One of the larger pastoral problems in the church today is the trend to ever-increasing fruitiness, coupled with the cowardice of those who see what is happening, and yet say nothing.
Whenever someone proposes any particular pursuit in a singularly fruity way — and I am speaking of weird diets, oils with superpowers, medicinal oddballery, and other variations on the ancient spirit of haruspicy — and someone objects to it, one of the first things that will happen is that someone else will point out that there are all sorts of connections and remedies that we could not have anticipated beforehand. The whole world is weird. Well, yes, the world is weird, magical, uncanny, and penicillin is a fungus that kills bacterial diseases — ho, ho, ho. If we compare this to the folk remedy of trying to cure a sore throat by wrapping your neck in bacon before bedtime, which one is “weirder”? They are actually on the same plane.
But the point isn’t weirdness at all. When I shake my head over the fruitiness of some proposed remedy, diet, or alignment of the furniture with cosmic forces, the point is never the odd juxtaposition of this with that. The world really is weird. But some things about it aren’t weird at all. Let us invite Chesterton into our discussion, so that he may dispel our foolish superstitions with the laws that govern all magic.
“If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit” (Orthodoxy, p. 50).
“There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail” (p. 51).
So let us try to identify the locus of fruitiness. What is it exactly? I am not astonished at the prospect of a bacon wrap fixing a sore throat. The world is an odd place, and stranger things than that have been verified in double blind studies. I am astonished at the prospect of this being true because . . . because . . . because a superstitious somebody wants it to be, and because they wanted it to be true, they just decided it was.
Cold reason isn’t weird, at least not in the way that the world is. Mundane epistemology is fairly pedestrian. How do you know it is raining? Well, I just came in from outside, and I am soaked. That which soaked me was falling out of the sky. Okay, I can buy that.
But if somebody else wants to tell me that it is raining in Tasmania right now because the bananas on their counter started to go brown a day earlier than they usually do, you will forgive me if my skepticism retains something of a robust character.
So the issue is practical epistemology, cross-checking, verification, and the authority of cold reason. The issue is not whether or not an astonishing and bizarre correlation might make it through that system of cross-checking. If something does make it through, as various magical things do, there will be no one more delighted than I.
This is not me standing on a pyramid constructed out of Enlightenment bricks. The Bible requires us to think this way.
“But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7).
“. . . the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things— that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Tit. 2:3-5).
Certain tales tend to veer toward the frivolous and silly, and certain topics do not. Paul tells the godly older women to act like it, and to instruct the younger women on the great vocation of godly homemaking. Older women who do this are to be listened to. They are to be honored and heard. But there is another kind of old woman who is not to be listened to. Paul tells Timothy to “refuse” what they have to say. Turn away from it, have nothing to do with it. This kind of thing is destructive to the fellowship of the church. Pursue godliness instead. It doesn’t say that we may pursue godliness by means of these silly, pointless fables. They are mortal enemies. One supplants the other. You can have godliness or you can have the juju beans migraine treatment, but you can’t have both.
Note again. There is no conflict between godliness and a headache remedy that came from juju beans. If the next George Washington Carver makes something far better than peanut butter, both for jelly and for headaches, and he did it entirely out of juju beans, I will personally award him a Nobel Prize. There is no conflict between godliness and juju beans. There is a profound conflict between godliness and credulity.
Now, because some people who have a bent toward this kind of thing have trouble thinking with sufficient precision, it is not unlikely that I will be charged with attacking women, along with Paul. What’s with using “old wives” as a pejorative? The reply is simple. As the contrast with the passage from Titus shows, the biblical position is that older women can have a fruitful ministry with the younger women. But if they decline to do so, there are certain sins that are characteristic of older women who are willing to talk about whatever comes into their heads. So one of those characateristic sins is the sin of silliness. The point is not that old wives are silly. The point is that silly old wives are silly.
There is one other point, and that is that there is a pastoral duty to warn and admonish the church against this kind of thing. Paul doesn’t give us the content of the fables he had to deal with, but the word refers to a genus that has never lacked for content in any age.
One of the ways that pastors should shepherd their people in this regard is by encouraging husbands and fathers to pick up a sense of responsibility for what their wives are spending all their time talking about. Is it edifying? Or is it manifestly not? There are many husbands who need to man up. They need to learn how to do this because when these women are being silly, they are not being silly across the board. When it comes to managing cowardly husbands, they can be pretty shrewd.