Tag: Analogies

The lobby group who cried wolf: An analogy, or parable, to explain why analogies pointing to heinous and dark points in our history might be true, but don’t really work in moral debate


There was a shepherd boy. A gatekeeper. He had a flock of sheep that he looked after and he tried to look after them very well indeed. There were often other sheep wandering near his pen, and he would gaze longingly at them wishing that those sheep would become part of his flock. There were many sheep out there who appeared to have no shepherd at all, but they actually belonged to the nearby town. The town, unable to really agree on how sheep should be sheltered, was trying to live without shepherds. They were making decisions by having adult conversations where a variety of voices were invited to the table. Shouty voices that didn’t listen to others tended to be ignored, but sometimes they held sway because no compelling alternative view was put forward.

One day. This sheep saw a couple of dark, furry, ears pop up on the horizon. They sure looked wolf-like.

“Hmm. He thought to himself. This is an opportunity for me to make my case for the role of the shepherd.”

And then he saw some teeth. He remembered once seeing the damage a wolf had done to a stray sheep. He knew that the people of the village were also terrified of wolves and what they did to sheep. He thought this might be an opportunity to get a few of the sheep outside the pen to join his flock, or at least for people to recognise his role as a shepherd. The thing is, he knew this was a dog that belonged to one of the townspeople. That this particular townsperson believed the dog was the best way to look after the sheep, so much that he’d even opined about the possibility of getting rid of the town’s common sheep altogether, and just getting dogs. It’s fair to say that the shepherd didn’t like this idea, and he didn’t love the idea of a bunch of wolf like creatures hanging around near his poor defenceless sheep.

The shepherd, despite knowing full well that this wasn’t a real wolf,* and knowing that the town would see through his ruse eventually, believed the town would recognise the damage a wolf might cause and see the connection in the maw of this black dog ran into the town crying “WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!” He interrupted a town council meeting where some reasonable voices had already been arguing that sheep need shepherds, and that dogs with wolf like tendencies also had a place in the town but the future of the town probably depended on everybody figuring out how to live together, despite and through disagreement. Just as they always had.

The thing is. The boy had tried this trick before. Many times. And when people realised that it was a dog, not the wolf who had previously caused such horrific damage to both sheep and dogs, they didn’t just stop listening to the shepherd. Some made plans to release the sheep from the shepherd’s pen. Others became even louder in their calling for dogs, who might better fight off wolves if they ever arrived, or indeed, keep the wolf from the door. Others simply wanted to exclude those in favour of the ancient art of shepherding from the table.

Everyone in the town has a concern for the safety of the sheep. Some might even want sheep to dress as dogs. Ultimately the town will decide the best way to do this, especially for the sheep in the commons, and they might listen to shepherds who speak out of concern for their sheep so long as they don’t keep raising the spectre of a sharp-toothed wolf wanting to devour everybody. Dogs might serve their place in keeping wolves at bay, and other sheep, outside the shepherd’s flock, safe (though not as safe as they’d be with a shepherd, and perhaps the shepherd’s job might be to ask that every sheep should be free to choose that safety, and to model that safety and love well).

See. The problem with this shepherd in this story is that he’s actually forgotten what shepherding is all about. And what is attractive to sheep. It’s not so much that they offer protection from wolves. It’s that they offer protection from wolves by facing them directly, not running to the town to get the town council to do their work for them out of fear. The shepherd had forgotten the ultimate lesson in shepherding; the lesson from the ultimate shepherd. The shepherd had also, in a way, or at least as it appears, become more worried about preserving the role of the shepherd than protecting the sheep.

The shepherd’s job isn’t to make the town fear the wolves, or hunt the wolves, or even keep the wolves at bay by making them fear dogs instead. The shepherd’s job is not to make the case against dogs by linking them to wolves. That is dog whistling. The shepherd’s job is to make the case that shepherds are better for sheep than dogs. And, if some people in the town choose to use dogs, the shepherd’s job is to help them fight off wolves. Wolves are hungry. The shepherd does have a role to play in spotting wolves, but this job is damaged every time the shepherd cries wolf when he doesn’t like a townsperson’s dog. Shepherding is a noble calling. The shepherd’s job is to protect sheep from wolves, and sometimes, it’s to make the wolf eat them so quickly it chokes on the bones and dies.

The shepherd’s job is not to protect the dignity of the office of shepherd by comparing it to the wolf, or the dog, or comparing dogs to wolves. The comparison should be so obvious it doesn’t have to be made. It’s to inspire others to become shepherds because they see how great and virtuous this sort of sacrificial love is. This love also helps the sheep feel at home and secure with the shepherd. This shepherd has lost his way. He’s lost the art of shepherding. He’s lost the real pattern of the ultimate shepherd through some transmission loss, but also because he’s seen how effective some of the louder more powerful voices in the town are at getting their way. This analogical shepherd share’s the goals of the ultimate shepherd, but has lost his method. He’s decided to cry WOLF! Rather than facing the wolves at the cost of himself. In doing so, he is at risk of just being a hired hand, and not a shepherd. A real shepherd has skin in the game in such a way that the real wolves, and the dogs, bite the shepherd and not the sheep, or when the sheep get bitten because they wander off, he’s there to save them and patch them up. The ultimate shepherd dies for his sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” — Jesus, the ultimate shepherd, in John 10:11-16

*There are real wolves. The holocaust and the stolen generation are good evidence for this, and might be times when shepherds failed, where shepherds became allies with the wolves, or were eaten first and nobody listened. The town should probably be made aware somehow when a real wolf comes. And this is one point where this analogy falls down, which kind of proves the point that analogies are terrible. And sometimes dogs become wolf like and attack sheep. But the shepherd needs to have skin in the game in these situations and be able to show the tooth marks if he’s going to be taken seriously as a wolf-fighter.

Post script. In case the analogy breaks down. This is me, by analogy, arguing that making an analogy to something really terrible like the holocaust or stolen generation is a dangerous, high risk, game and the ACL should stop playing it because it is stopping other ‘shepherds’ being able to protect our sheep. Analogies and comparisons are fraught. I am, for the record, comparing the ACL to the boy who cried wolf, but also suggesting that in losing Jesus and his example they are playing as the “Hired help” not the shepherds.

God v Gravity

Stephen Hawking must surely have had his voice computer hacked. First he claimed that aliens would be out to get us (should we meet them), now he’s suggesting that gravity disproves God. Or does away with the need for God.

Let me put this to any atheists reading this post plainly. Understanding how the world works does not rule out the presence of God. He may, in fact, be making the world work the way it works. Most Christians believe that. Only silly Christians subscribe to a “god of the gaps” theory. Most of us don’t. Nobody thinks that explaining “how” things work is the same as explaining “why” they work. That’s basically mixing up cause and effect.

Let me use an analogy, and then I’ll share an analogy from Professor John Lennox.

I like to think of this as analogous to listening to a piece of symphonic music. The more knowledgable one becomes about music the more they understand the different roles played by each instrument, and the different level of skill being applied by each musician. The more carefully one listens to the music the more they understand the way the notes fit together, and the more they appreciate the way the piece has been crafted. At no point do we, when listening to the music, decide that the music is simply a result of a bunch of musicians getting together and just playing whatever comes up. While this is possible, and talented musicians might often jam together and produce something of quality, the more we observe the complex relationships occuring within a symphony the more probable it becomes that it has been orchestrated by a composer.

We don’t work out the theory underpinning the music, or notice the talents of the musicians and suddenly assume that because we understand it we shouldn’t bother looking for a composer. So why are we so prepared to do this when we look at the planet? It doesn’t make any sense.

John Lennox says:

“But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.

What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine.

That is a confusion of category. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up. The jet could not have been created without the laws of physics on their own – but the task of development and creation needed the genius of Whittle as its agent.

Similarly, the laws of physics could never have actually built the universe. Some agency must have been involved.”

Now, many atheists will acknowledge that cause and effect are different, and still accept Richard Dawkins (I can’t believe how many people get Dawkins and Hawking confused as an aside) “blind watchmaker” argument – the notion that apparent complexity would develop over time inevitably and thus an agent is not necessary. That’s a slightly different kettle of fish, and in the end it comes down to a question of probability and how willing one is to apply Occam’s razor.

But if one of the biggest brains in the cosmos (Hawkings, not Dawkins) can fall foul of such obvious category error then that to me is a little troubling.

On elegant analogies

While I’m in the mood for trying to express myself by the power of analogy I thought I’d share – for those not reading the comments on yesterday’s post – I thought I’d share this “gem” with you.

I’m still trying to come up with a way to affirm the good in all the good frameworks for Biblical Theology – and I’m loving Dr Leigh’s “expectation and fulfillment” (coming soon to a publication near you) idea.

I think any simplification causes the object in focus to suffer, because it can’t possibly not – simplifications involve cutting out of bits that don’t fit the “big idea”, though like some sculpture said “when I sculpt a statue of a horse I take a block of wood and cut away all the bits that aren’t horse” (rough paraphrase)… this got me thinking a bit. Simplifications are good for clarity. They help us see the main game. They help us appreciate the value. It’s a bit like diamonds. Uncut diamonds are worth a lot – because they have such potential. There are all sorts of directions you can go with the diamond thing as an analogy for Biblical Theology – each system is like a jeweler’s lens – they help us to appreciate something about the value of the diamond. And they help us to get rid of rubbish ideas about the meaning of passages (eg moral teachings from the OT that ignore Christ). But here’s where I went in the comments last night (with some modifications). I think it’s more helpful to think of each (good) system of Biblical theology as a facet of a precious jewel…

I like to think of the Bible as a really big diamond – one that is so big we can’t look at it all at once. You can look at one facet of the diamond and through it see all the others, this can distort each other facet if you forget that you can flip the diamond around and look at it from a different angle. Some people stand too close, or lack depth perception, and will only see one facet of the diamond ignoring all the others. Some will want to break the diamond up into lots of pieces, thus devaluing it.

The best way to appreciate the diamond is to step back and see that there are many facets at work and that each of them contributes to the diamond’s beauty in a slightly different way. Light hits each and refracts differently. If I wanted to be trite I would say “when you shine a light into any facet of the diamond and focus that light on a smooth surface it makes a cross – no matter which facet you point the diamond through…” But I’m not trite, so I won’t.

On essay writing

I think I quite enjoy essay writing. Though I may have romanticised it from my fleeting memories of putting in caffeine fueled all-nighters on deadline day while I was at uni. I’m trying to figure out what the difference is between essay writing and blogging (other than the finding reputable sources to cite bit).

Here is what I’ve come up with (not as a difference, but as a reflection on the art). I might be wrong. Feel free to crush my analogy in its infancy in the comments.

Essay writing is like finding threads of common quality from an array of garments, and tugging them out of those items in order to weave your own smaller and less significant rag.

Obviously you don’t damage the original in the process – unless you really go out of your way to discredit it.

I am enjoying the essay I’m writing for Bruce Winter’s Christ and the Clash of Cultures subject. Here is the question:

Citizens in the first century met in the context that declared who they were. Discuss the implications of this for the gatherings of the first Christians in the Roman East.

I’m sort of dancing around the question and trying to just write about the differences between the way the church ate together and the way pagan Rome ate at idol temples and banquets. I think I’ve jumped through enough logical hoops to synchronise the question with my topic.

Argument with argument

I have a bone to pick with logic. I am sick to death of putting forward great arguments backed by examples and employing a suitable amount of pathos only to be ignored because I’ve broken one of the codified rules of “logical argument”.

I have news for you Messrs Logic and Reason – nobody cares if you think I’m arguing with a “straw man” or producing some sort of syllogismic fallacy. Nobody cares if you hate analogies so much that the very presence of one as a piece of supporting evidence is enough for you to completely ignore the material at hand and instead dish out a lecture on what are essentially the “Queensbury Rules” of discourse. Nobody likes the Queensbury rules. They’re for losers who can’t fight with all the tools at their disposal.

Perhaps my line of reasoning is a straw man – but your job isn’t to point out that this invalidates my argument, it’s to correct my thinking. Perhaps my analogy isn’t perfect. Few are. A perfect analogy is like a rare pearl – hard to find and expensive.

When did the style of a debate become more important than the substance?

Crabb on Costello

The political coverage in the SMH today is all about one thing. The schism in the Liberal Party. It’s nice to have the Herald’s attention drawn so far away from any other schism.

Here’s a nice little analogy that even Ben – analogy hater of some renown – is sure to appreciate. Crabb argues that Costello is waiting in the political wings. Costello keeps saying “I’m doing nothing.”

“But Costello is like a hippo in a ballerina skirt – he’s kind of noticeable even when he’s not doing anything.”

A good analogy

I know Ben hates analogies. This will annoy him. But if Annabel Crabb is my Herald pin up girl then Peter Hartcher is a close second as far as his writing is concerned.

“Rudd has grown attached to his description of the crisis as a result of “extreme capitalism”. That’s akin to saying the Titanic sank because of “extreme sailing”. The US economy and financial markets collapsed not because of the doctrine of capitalism, any more than the Titanic sank because of the practice of international shipping. The cause of the calamity was bad policy, just as the cause of the Titanic’s fate was bad navigating.”

Both Rudd and Turnbull cop a tongue lashing in the piece. Well worth reading.

“Why does it matter what Rudd calls it? Because from the diagnosis comes the cure. The fault was not capitalism, extreme or lame. It was bad policy.

As for Malcolm Turnbull, he has made some sensible suggestions on how the Government should respond to the crisis, but the one he made this week is not one of them. Turnbull claims the Government must not allow a budget deficit. Already, Rudd has used half the projected budget surplus for this fiscal year as apackage to stimulate growth.”

My friend Ben.

My friend Ben hates puns, analogies, arguments by example, hypotheticals or in fact anything he can’t taste, touch or hold – and he doesn’t like most of those things. He’s a very rational person. But I’ve decided he pretty much hates everything I stand for… oh, and the point of this whole post is to direct your attention to his answers to my questions on the bail out that I have posted in the comments – and to alert him to the fact that I’ve done that. He’ll probably hate this post.