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During the first few weeks of October, many of us endured a tsunami of videos involving a grown man wearing short-shorts and rainbow suspenders — gyrating and twerking while a girl throws glitter around him and rubs it on his hind-end.1 Was this some bizarre new art show? No. A concert? No. A protest for LGBTQ+? Oddly enough, still no. But it was a protest — a protest for climate change. Since this video was released, a litany of other videos have surfaced from similar demonstrations, each in increasing absurdity. Calling themselves “extinction protestors,” men and women from around the globe gather to do yoga, wear stilts, dance, chant, and even block civilian traffic, all in the name of protesting climate change.
There is no doubt in my mind that these individuals participating feel strongly about what they are doing. They are zealous, to be sure. But their persuasion tactics were not exactly…persuasive. At least not to a thinking person. It’s like they are speaking another language, which they essentially are: the language of emotionalism.
How Did We Get Here?
The path to emotionalism has been a process of elimination, striking down various authorities along the history of ideas. The history of ideas can be roughly summed up by three main epochs: premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism.2 In premodernism, ultimate truth was determined by God/gods and religious authorities. But as Nancey Pearcy noted in Total Truth, “During the religious wars of the sixteenth century, Christians actually fought and killed one another over religious differences — and the fierce conflicts led many to conclude that universal truths were simply not knowable in religion. The route to unity lay not in religion but in science.”3
Thus, conflicts in the premodern epoch set the stage for modernist solutions. In the modern period, human reason and the scientific method dethroned religion as the source of ultimate truth. People assumed that truth was like math. Put enough heads together and everyone would eventually come up with the same answer. They didn’t just limit this process to scientific facts, however. They stretched science into the realm of morality. Needless to say, reason and the scientific method did not bring mankind together in worldwide harmony or provide us with universal moral truths. If you haven’t noticed, nature is a jerk.4 If you want to get your morality from nature, you’ll have to scratch out a lot of murder, rape, and public defecation laws.
The modernist experiment failed. “Theories were changing, factions were forming, people were fighting. Science became just as dogmatic as religion.”5 The difficulty was no longer over how we could know truth, but about whether there is any truth to be known. Enter postmodernism, which isn’t typically denying all absolute truths — facts that are objectively true in all contexts. Instead, it is saying that if any absolute truth exists, no one person or group has an authoritative grasp on it. And if they claimed such a grasp (ahem…like Christians), then they were trying to exert their power over minorities.6
While these postmodern ideas may have been commonplace in academia, they still represented a fringe group of thought experiments. The average person still mostly acted as if there were absolute truths and knowable facts about the world and morality. Fast forward to 2016 when the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” word of the year.7 The seeds that were sown from ivory towers years ago finally tumbled down the hill and blossomed into YouTube videos, Twitter rants, and a blocked intersection near you.
But are we really “post-truth”? The imago Dei will not conform to even our most vocal pronouncements if they contradict how we’re fundamentally created. Human beings are truth seekers, and the postmodern answer that “nobody knows for sure” does not satisfy our insatiable desire to know truth. Our society can cry “post-truth” all day long, but at the end of the day, people will create their own epistemology — or theory of knowledge. By historical process of elimination, we can (supposedly) no longer look to God, religious authorities, common sense, human reason, or even science as the path to ultimate truth. So, culture has gone back to the proverbial drawing board and is now embarking on a new epistemological route: emotions. What could possibly go wrong?
According to emotionalism, ultimate truth can be sensed by emotions and expressed in emotional language; truth claims can be gauged by the strength of one’s emotions. If the strength of one’s emotions determines the truth of a claim, then what is the logical extension of attempting to convince not only one’s self but others? More emotions. Louder emotions. ALL CAPS EMOTIONS.
Examples of Emotionalism
Linguistic theft refers to “purposefully hijacking words, changing their definitions, and then using those same words as tools of propaganda.”8 In each instance of emotionalism, we see words being commandeered and changed to fit emotional reasoning rather than objective observation. Love no longer means “to will the good of another.” It now colloquially (though not officially) means “to affirm the ideas of another.” If you don’t affirm someone else’s “truth,” then that is now “unloving.”
We are even seeing a shift in definition for the word “violence.” In his book Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, political commentator Noah Rothman explains this phenomenon. “It is increasingly common to hear social justice activists equate discomfiting or objectionable speech with acts of violence, and not just in a metaphorical sense….Since they conflate offensive speech and violence, a violent response to speech isn’t just reasonable; it’s necessary. It’s practically self-defense.”9 As seen here, the definition of violence is not based on objective actions of another person, but rather the subjective feelings a person experiences as a result of someone’s speech. And subsequently, if that feeling is anger, then that speech was an act of violence. Responding with physical violence is justified, tit-for-tat. Rothman’s quote explains why the Antifa movement is so well known for violence at free-speech events. According to their linguistically-thefted definition of violence, free-speech is basically free-violence. So they consider their physically violent response to be justified.10
Emotionalism and the Power of Story
Within emotionalism, it is the strength of one’s emotions that is the barometer of truth. The stronger the feeling, the truer the truth. But that brings up the question, “How does one get the rest of society to accept this truth?” The answer is simple: by getting others to feel as strongly as you do. This is often done through story.
Good storytelling is powerful. Through story, one person can convey their experiences to another and elicit a similar emotional response in the reader or listener. Who did not feel agonizing anger when listening to the myriad victim testimonies during the Larry Nassar sexual abuse trial?11 Or why do websites now display more “testimonials” than research? Research is cold, brute facts. That is sooooo scientific-revolution ago. That’s how modernists prove things. Postmodern people, however, favor personal stories that reach into people’s emotions, allowing them to picture themselves using whatever product is being sold. The power of a single story can bypass pages of research when it comes to convincing people of truth. Or in cases like Jen Hatmaker’s or Joshua Harris’ deconversions, the power of story can bypass pages of Scripture.
These are just a couple examples of how emotionalism has crept into the church. While first-century testimonials revolved around the truth of Christ and His resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15), modern-day “testimonies” appear to revolve around the way one’s emotional life has changed since meeting the Lord. A testimony has changed from a proclamation of objective truth to a proclamation of subjective experience. While there is an experiential aspect to our fellowship with Christ, this well-meaning Christian “testimony” carries no more epistemological weight than a “testimony” of progressive Christians who proclaim their newfound freedom from orthodoxy. Our culture’s mantra is not even the 1990’s “If it feels good, do it.” We are now at the stage where “If it feels good, it’s true.” Scripture warns us against this kind of thinking.12
How to Protect the Next Generation Against Emotionalism
There are three major things I think we as adults can do to help shape the minds of the young people who are being raised to think that emotional logic (i.e., if I feel it, it’s true) is actual logic. First, kids need to be made aware that this shift has occurred in the first place. There are plenty of ways to get this point across. The oft-touted phrase “follow your heart” provides myriad opportunities. My husband has a less than stellar record for navigational prowess. Whenever we get in the car he’ll ask, “Which way am I going?” If I’m feeling particularly feisty, I’ll respond, “Eh, just follow your heart,” and we have a good laugh. There are virtually limitless ways to poke fun at this bad logic. See roadkill? Hey look kids! I guess the possum followed his heart. Encounter a website displaying embarrassing tattoos? Remind the viewer, “Oh wow, I guess he is regretting ‘following his heart, now, huh?’” Can the heart and emotions lead us to truth? Absolutely. But they must first be calibrated by reason, Scripture, and reality.13
A second safeguard is to teach youth to spot linguistically thefted words. Is someone referring to something as hate, love, justice, injustice, and so forth? Ask the most important question, “What actually happened?” If they don’t know, emphasize, “If we don’t know what happened, can we say with certainty that it was unjust or hateful?” The more awareness you bring to your kids regarding buzzwords, euphemisms, and “politi-speak,” the less vulnerable they will be to slick propaganda.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, however, that we should have emotional reactions to things that are actually hateful, unjust, racist, or misogynist, or other sins of this ilk. The key word, though, is discernment. Let’s make sure we are reacting to actual hate, injustice, racism and misogyny, and not mistaking a label for matter-of-fact details. This might be a good time to revamp “the boy who cried wolf” story into “the person who cried injustice” (or whatever “ism” you want to insert). These words have real meanings that can be diluted if overused to describe anything a person disagrees with (i.e., You criticized me! It must be because you are sexist, racist, hateful, etc.). The words lose their effectiveness when used to sway public opinion without providing details of the situation — which leads to a degree of skepticism when actual injustices occur. We should never become immune to true oppression and injustice, but neither should we assume that anyone who cries foul is accurately describing a situation, no matter how passionately they express themselves.
The final recommendation may sound like it’s not for kids, but you’d be surprised at how astute your little rug-rats are. Argumentation. The word sounds scary, like you’re teaching your kids to squabble, but it’s a very simple concept. An argument is simply a claim with supporting evidence. In my experience, people generally hold debates over the conclusions and not the premises of an argument (supporting evidence), but it’s the premises that need to be debated! Premises are often taken as if they are true, and a person will fight vehemently for the conclusion without ever examining how they got there. Teaching kids basic argumentation will help prepare them to interact, not just with conclusions but with the unstated assumptions prevalent in emotionalism. Take a look at political discourse and college protests, and one can see the conclusion at play: the stronger a person feels about something, the more truth they assign to the feeling. How do they convince others to accept this truth? They must stir other people into feeling as strongly as they do about something, no matter the means. Sounds chaotic? It is. But how did we get here? Consider the premises and conclusion of each of the following arguments:
- My emotions accurately reflect reality.
- Truth is that which corresponds to reality.
- Therefore, my emotions reflect truth.
Premise two is a given (or should be); it is the classic definition of truth. But where did we get the idea that emotions consistently and reliably reflect reality? This is a dangerous premise. If we as a society accept it as true, we have lost all grounds for coherent thinking and rational argumentation. Why? Because emotions are not inherently rational — and they lie to us much of the time. An anorexic feels fat. A narcissist feels superior. A depressed person feels worthless. These are not “truths” that we should listen to.
Another example is one that I lay out in the Mama Bear Apologetics book and reflects what we see going on with political correctness:
- Negative emotions are harmful to mental health.
- We cannot control our emotions.
- Therefore, for the sake of mental health, we need to eliminate all things that elicit negative emotions.
Legislation is currently being formed around this conclusion, but where did that conclusion come from? Are the first two assumptions true? Are all negative emotions harmful? If you’re not sure how to illustrate this, watch the Pixar movie Inside Out with your kids, where the main character learns the value of sadness. Secondly, are we truly incapable of controlling our emotions? Are we left to the whims of whatever blows across our paths? No! Becoming an adult necessitates learning to control one’s own emotions. And how exactly would we go about eliminating all things that elicit negative emotions in others? The possibilities for offense are endless. The only answer (which isn’t an answer at all) is to regulate people’s actions, words, thoughts, speech, or any idea that might make another person uncomfortable. (At least put a trigger warning in front!) Any attempts to legislate away negative emotions will ultimately fail because we can’t control the actions, thoughts, and beliefs of other people, no matter how many laws we make. People’s goals, wishes, identities, and beliefs will inevitably conflict.
Emotionalism tells us that if we feel it, it’s true. How true is it? That depends on how strongly one feels about it. But this is not a wise way to run society. Emotionalism, like most historical evils, takes something good and elevates it to the level of God. Emotions are good. They are healthy. We should not ignore them. But neither should we bow to them. Part of being “salt and light” in this world is standing up for clear thinking. Romans 1:21 describes what happens when our thinking becomes futile: our foolish hearts become darkened. And now we are supposed to follow those hearts? No thanks. That sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Hillary Morgan Ferrer is the founder and Mama-Bear-in-Chief of Mama Bear Apologetics. She feels a burden for providing accessible apologetics resources for busy moms. Hillary is the coauthor and general editor of Mama Bear Apologetics: Empowering Your Kids to Challenge Cultural Lies (Harvest House Publishers, 2019). Hillary has her master’s degree in biology from Clemson University.
- WERK for Peace, Twitter post, September 23, 2019, 6:53 AM, https://twitter.com/werkforpeace/status/1176132483445919749.
- Pre-modern period refers to the ancient and medieval eras roughly 600 BC to AD 1600, the modern era roughly 1600–1980, and the postmodern era 1980–present.
- Nancy R. Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 103.
- John D. Ferrer, “Nature Is a Jerk: Don’t Expect Morality from it,” IntelligentChristianFaith.com, April 8, 2016, https://intelligentchristianfaith.com/2016/04/08/nature-is-a-jerk-dont-expect-morality-from-it/.
- Mama Bear Apologetics: Empowering Your Kids to Challenge Cultural Lies, ed. Hillary Morgan Ferrer (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2019), 104.
- Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 48–51.
- Amy Wang, “‘Post-Truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/.
- Ferrer, Mama Bear Apologetics, 63.
- Noah Rothman, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2019), 30.
- Daniel Penny, “An Intimate History of Antifa,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/an-intimate-history-of-antifa.
- “Sexual Abuse Survivors Confront Former USA Gymnastics Doctor in Court,” NewsHour, PBS, YouTube (January 16, 2018), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cURGn7Yz678.
- E.g., the apostle Paul warned, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim. 4:3 NIV)
- Adam C. Pelser, “Reasons of the Heart: Emotions in Apologetics,” Christian Research Institute, April 12, 2016, https://www.equip.org/article/reasons-heart-emotions-apologetics/.