“Mr. Whitson taught sixth-grade science. On the first day of class, he gave us a lecture about a creature called the cattywampus, an ill-adapted nocturnal animal that was wiped out during the Ice Age. He passed around a skull as he talked. We all took notes and later had a quiz.
“When he returned my paper, I was shocked. There was a big red X through each of my answers. I had failed. There had to be some mistake! I had written down exactly what Mr. Whitson said. Then I realized that everyone in the class had failed. What had happened?
“Very simple, Mr. Whitson explained. He had made up all the stuff about the cattywampus. There had never been any such animal. The information in our notes was, therefore, incorrect. Did we expect credit for incorrect answers? Needless to say, we were outraged. What kind of test was this? And what kind of teacher?
“We should have figured it out, Mr. Whitson said. After all, at the very moment he was passing around the cattywampus skull (in truth, a cat’s), hadn’t he been telling us that no trace of the animal remained? He had described its amazing night vision, the color of its fur and any number of other facts he couldn’t have known. He had given the animal a ridiculous name, and we still hadn’t been suspicious. The zeroes on our papers would be recorded in his grade book, he said. And they were.
“Mr. Whitson said he hoped we would learn something from this experience. Teachers and textbooks are not infallible. In fact, no one is. He told us not to let our minds go to sleep, and to speak up if we ever thought he or the textbook was wrong.
– David Owen, “Best Teacher I Ever Had,” Life, October, 1990; 13:70
It’s been nearly twenty years since I first read this story, but I remembered it recently, while studying a tale of three cities in Acts 17.
At Thessalonica, Paul’s method for introducing the gospel to a Jewish audience is explained this way: “And Paul, as his manner was… reasoned with them out of the scriptures, opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ” (17.2–3).
That Paul “reasoned” with them tells me there is an intellectual component to the gospel. Christianity is a thinking man’s religion. And so effectively did the gospel grip the mind and fire the imagination in the first century that those bent on maintaining the status quo in Thessalonica accused Paul of “turning the world upside down” (17.6).
At Berea, (just down the road from Thessalonica) Paul encountered a group of Jews who “received the word [he preached] with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (17.11). For doing this—for not taking Paul’s word for it, but for verifying his propositions and premises for themselves—Luke termed them “noble” (17.11). Before God, true nobility is accorded those who think, those who use their mind.
At Athens, the “most famous of all ancient centers of intellectual activity” (Wilbur Smith, Therefore, Stand; New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, 1981, 203), Paul was completely disgusted when he found a city of the gullible, rather than the noble, for Athens was a “city wholly given to idolatry” (17.16). Known in history for its thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), Athens is known in Scripture as the place that believed in the cattywampus.
If there is anything we tend to resist, it is thinking for ourself. Our readiness to consign our thinking to a preacher, priest, scholar, expert, parent, etc., rather than engage in careful thought and analysis ourself, is a denial of our humanity and invites a stupidity that winds up believing in the unbelievable—thus opening the door to religious, political, social, chemical, etc. enslavement.
In a time when ignorance is in the ascendency, the story of the cattywampus ought to remind us of what God designed us to do. In Luke 12.57, Christ asked, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” (NIV); in other words, why don’t you use your brains? Good question.
Article by Kenny Chumbley