The title of this post is (supposedly) one of Doug Phillips’ favorite phrases. It means, essentially, that the party who defines the terms, gets to control the conversation. There is wisdom in that, but it won’t be my focus in this post. Instead, I’ll be exploring how it’s essential to know how others define their terms in order to understand what they are really saying – and more importantly, how a failure to define terms can be used to a speaker or writer’s advantage.
The first chapter of So Much More, “Daughters of the Eternal Father: Who Should Read This Book,” is a classic example of the second principle. To be fair, however, the Botkin sisters (hereafter referred to as A&E) do define a few of their terms, mostly in footnotes. However, only one of these is really relevant to the actual discussion in the chapter – the definition of legalism:
We define legalism as the fleshly pursuit of man’s moralism in hopes of earning salvation. Joyful obedience, on the other hand, to all of God’s precepts, is the response of the grateful believer who has been saved by grace through faith.
Anyone who’s ever dealt with a Christian intent on imposing their personal preferences as God’s absolute commands, will immediately recognize this extremely convenient definition of legalism. It does its job perfectly: simultaneously safeguarding the speaker from charges of legalism by artificially limiting it to “earning salvation by works,” and implying that the speaker’s critics are not responding properly to God’s grace and not truly obeying His commands (unlike the speaker). It thus gives A&E the upper hand, and puts their critics on the defensive by forcing them to argue a broader definition of legalism, instead of focusing on A&E’s actual ideas. Well, I won’t be taking that bait, aside from the pointing out that while the term “legalism” certainly includes what A&E describe above, the common layman’s usage is usually much closer to “imposing needlessly restrictive or burdensome rules” and I suspect A&E know this. (It might also be possible to have a fruitful discussion about whether “legalism” and “binding the conscience” are same thing.)
Beyond legalism, unfortunately, the useful definitions mostly stop and we’re left with more questions than answers. Take, for instance, A&E’s definition of “the West”:
The “West” is the term we use to identify the societies created by the influence of Christianity and its spread across Europe, influencing the Reformation of the 16th century and then the colonial outposts of Great Britain in the 17th through 19th centuries. The nations of the West have been understood to be those in Western Europe, North America, and the British Commonwealth countries. The term “Christendom” is sometimes used to refer to the same nations, but during a period in history in which Christianity was flourishing. Today Christianity is being replaced by a rival faith known as statism.
Well, that’s all right, I suppose. I find myself wondering what happened to the Orthodox – aren’t they part of Christendom too, and didn’t Greek society provide some rather important building blocks for Western ideas? – but other than that…
I still don’t know the answer to that question. I also don’t know the answers to many more. For instance, the term “feminism” pops up frequently, but is never defined anywhere. Given that the entire book was written, essentially, to oppose feminism, I would think a definition of the enemy’s views would be a priority, if for no other reason than to contrast them with A&E’s true views. However, this never appears, at least not in the first chapter. Thus the reader is left to fill in their own definition, which may or may not be accurate, and may or may not reflect A&E’s thinking.
Less central terms go undefined as well. Take, for instance, the terms “coward” and “predator” in this excerpt:
Many girls are spiritually and emotionally abandoned by parents during their “day care” years. After high school graduation, they are left to fend for themselves in a dog-eat-dog world. Feminism promised that women in a feminist society would live on a utopian playground, enjoying liberation and equality. What we see instead is women being exploited by men to an extreme never before seen on such a wide scale in the West. Most of our friends have an inner longing to be loved and protected, but most of the men they have ever known are either cowards or predators. All these girls know is what they see around them, and it makes them cynical about their families, their parents, their future husbands, and their future children. Many of them are confused about what womanhood is all about and don’t know where to look for godly, feminine role models.
What comes to A&E’s minds when they hear that a man is a “coward”? A man who failed to protect his family in a home invasion? A man they perceive as effeminate? A man who fails to conform to patriocentrists’ version of “women and children first”? And how about a “predator”? Do they mean a pedophile, a rapist, a serial adulterer? Or a twenty-something who “defrauded” his girlfriend by kissing her before their wedding day? (And before you accuse me of exaggerating, yes, some patriocentrists would regard that as predatory and exploitative!) Clearly, we would understand A&E’s friends’ experiences very differently depending on what was meant by these words. As it is, we’re left with a range of possibilities that extends from rape and abandonment, to living in an average non-patriarchal American household and dating instead of courting.
Probably one of the biggest omissions was a clear explanation of “God’s standards”:
God has given principles for all people to live by. Christians are supposed to know exactly what these principles are and live by them, setting the example and upholding the standard. Yet Christians can be some of the most careless and ungrateful and forgetful people. We Christians can be responsible for leading the culture either away from God’s design or toward it. Our father has taught us to confess our errors and admit our mistakes. Christians truly have been a part of the problem, because we have been careless with the standard.
Now to be fair, in the following chapters, A&E will probably give us a lot more detail about these supposed standards, and anyone who’s reasonably familiar with the concept of stay-at-home daughterhood can probably already guess what they are anyway. But I still find the above troubling. The language of “God’s standards” is pretty absolute, and A&E clearly have something concrete in mind here, even if they aren’t telling us precisely what it is at the moment. This is telling in light of what they say later in the chapter:
If you decide to read this book, read it like a Berean. Check what we say against Scripture. If it is hard going, read slowly, in small doses.
“Berean” is a reference to this famous account in Acts 17:
Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. (Acts 17:10-12)
This is hardly an invitation to blindly accept whatever is preached to you. The Jews in Berea were interested in Paul’s teaching – but nevertheless checked it against Scripture anyway. Thus, “reading like a Berean” assumes that the person teaching could be wrong. But all the other language A&E use (God’s standards, obedience, etc.) only allows for their way, or error. In other words, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that someone could read So Much More, check it against the Bible, and come away disagreeing with A&E’s conclusions.
In summary, I worry readers will assume too much about A&E’s claims, by defining words based on the preconceived notions they attach to them, instead of by A&E’s definitions. This is risky for A&E, as these preconceived notions could just as easily work against them as in their favor. In other words, by not defining their terms, A&E are actually making it easier for readers to misunderstand them, which could lead both to unjustified rejection and premature acceptance, depending on the reader’s perspective. I wish they had adopted a policy of clarity and full disclosure, so their readers can know exactly what they are really saying and work from there.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my analysis of the first chapter, because, oh yes, we’re just getting started.