed, whether or not similar programs are working in other countries, etc.—none exist. Just stories…and spankings for being so uncaring of those in need!
It is the same story on the abortion issue. From day one it was stories and still is: stories about “back-alley abortions,” stories about the pregnant twelve year old, stories about the woman who is pregnant as a result of rape, and stories about the deformed fetus that (not “who”) will lead an impossibly difficult life if left to live. Ignored all the while is the elephant in the room. He is conveniently pushed into the closet, even though he is the most important character in the whole debate. The ignored elephant is the fetus itself and the answer to the question: “What is the unborn?” One would think there would be, at minimum, some “satiable curiosity” concerning an answer to this question, but alas…there appears to be none.
With the developments in science it is becoming easier and easier to answer that question correctly using well-reasoned—even scientific—arguments (see example in theStandard Bearer, Sept. 1, 2007 page 476). Yet what we continue to hear are “just so stories.” And what we continue to feel with drumbeat consistency is theswat…swat…swat… of the stick because of a lack of compassion for all the victims…with the exception of the elephant, of course.
How it works in the church
While many other examples could be cited of “just so stories” told by the world to support the “ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed” (Jude 15), what is more disconcerting is that the church has been infected with the same postmodern virus. It too has often resorted to stories—even when the Scriptures provide clear answers to the issues. A case in point is the women-in-special-offices- of-the-church issue. How very clear the Scriptures are on this issue (Acts 6:3-6, I Cor. 14:34-36, I Tim. 2:11-15). Yet the stories about the women in the churches that have all these gifts that are being wasted if they are not allowed to use them in the special offices often win the day. Ignored in the discussion are the many ways women can and do use their God-given gifts in the churches to the edification of the body without violating the demands of Scripture. But to suggest the stories are not valid arguments will likely as not result in being spanked with the charge of being a “male chauvinist.”
Similarly, the issue of divorce and remarriage has been decided by many denominations, in large part, on the basis of “just so stories” about the battered wife, the unfaithful husband, and a hundred other heart-wrenching scenarios of conflict within the marriage relationship. All of which may necessitate the direct involvement of the church, and even in some instances result in a biblical divorce (Matt. 19:9). However, the leap to approve remarriagein these cases, while the spouse is living, goes contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture (Matt. 19:4-9, Mark 10:11– 12, Luke 16:18, Rom. 7:1-3, I Cor. 7:39) and is based primarily on stories that emit pity for the “innocent” party. Be prepared to bend over for your spanking if you dare be so uncaring and unsympathetic as to suggest that God does not approve of this. Story time is over, just the spankings remain.
Those issues (women in office and divorce and remarriage) have already been decided in most of the churches, but that of accepting homosexuals as members and/or officebearers in the churches is still up for discussion by some. Once again it is “just so stories” designed to elicit responses of pity that are presented to support it.
For a demonstration of this, look at the present battle being fought in the Christian Reformed Church over this issue. The one side identifies the problem:
…Homosexual lifestyles are being accepted and tolerated by some church people today out of their pity for gays and lesbians as people. Professing Christians are accepting the belief that homosexuality is of genetic origin when the Bible clearly states that a homosexual lifestyle is detestable to God,
Scripture teaches that God condemns the behavior and holds the person responsible for it. When we pity a sinner and thereby let him continue in his sin, it will become a snare to the church and to the Christian.³
The other side mostly tells stories, as illustrated by former Banner editor John Suk. He writes concerning a committee report on this issue to the 2002 CRC synod:
…The committee notes, however, that many gay people and even some Christian Reformed ministers, such as well-known author and retired Fuller theological seminary professor, Lewis Smedes, have a different point of view. Smedes argues that even though God intended for humans to be heterosexual, “God prefers homosexual people to live in committed and faithful monogamous relationships with each other when they cannot change their condition and do not have the gift to be celibate.”4
Dr. Smedes here offers a story rather than an argument. He tells a story about what he thinks God prefers even though what God actually “prefers” (as clearly expressed in Scripture) is something quite different. That the committee of synod would use this story in its report is disappointing.
This issue is not yet finally decided in the CRC; however, the stories continue. And the stories are designed to condition the listener to be more accepting of the homosexual lifestyle. Consider the message of the play “Seven Passages,” which was directed by Calvin College theatre professor Stephanie Sandberg. Concerning the storyline of the play the religion editor of The Grand Rapids Presswrites,
The veteran actress gives a soliloquy about a mother who couldn’t bear children, who is then blessed with a daughter, who turns out to be a lesbian.
Her sexuality rejected by her parents and prayed over by her church, the daughter leaves home and eventually kills herself. Soon after, her father dies of a heart attack.
Eventually, her mother realizes that she, too, is a lesbian. Her daughter’s suicide note comes back to haunt her: “I feel like a body exposed in winter.”5
In her comments about the play, the director remarked, “In compelling people to hear their stories (the stories of “gay Christians,” ck), the play achieved exactly what it set out to do,” which was to generate feelings of pity for the characters. In addition we are told, “The play pointedly questions traditional biblical interpretations commonly used to condemn gay relationships.”6
Apparently the play promotes the idea that “just so stories” trump “traditional biblical interpretations.” And if that is not bad enough, the play’s cast intends to produce a DVD of the play, which local pastors desire to use to generate discussion in their churches. Thus their stories are intended to have a broader impact on the church’s position with respect to this sinful activity.
Some considerations for modern-day Issachar
Considering how the present-day world and church use “just so stories” to promote their false ideas, modern-day Issachar will do well not only to recognize this postmodern method of debate for what it is, but also to challengethose using it to present real arguments— if they can—in defense of their positions.
Further, modern-day Issachar herself must exercise care not to resort to “just so stories.” The fact of the matter is, God’s people do experience sympathy and concern for those in these difficult circumstances. However, never may our sympathy for them give occasion to excuse or tolerate sin, difficult as this may be at times. God’s people do not need excuses for sin; they need to be shown the way of forgiveness.
In addition, it serves as a stern reminder of the importance of maintaining the truth of the infallibility of Scripture. More specifically, the Reformed truth concerning plenary inspiration needs to be reemphasized: the truth that theentire Bible is the inspired Word of God. Scripture alone—all of it— must serve as the foundation for debate on the issues of doctrine and life. If the Bible is merely a storybook (in whole, or in part), it carries no more authority than human “just so stories.”
Modern-day Issachar lives in a postmodern world that sometimes makes little more sense than Kipling’s fantastic, entertaining stories for children. Who would have ever “thunk” that the Devil’s lie, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5), would actually lead to this? While we should be careful not to get carried away by our “satiable curiosity,” one cannot help but wonder how much longer the Lord will allow this nonsense to go on before He returns in judgment. In the meantime, like the elephant’s child, Issachar can expect those merciless spankings!
¹ Gene Edward Veith Jr., “Postmodern Times: Facing a World of New Challenges and Opportunities.” Modern Reformation September/ October 1995: 17-18.
² E. J. Dionne, “Snarling pack of conservatives mangles SCHIP family,” The Grand Rapids Press 13 October, 2007: A14.
³ Jan Groenendyk, “The Snare of Misdirected Pity (1),” The Outlook December, 2002: 5.
4 John Suk, “Our Agenda for Synod 2002 (2),” The Banner 3 June, 2002: 4.
5 Charles Honey, “Discussion on gay Christians starts here,” The Grand Rapids Press 20 October, 2007: C1.
6 Honey: C3.