The Wonder of Truth
Caring for Words as an Act of Discipleship
When I was a young college grad working a few beats in my first job as a newspaper reporter, I took seriously the call to report the news in an unbiased way. I contacted sources from multiple sides of issues, asking questions and listening to their answers regardless of whether I agreed or not. I tried to be fair in the way I characterized people, and I relied on facts to tell the more incriminating parts of the stories to avoid inserting my own opinions.
After a while, though, the threats by local business leaders, politicians, and even residents to sue me, discredit me, or have me fired wore me down. Despite my deep appreciation of the first amendment, I also became conflicted about my role in sharing others’ personal information. As a matter of principle, I believed the people I reported on were responsible for their own choices. But my ability to ruin a life by publicizing their worst moments felt like too weighty of a responsibility for me as a naive 23-year-old. So after years of education and preparation, I left full-time journalism after only 18 months.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that my goal to be unbiased was unrealistic. If I had accepted that I could never completely separate myself from my history, experiences, and context, and attempted to tell the whole story anyway, maybe I would have lasted longer. Perhaps acknowledging that I could never include every perspective on an issue or accurately reflect the percentage of people who held each opinion or the degree to which those opinions were held, I’d have felt better about my role sharing the news of our community. Even accepting that I held significant control in how a story was told simply by choosing what to include and not include may have empowered me in the face of those who wanted to silence me. Impartiality was such a lofty goal.
But I did believe then, and still do, that the goal of reporting is to get to the truth of a matter, even if the truth isn’t fully known even by the end of the news article. I also understood then, as I still do, that a person’s opinion about what is true doesn’t change the truth itself, though I often stood alone in that belief. In fact, the most important lesson I took with me from my days in journalism is one that feels even more on point today: Most people are only interested in the truth when it supports what they already believe or what benefits them.
Or to say it another way, most people don’t really care about the truth.
The truth has been under attack in our culture for a while now. The events of last week, when a mob of right-wing radicals attacked the Capitol in what amounted to insurrection incited by President Trump, were not isolated incidents. The violence erupted as a response to months, even years, of lies about the election, yes, but also about the media, about government, about political opponents, and about what our country is really about.
And to be fair, lies are not limited to one political party or one ideological persuasion. In fact, the post-truth atmosphere is not even primarily relegated to government or politics. It’s part of the cultural air we breathe. In her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre says, “Truth-telling is difficult because the varieties of untruth are so many and so well disguised. Lies are hard to identify when they come in the form of apparently innocuous imprecision, socially acceptable slippage, hyperbole masquerading as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda.”
Not only does this deceptive culture make it easy to give into “harmless” lies ourselves, like the ones McEntyre enumerated above, but it also makes it easier to be lied to. The social sciences have introduced us to concepts like confirmation bias, a kind of wishful thinking where we use whatever facts or experiences we encounter to support what we already thought was true, or implicit bias, where we unfairly judge people or groups based on previously held judgments. Social media doesn’t help, masterfully designing algorithms to feed into these biases by limiting what shows up in our feeds to things they know we’ll like and comment on.
And then there are some media outlets that don’t even attempt to offer an unbiased or even fair perspective, while at the same time not admitting their preferences or persuasions. Unsuspecting readers watch and listen, taking in what they hear without filtering for actual bias, much less confirmation or implicit bias. Standing before the tsunami of deception, it seems there’s nothing we can do except be swept away.
Or is there? Are we really innocent bystanders of the many lying marauders disguised as fair and accurate journalists, politicians, and even preachers? Haven’t we all been exposed to enough sales pitches and stump speeches and talk radio screeds in our lives to realize that we ourselves “bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to?,” as McEntyre suggests.
Especially for Christians, who base our eternity on knowing and understanding the truth, which Jesus said will set us free. Are we willing to sell our souls for the chance at power, popularity, or relevance? Or do we believe, as Esau McCaulley writes in a recent article for Religion News Service, that we “are not most human when we toss away our integrity to hold on to power” but only “when we live completely in accord with the truth”?
What is truth? It was a question Pilate asked Jesus just before he sentenced him to die, “introducing Jesus to the world of real politic,” McCaulley writes. “Philosophical niceties and existential missions mattered little when Pilate controlled a legion and could put Jesus to death if he found it expedient.”
But little did Pilate know that truth was bigger than his small reign in Judea, and it was bigger, even, than the Jewish mob that would use violence to attempt to bend truth in their favor by crucifying Jesus. As McCaulley explains it, “The scene between Pilate and Jesus embodies the church’s claims over and against the state ever since: Power and truth can be separated. Those with money, popularity and resources do not determine reality” (emphasis mine).
Instead, Jesus made a way for the weak among us, for the overlooked and disenfranchised, to get to the real source of power and strength: the truth revealed through love. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,” Jesus said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
But what happens when disciples of Jesus don’t know the truth? Or don’t know how to discern it from the overwhelming glut of lies that flood our inboxes, mailboxes, social media feeds, and even private conversations?
While not every member of the violent mob that attacked the Capitol were evangelical Christians, signs that included “Jesus Saves” and other Christian phrases and symbols among the throng seem to indicate at least some were. Also, white evangelical Christians have been, as a group, supportive of President Trump through both campaigns and throughout his four years as president, despite well-documented exaggerations and lies he’s told, particularly about the most recent election. Then there are the conspiracy theories about him and others in government, like those espoused by QAnon, which have among their believers people who are Christians.
Certainly there are Christians on the other end of the ideological spectrum who have been deceived through exaggeration or outright lies by left-leaning pundits and politicians, including president-elect Joe Biden, who himself made deceptive claims during the campaign about Trump’s record and his own, which fact-checking organizations have discounted. But the church has been especially prone to the dishonesty of the far-right, and especially the president himself, who has gone beyond disinformation to an assault on reality.
“One core feature of Trumpism is that it forces you to betray every other commitment you might have: to the truth, moral character, the Sermon on the Mount, conservative principles, the Constitution. In defeat, some people are finally not willing to sacrifice all else on Trump’s altar,” writes conservative writer David Brooks in his column for the New York Times. “The split we are seeing is not theological or philosophical. It’s a division between those who have become detached from reality and those who, however right wing, are still in the real world.”
So the issue before us is not how to get Christians to agree on which problems are most pressing in our society or how to go about fixing them. I’m also not in any way suggesting that all Christians should leave the Republican party and become Democrats or Independents. Even in our churches, we should continue with healthy debate and conversation about doctrine and ecclesiology and eschatology, as long as we do it in love. But despite all the ways we might continue to disagree, we absolutely must recommit ourselves to one common goal: the pursuit of truth, or as Brooks explains it, “reattaching people to reality.”
“Part of this reckoning is: How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” Stetzer told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “We need to make clear who we are. And our allegiance is to King Jesus, not to what boasting political leader might come next.”
That reckoning also includes an admission of failure on the part of “pulpits and colleges and universities and parachurch ministries” in “discipling our people so that they engage the world around them in robust and Christ-like ways,”’ Stetzer says.
“I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into — conspiracy theories, false reports and more — and so I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call in the Christian tradition, discipleship,” he writes.
There are many tools available to help us in the task of Christian discipleship, perhaps most important are the spiritual disciplines the church has long practiced. The disciplines particularly connected to God’s word particularly bring us in line with Jesus’ instruction to “abide in my word,” things like reading, study, memorization, and meditation.
In a forthcoming book called The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, which releases February 9, author Brett McCracken uses the idea of the food pyramid to “unpack my suggestion for a healthy diet in an overstimulated information age.” He includes the Bible as the foundation for any spiritually nutritious diet of information, followed by the church, where the Bible is often taught and studied, and then nature, where we can learn and understand more about God through his general revelation.
While I haven’t yet read the book, I found the diagram helpful for thinking about how I ingest news, information, and entertainment, and appreciated that McCracken includes social media and Internet reading at the very top of the Wisdom Pyramids, kind of like red meat and butter and sugary treats on the food pyramid, as something we should only occasionally have. If I had to create a pyramid of how I actually spend my time and attention among these various resources, it wouldn’t look like McCracken’s model, though I think it’s wise to move in that direction.
Not only do we need to be mindful about what sources of information we are taking in, we also need tools for evaluating what we read and hear, regardless of the source. I like many of McEntrye’s suggestions for being a careful consumer of information, which I’ve condensed into three parts.
First, we need to look inward to assess and address our own role as an active reader, listener, or viewer. As we open our browser or begin a new book, McEntyre suggests asking questions like: What are my responsibilities as a citizen? As a person of faith? What am I avoiding knowing? What point of view am I protecting? What limits my angle of vision?
A few years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts using questions McEntyre posed in an essay for Comment called, “What Are We Willing to Know?” She listed six questions that create a framework for how we learn, converse, and act in a world that’s saturated in deception and lies. You can find my own reflections by clicking on the links, but I would commend these questions to you as an act of honest self-assessment in our current climate:
Next, we have to evaluate our sources of information. Who do we trust? Who are their sponsors? What questions are not being asked? Are there detectable biases? How much information is sufficient to allow me to take a position (this is particularly important in our age of quick reactions)?
The website AllSides offers a helpful chart showing the bias of various media outlets as left, lean left, center, lean right, or right. Their website also offers an analysis of hundreds of other newspapers, radio stations, and television networks, including the option for readers to agree or disagree with their assessments in an attempt to reveal true bias. AllSides also pairs links to news articles from various media outlets on the same topic, so you can get various perspectives on the same story, with the perceived bias highlighted.
Of course some people might think AllSides itself is biased, and they acknowledge that and try to disclose the interests of their founders and contributors. But this tool at least gives you a place to start in tracking down whose perspective you are getting in the news. You can also use this as a starting point to try to identify the ideological biases of other news sources that aren’t listed here and see which perspectives you tend to lean toward yourself, if you aren’t already aware of that.
Finally, we need to turn to our community. We need to have people we trust (but not necessarily agree with) who are also asking these questions of themselves and their sources, because “we are called not only individually but collectively to care for the words we share and exchange.”
“Our goal is to be, together, wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” McEntrye claims. “The first requires healthy suspicion, understanding of process, historical perspective, and more to our point, attentiveness to uses and abuses of language. The second requires mutual support in the arduous business of seeking peace as well as truth, focusing lovingly on the health of the community rather than obsessively on the corruptions of public life.”
I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I’d stay in journalism. Would I have found a way to balance the right to privacy with the first amendment right to free speech? Would I have identified and admitted my biases while still trying to write stories that were fair and accurate? Would I have recognized the power of the fourth estate and carefully stewarded my role in it?
But mostly I wonder about this: Even if I were sued or discredited or fired in its pursuit, would I have continued to pursue the truth?
The Prayer of St. John Chrysostom, which I pray every day at the end of my morning prayer, asks: “Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting.”
Please, Lord, we need this now more than ever.