“Don’t get sidetracked. Stay on track. Don’t get derailed.” These advisory metaphors are colorful reminders of years when railroads and trains were common experiences in long distance travel. In apologetics contexts, this counsel applies to refuting sophistic distractions like “red herrings” and “straw men.”
If a Christian is accused of being narrow-minded about a specific truth, he or she can reply, “I’m like a passenger on a train—to arrive safely, I need to stay on the right track.” It is one thing to be open-minded, but it is quite another to be so uncommitted that you are “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14).
Real World Apologetics Requires Avoiding Distractions
Avoiding distractions applies to the arena of real world apologetics, where truth advocates must “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3) with the “sleight of men” who use “cunning craftiness,” in order to avoid being distracted from our commitment to Christ and His gospel (Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 2:2).
For advocates of biblical truth, this requires some proactive practices: 1) recognizing what “track” needs to be followed to best communicate God’s truth; 2) recognizing where a sidetrack (derailment risk) is located that would deflect God’s message (or God’s messenger) away from audiences who need that message; and 3) providing practical helps, including priorities and caveats, for those who might otherwise stumble at distractions.
Consider a few lessons from World War II camouflage tactics, a fishy escape strategy, an old earth “straw man” tactic, and a reminder from Christ’s own example about speaking the truth in biblical love.
Distraction Tactics: Camouflage in World War II
Before it ended, World War II touched all of the inhabited continents of the world. The military use of camouflage tactics could fill a series of books. For example, Norwegian resistance fighters equipped fishing boats for clandestine espionage and sabotage against the occupying Germans. Objects as innocent-looking as oil barrels were “drafted” into military service, being outfitted with anti-aircraft guns.1
Also, a hard-drinking British stage actor named Clifton James was recruited to impersonate Great Britain’s celebrated General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery because they looked amazingly alike. The real Montgomery was England’s counterpart to America’s five-star General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Monty and Ike were jointly planning the upcoming D-Day invasion of Normandy that began June 6, 1944.
A plan was hatched to distract German spies who reported the movements of Allied generals: Fool the spies into thinking that General Montgomery was flying to Africa to head up a huge operation. Some of Monty’s trusted colleagues played supporting roles, such as conspicuously greeting the actor in public, as if he were the real Monty.
James almost ruined the ploy, however, just 12 days before D-Day, when he got drunk from gin that he smuggled onto the plane taking him to Gibraltar. It was well-known that the real Monty was a teetotaler! Afterward, two “aides” stuck close to the camouflage Monty (especially at parties) for the rest of the decoy trip to prevent any further slip-ups. At Gibraltar, the fake Monty acted his part and eventually spoke a bit about “Plan 303” with two Spanish bankers who were known German spies. The actor repeated this ruse in Algiers for several days. Meanwhile, the real General Montgomery was in England with Eisenhower, plotting the last critical details of the Normandy invasion.2
Another World War II camouflage victory occurred three years earlier. Throughout 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill hoped that America would enter the war soon enough to help defeat a German invasion of England. But in May 1941, when the war was heating up in northern Africa, it still was half a year before Japanese pilot Mitsuo Fuchida would cry “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” leading the infamously destructive sneak attack on Pearl Harbor—and also leading America to enter World War II.
Churchill knew that Germany’s famous Afrika Korps commander, General Erwin Rommel, was preparing to attack Cairo, Egypt. Churchill needed to oppose Rommel’s Panzer tanks in Africa, so he sent a huge convoy to the British naval base at Alexandria, Egypt. The 238 British tanks arrived, along with these words: “Behold, now is the day of salvation!” (quoting out of context from 2 Corinthians 6:2). Churchill’s re-tasked use of the Bible’s phrase meant “use these tanks to save Cairo, pronto, by defeating Rommel’s tanks!”
Churchill assigned this mission to General Archibald Wavell. Wavell encountered an immediate handicap: The tanks were painted forest-green, clashing conspicuously (and vulnerably) with the Egyptian desert! Now Wavell was forced to practice what he himself had “preached” earlier in 1940, in a military memo:
Practically all the ruses and stratagems of war are variations or developments of a few simple tricks.…The elementary principle of all deception…is to attract the enemy’s attention to what you wish him to see and to distract his attention from what you do not wish him to see. It is by these methods that the skillful conjuror [i.e., illusionist] obtains his results.
Now, after inspecting the green-colored—and, therefore, useless—tanks, General Wavell hurried back to Cairo, bent on putting his deception and camouflage principles to work. He instructed an officer to immediately contact a small group of prewar magicians, artists, professors, and craftsmen who had only recently arrived in the Middle East.
Wavell explained the need—to invent and produce 10,000 gallons of desert-hued paint for the 238 tanks, ASAP! Lance Corporal Philip Townsend, a painter before the war, experimented with whatever materials were available. The winning formula? A mixture of Worcestershire sauce, cement powder, spoiled flour, and camel dung!
Now the “Dung Patrol” was born….Each dawn, the streets of Cairo were swept for night leftovers….Watching the Dung Patrol in action, large numbers of Arabs were angry. For hundreds of years, camel droppings had fueled the local bread ovens[!], so the Britons had to hustle to beat angry Arab men and women to the suddenly prized camel pats….Soon some two thousand gallons per week were being produced.3
Why “Red Herring” Distractions Often Work
Consider again General Wavell’s description of how deceptions operate in worldly warfare, and then apply that logic to distractions used by uniformitarian deists such as James Hutton, Charles Lyell, or their modern-day disciples. These vain philosophers were “willingly ignorant” (2 Peter 3:5) of Genesis history when they discussed origins:
The elementary principle of all deception…is to attract the enemy’s attention to what you wish him to see and to distract his attention from what you do not wish him to see.
The ability of theistic evolutionists to deceive, by distracting people from noticing biblical truth, often involves a “red herring.” Carefully communicating truth includes transmitting intelligible information from a sender to a receiver in a medium that faithfully carries the information. However, this process can be disrupted—and distractions often do just that.
At a recent scholars’ conference in Fort Worth, this writer challenged a theistic evolutionist to stop using red herring arguments when the evolutionist disagreed with the Genesis record. The evolutionist claimed to be a Bible-believing Christian, yet he was “willingly ignorant” of the Noahic Flood and of the Bible’s chronology data. Instead, he substituted a uniformitarian tale of eons of “deep time” (relying on radiometric dating), ultimately relying on unbiblical methods and concepts promoted by two deists of prior centuries, James Hutton and Charles Lyell.
But what is a “red herring”?
In piscatorial cuisine, a red herring is defined as “a whole, ungutted herring with a strong, distinctive flavor…[that was] salted for a month and then smoked for a week, the smoking process turning it a bright red.”4 Accordingly, in forensic logic, generally (and in apologetics, particularly), the metaphoric phrase “red herring” means an attention-disrupting distraction.
As a world-changing and literal example of a red herring distraction, consider how a piscatorial camouflage was successfully used in Germany during the early stages of the Protestant Reformation.
Dr. Martin Luther taught that pastors and other church leaders (the clergy) should not consider celibacy (i.e., abstaining from matrimony) as a biblical mandate. Luther taught that the opposite was true (1 Timothy 4:3). Biblically, a man’s faithfulness in marriage should be evaluated as a church leadership qualification, e.g., for bishops (1 Timothy 3:2) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:12). It was one thing for Dr. Luther (a professor, yet also a pastor-priest) to preach this biblical standard, but was he willing to practice it himself?
In a letter dated November 30, 1524, he said no.
However, this reply changed to yes on June 13, 1525, when he married Katharine “Katy” von Bora, a former nun who had abandoned her Cistercian convent in Saxony two years earlier, along with eight other Reformation-sympathetic nuns led by Magdalene von Staupitz. How did Katharine and her sisters escape? Camouflaged and hiding—“crouched behind barrels of herrings”! Although the getaway car (a covered wagon) that was arranged with Dr. Luther’s help could be searched, few would think (or desire) to thoroughly inspect odorous herring barrels looking for escapees!5
How to Counter a Straw Man Argument
A “straw man” argument is a common ploy used by evolutionists. The real controversy is evaded—dodged—by substituting a caricature that evolutionist polemics can easily knock down.6 In origins controversies, straw men arguments produce more heat than light.
For example, consider how some Big Bang proponents argue against the Genesis record’s young-earth data by dodging behind the assumption that the Genesis genealogies are “open,” not “closed.”
The open genealogy theory claims that the genealogies in Genesis 1-11 contain gaps, stretchable into huge numbers of years, enough to accommodate human evolution (and “geologic time” theory) timescales. But this is a straw man argument.
A common argument against young-earth creationism is that gaps exist in the genealogies listed in the fifth and tenth chapters of Genesis. The old-earth proponent assumes that if gaps exist, then one cannot claim to know an approximate age of the earth based on biblical data. As a result, they say we must rely on extra-biblical sources to discover the age of the earth.7
As Dr. Jonathan Sarfati has shown, there is no good reason to impute any gaps to the Genesis genealogies.8 However, the open-versus-closed controversy is itself a red herring distraction, because it employs a straw man counterfeit, in lieu of the Genesis record’s actual data—as ICR has demonstrated previously.9 Bottom line: the Genesis record (from Adam to Abraham) provides event-to-event timeframes, each measured in literal years, and those timeframes connect sequentially together like adjoining links in a gapless chain.
God provided inerrant biblical chronology information in our Scriptures (i.e., in Genesis, one of the Mosaic books that Christ Himself regarded as perfect), so whether the genealogies are open or closed is irrelevant to the question of the age of the earth (as applied to the Adam-to-Abraham years). Accordingly, the open-or-closed genealogy question is a needless distraction.
So how do you counter a straw man argument? Clarify the difference between the real truth and the straw man imposter, then emphasize that the real truth still stands—regardless of the knocked-down straw man.
Facing a Red Herring, the Lord Jesus Refused to Be Distracted
The perfect example of real world apologetics, of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He encountered a red herring distraction when conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). The woman tried to divert the conversation into a quarrel about which mountain was the holy mountain where God should be worshipped.
Replying that Jerusalem was the biblical city of God, Christ role-modeled how to politely tell someone he or she is theologically wrong. Christ then demonstrated how to keep an evangelistic conversation on track by returning to the woman’s real need—a solution to her sin problem. The solution was Christ Himself, the promised Messiah.10
Jesus loves people like us—sinners needing forgiveness. And He forgives, if we have “ears to hear” (truly believe) His message of redemption.
But would Christ forgive someone “really bad” like Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the Pearl Harbor sneak attack in 1941? Yes!
After Japan lost the war, Mitsuo Fuchida read a gospel tract authored by Jake DeShazer, an American bombardier who was captured after a Tokyo bombing raid and tortured by the Japanese as a P.O.W. Amazed at DeShazer’s Christian testimony, Fuchida bought and read the Bible. On April 14, 1950—even more amazed at Jesus Christ—Fuchida decided to believe in Christ as his own Savior.11 Later, Fuchida and DeShazer became friends and traveled together as Christian brothers, demonstrating the importance of staying on track and proclaiming the truth—yet always “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
- Howarth, D. 2001. The Shetland Bus: A WWII Epic of Escape, Survival, and Adventure. New York: The Lyons Press, 84-87.
- Breuer, W. 2005. Deceptions of World War II. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 198-203.
- Ibid, 87-90.
- Sweetser, W. 2009. The Connoisseur’s Guide to Fish & Seafood. New York: Sterling Publishing, 194.
- Alexander, J. H. 1977. Ladies of the Reformation. Choteau, MT: Old Paths Gospel Press, 75-86.
- McDurmon, J. 2009. Biblical Logic in Theory & Practice: Refuting the Fallacies of Humanism, Darwinism, Atheism, and Just Plain Stupidity. Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 203.
- Chaffey, T. and J. Lisle. 2009. Old-Earth Creationism on Trial: The Verdict Is In. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 179.
- Sarfati, J. 2009. Refuting Compromise. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 296, cited in Chaffey and Lisle, 181.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2008. How Young Is the Earth? Applying Simple Math to Data in Genesis. Acts & Facts, 37 (10): 4.
- John 4, specifically verses 9-29.
- Fuchida, M. 1953. From Pearl Harbor to Golgotha. Gospel tract. Posted as “From Pearl Harbor to Calvary” on BibleBelievers.com. See also Elesha Coffman’s “Beyond Pearl Harbor: How God caught up with the man who led Japan’s surprise attack.” ChristianHistory.net. Posted on www.christianitytoday.com August 8, 2008.
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2012. Staying on Track Despite Deceptive Distractions. Acts & Facts. 41 (5): 9-11.