The following is yet another article from THE PRESBYTERIAN in the 1920’s. As with so many of these articles, each serves to prove that we continue to struggle with the same issues 80 and 90 years later.
In this particular instance, I have no idea who the author was. However, a bit of web searching did turn up an article by one Ruby Burgess in that same era that appeared in the SOUTHERN METHODIST magazine. The article is titled “A Plea for Doctrinal Preaching” and it was published in the 5 December 1923 issue, on page 2. Certainly such an article would be quite in keeping with this from THE PRESBYTERIAN. At least one other article by Ms. Burgess appeared in THE PRESBYTERIAN.
by Ruby Burgess
[excerpted from THE PRESBYTERIAN 94.48 (27 November 1924): 7-8.]
The charm of mere words has its effect upon artless souls when under the spell of artful rhetoricians whose trade is verbal sophistry. To the average modern mind, the subject-matter does not seem important. All that is needed to attract and hold a congregation, a little press advertising and much word-juggling with intent to conceal meaning rather than convey it, and lo, error readily passes for truth, and an entranced audience knows it not. The art of verbal legerdemain is being practiced as daringly to-day as ever it was done by the sophists of ancient Greece, who were skillful in “making the worse appear the better reason.” Response to aesthetic appeal is the religion of t0-day. Poetry abounds as the language of the sophists of modern times. And at present words play more brilliantly about the subject of religion than any other theme.
Now, religion is the soul-engrossing and almost sole engrossing theme of all time, and for all time. But the sophists commercialize this supreme interest to man, by concealing the content of their words the while they pretend to be revealing it. This fact was forced upon me this summer from listening to several Chautauqua lecturers of national, and perhaps international repute. The secular topics upon which they were advertised to speak gave no hint of the religious errors they should conceal. I became more interested in the effect of their words upon the audience than I did in the lecture. I found that the average mixed audience of to-day has no settled convictions, and therefore is easily swayed by every “wind of doctrine,” and that to-morrow they are as readily convinced in favor of an opposing view, provided the lecturer is equally as skillful in his use of words. If they do have a glimmer of conviction concerning anything, the lecturer can so skillfully “swim over thin ice” that they never realize that he has crossed them, and remain blissfully unconscious that they were ever assailed. Every flower sentence that blossomed from the breath of those orators was received with hearty cheers, though it concealed the faintly suggestive and morally destructive doubt lurking in the words of Satan to Eve — “Hath God said?”
What is the cause of this condition of mind, which inconsistently approves ideas diametrically opposed? If “ignorance is bliss, ’twere folly to be wise,” when designing men indirectly presume into sacred precincts of truth with intent to destroy, then why expose the evil? If the audience is “blissfully unconscious” that truth is attacked, how can it affect their loyalty to truth? The danger is that there is in every suggestion of doubt, however slight, an influence at work that will remain after the words are apparently forgotten, and which tends to gradually lessen whatever conviction one has of the Truth, if one harbors hospitably the suggestion received. We must be on the alert to overthrow it, by defense of the truth and reliance upon God.
The cause for this defective discernment between truth and error, when blurred vision seems to confuse both truth and error until they seem to be one, is in a weakened hold upon God, whereby men become receptive to the suggestions of men.
The cause for this defective discernment between truth and error, when blurred vision seems to confuse both truth and error until they seem to be one, is in a weakened hold upon God, whereby men become receptive to the suggestions of men. The great agency for propagating such ideas of men is words, not in the essential meaning, but through the science (for it has become a science, as well as a fine art) of concealment in words.
Many who find themselves receptive to all views, however opposed they may be, for this reason boast proudly of their “liberal-mindedness.” Is it “liberal-mindedness” in the typical American audience of to-day which makes them equally receptive to the words of speakers of every dye? Rather, it seems to me, a mark of the “superficially minded.” No man has made an impact on this world who did not do so by virtue of single-mindedness.
The trouble is that the average person is not at all analytical. Logical thought sequences do not trouble him a bit. He is too lazy minded to follow his reasoning, or the reasoning of others, to logical conclusion. Because he has no settled convictions himself, he becomes the more easily a victim to the positive convictions of others, be they right or wrong. Statements are gulped as a whole, without regard to their inferential meanings.
This lack of straight thinking we must lay at the door of our educational system. There is something wrong with the mind that is not able to reason, and there is something wrong with the school system, which brings pupils through the high school without the power to think straight. It is not that one should hold views opposing mine that amazes me, but that he holds none at all. It gives no cause for comment to see a man roundly cheer a speaker ; it is that that same man will just as loudly applaud one who contradicts the previous speaker at every point. But again the skill of the word-legerdemain artist is revealed. The applauder does not know he is applauding opposite ideas. Then that is the fault of the schools which he has attended.
Chautauqua directors seem to choose men for their platforms according to the “liberal” view concerning Christianity. Not that they are to discuss Christianity. Not at all. In every case their sphere of treatment is the physical or the moral. And though they are “liberal,” and though they are restricted to secular subjects, not one that I have heard recently has failed to use the opportunity to take a “fling” at the fundamentalists, though in very veiled fashion, it is true. And unconscious “fundamentalists” applauded. That is the amazing and mysterious fact. These lecturers traced “spiritual enlightenment” from physical development, then these hand-clappers went to church the next Sabbath and worshipped Jesus as the Son of God and the Saviour from sin. Now, between their worship and their hand-clapping there is absolutely no basis for reconciliation. But that they know not. Now, if fundamentalists were the devotees of some wildly new cult, this behavior could be explained, but to applaud denunciation of fundamentalists is the very essence of unpatriotism, for fundamentalists, if you please, founded the nation which these Chautauqua lecturers are sent up and down the land to exalt.
This lack of spiritual discernment must be traced to the door of the ministers, even as lack of reasoning power is laid at the door of the schools. The ministers — good, orthodox ministers — have neglected to instruct their flocks in those facts which make spiritual discernment possible. Fundamentalism stands for the faith as our fathers believed it. But along comes a skilled word-juggler and makes the sons of those fathers believe that eclectic ideas from Brahminism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Christianity constitute the true ideals which every patriotic American could exalt.
The honest and plain thinking soul is humiliated to the dust to see his fellow-citizens applaud a re-hashed Hinduism as the highest revelation to mankind, and its messengers as bringers of a “new gospel” and a “new revelation” which shall emancipate the earth. Wherever this “new gospel” is applied it leads into greater bondage to greater tyranny than the world has ever known. Witness Russia and India and China. In fact of these facts, strange it is, that in a Christian nation a lecture, which might have been delivered by any pantheist in India, so charms our American audiences and that they applaud as “the finest thing they ever heard,” words which throw into the discard all the highest hopes of man.