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Jun 19, 2021

In his diabolical masterpiece, “The Screwtape Letters,” C. S. Lewis reveals through the pen of his senior tempter how devils persuade humans to accept false beliefs by using jargon:

“Your man,” explains Screwtape, “has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic,’ or ‘practical,’ or ‘outworn,’ or ‘contemporary,’ or ‘conventional,’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sorts of thing he cares about.”

As Screwtape concludes later in the book, the skilled tempter’s job is to get his human patient to believe something “not because it is true, but for some other reason.”

I can’t help thinking of this passage whenever I experience what I call a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moment. I’ll be in a conversation with someone who finds out that I share their view on some political issue of great moral significance. Let’s use abortion as an example. The sense of comradery and trust generated by that agreement will often lead this person to assume that I share their view on some completely unrelated issue—let’s say, hygiene practices during a pandemic, or claims about the integrity of an election.

He or she will give me the “wink, wink, nudge nudge,” as they rehearse their views, presuming that because they’ve come to see me as a member of their tribe, I must share their views on everything. I’m often left in the uncomfortable position of having to smile politely and ignore the remarks, or else explain to my friend that I have a different view—one that may upset them or cause them to question their positive impression of me.

The opposite can happen, too. Recently, someone told me that she was surprised to find out I opposed the ordination of women as church elders (a position she shared), because she had assumed based on my criticism of a certain politician’s behavior that I was “very liberal.” Think about that! Knowing nothing about my beliefs, reasoning, or theological commitments, she filled in these blanks in based on my reaction to an elected official who rarely attends church.

I bring all this up not to pick on anyone, but to illustrate how thoroughly we’ve accustomed ourselves to thinking in jargon and tribal identities. “Left,” “right,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “solid,” “compromised,” “progressive,” “fundamentalist,” “affirming,” “bigoted,” “red-pilled,” “blue-pilled,” “woke,” “based,” “elite,” and “ordinary Americans.” Each of these labels stands for a complex of assumed beliefs and values, and each belief or value is quickly extrapolated to identify a person with one of these labels.

Worse still, these tribal associations and the jargon that signifies them are often how we choose our opinions! Rather than evaluating the merits of individual claims—even those that have little or nothing to do with beliefs we’ve already accepted—we adopt the opinion most common in our preferred tribe. Like consumers watching a TV commercial, the question on our minds is not, “is this idea true?” but “what sort of person believes this, and do I want to be that sort of person?”

In my conversation with Samuel James on the podcast this week, we noted how Christians fall into this trap when it comes to reading and listening to political commentators—especially those who don’t fit neatly into one of our political tribes. The idea that a pastor, theologian, apologist or author could criticize certain behaviors and beliefs of our tribe without outing himself as a member of the opposing tribe is more difficult for us to grasp than ever. Yet in an age consumed by partisanship and identity politics, it’s never been more important to listen to voices who don’t seem to have a side—voices that are difficult to describe using our favorite jargon—voices less interested in reinforcing our tribal identity than in being forthright with us.

Believe me, I get it. The world is complicated, and our newsfeeds are overwhelming. We look for ways to simplify the torrent of information and competing claims. “Good guys” and “bad buys,” “red team,” and “blue team,” “white hats,” and “black hats” “conservative” and “liberal” are convenient shorthands for making sense of the world. Yet as we label each other—as we draw up sides—as we substitute adjectives for honesty—we must listen for the hiss of an Undersecretary of Hell whose one goal is to keep us from asking the only question that matters: “is this true?”