Proclaiming Truth in a Post-Truth World

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By Matt Sapp

2016 wasn’t a great year for truth, and the first days of 2017 don’t appear to have offered any improvement. When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 everyone laughed. Few are laughing now.

Colbert used the word to mean something we understand to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be true.  Truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth.

The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.

During the 2016 presidential election we discovered an electorate primed for confirmation bias and truthiness. And our presidential candidates quickly proved ready to take advantage of the new reality by intentionally seeking to obscure the truth by muddying the waters about the basic standards of truth and by constantly calling into question what we previously accepted as reliable sources of truth — in the media, the scientific community, and the government.

Truthiness and confirmation bias are not, of course, only political phenomena.  Religious leaders and constituencies fall prey to the same fallacies.  In fact, there are few, if any, areas of our lives where basic standards of truth haven’t begun to erode.  That’s why we find ourselves liking and re-posting things on Facebook that turn out not to be true—whether it relates to football teams or to political candidates.

All of this leads many to conclude that we are living in a “post-truth” America.  In fact, “post-truth” was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.  In a post-truth world we seek out and lend credence to only those sources of information that tend to confirm our biases, and we begin to reject the idea that there are any unbiased, objective sources of truth.

When information bubbles and echo chambers become so exclusionary and loud, when confirmation bias and wanting to “feel” right become more important than facts, and when we become so factionalized and entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument or an election—that power and victory—become more important than truth, then we live firmly in a post-truth society.

To the extent that what I’ve just described is happening, we are in real trouble. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).

So how exactly does a post-truth world present a challenge to the gospel?

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)—those are basic Christian truths. But in a post-truth world people sit in the pews and wonder if those truths “feel” right. Do they line up with what I heard on the radio or TV last week?  Do they tend to confirm my biases?  Because, if not, in a post-truth world, we are being conditioned to hold those ideas as suspect.

So we start to interpret the truth into something more akin to truthiness.  We think, “In some situations loving your enemies means killing them and praying for those who persecute you means praying for God to destroy them.”

“Doesn’t that feel more right,” we think, “Let’s make that the truth.”

The last shall be first.  You can’t serve God and money.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

“Nice try preacher,” we think, “but that doesn’t feel right.  Self-promotion feels better. My gut instinct tells me I can serve two masters. Bomb the hell out of ‘em. Sometimes peace is made at the end of a sword.”

Those ideas “feel” great, and in today’s world we’re learning that if it feels right, it’s true.  If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.

In this way the Sermon on the Mount isn’t outright rejected.  We just question it around the edges and reinterpret it until it takes on the form of truthiness, until it becomes something that “feels” right in our gut—and until it becomes something less than true.

So how do we preach truth in a post-truth world?

First, we should preach the truth calmly and persistently, prayerfully and deliberately, and intentionally, so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness.

Second, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.

Instead, with courage and dignity and diligence we should preach proactively that humility is a virtue and meekness a strength, that looking out for the little guy and caring for the downtrodden are their own rewards. That all of God’s children are equal in the eyes of God.

In a post-truth world we should confidently proclaim that there is such a thing as truth, that it has a unique and unrivaled power, and that it wins in the end.

No amount of post-truth yelling or anger or violence or money or intimidation or religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down.  The truth will come out. It will come to light.

Truth is like yeast in the dough or the faith of a mustard seed—and, like Shakespeare’s Hermia, though it be but little, it is fierce!  So truth doesn’t need us to defend it, but it does need us to let it out into the world.  It does need to be insistently and persistently proclaimed.

The truth doesn’t have to “feel” right.  It is right.  It doesn’t have to shout to win an argument. And, as hard as it may be for us to understand, it doesn’t have to win every day, every battle, every election or even every decade. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war.

There’s another thing truth has done. It has set us free (John 8:32)—free to be right, even if it doesn’t always “feel” right.

Palm Sunday and the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

Big Green Palm Leaves WP tangledwingBy Joe LaGuardia

Those of you who know Bob Bala also know he can tell a great story.  I’ve seen his grandchildren drop everything in order to sit with him whenever he utters the words, “I have a story to tell.”

This past week at a Relay for Life banquet, Bob told of a time when he was trying to sell a car to a Baptist preacher in the late 1970s.

The car was a 1978 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.  Bob and the preacher could not strike a deal.  The preacher left, and Bob followed up over the next few days.

Finally, after the third or fourth call, the preacher told Bob, “God told me not to buy that car.”

Bob, in his unique way, was frustrated: How can any man–clergy or not–use God as an excuse not to buy a car?

A few days passed, and Bob made a deal with someone else who traded in a 1974 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.

Bob called the preacher and told him, “Hi, Preacher, I’m calling you because God just sent me the car that he wants you to buy.”

Although that was not the end of the story, and we laughed for quite a few minutes after, I retell that story (with his permission, of course) because it reminds me of the politics of our day — Politics in the public square and politics in the pulpit.

I know that we pastors try to discern God’s will for churches and spend many hours in prayer, but even then I have never said to someone, “God is telling me x, y, and z.”

Now, that does not mean that I haven’t sensed God’s direction in my life or affirmed someone else’s experience with God, but I’ve never been so bold as to say with certainty what God has ever said.

We ministers–and the people of God, too–do not speak in place of God.  Rather, we only come to proclaim the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  We are not Jesus; we only prepare a path so others can hear directly from him on matters important to faith.

This Palm Sunday, many churches will follow in the example of those disciples of old who chanted, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It was the time when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem to head not for a crown, but for the cross.  People went before him to cast their cloaks on the ground and praise God–a symbolic, but very real way of declaring that this Messiah is coming to be king of Israel.

Yet, when it came time to speak for God, they were silent.  Only Jesus spoke to the powers that were in charge; and only Jesus was able to say, declaratively, what it was that God was doing in the larger story of the world’s salvation.

Palm Sunday is reminiscent of the baptism of Jesus, for it was at that time that John the Baptist declared that he too was preparing for the way of the Lord.  When Jesus came to be baptized, John said that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the very son who came to save the world from its sin.

John said that only Jesus had the authority to speak for God and that “The Lord must increase while I decrease” (John 3).

God’s purpose for John was to prepare the way for the Spirit that others might hear God on God’s own terms.  Even we preachers, who spin some great sermons, proclaim that truth: That Jesus might meet people in the pews right where they are in life.

Politicians are much like preachers (or is it that preachers are like politicians?), and many a candidate will try to speak on God’s behalf.  It is their way of attracting the “evangelical” or “values voter.”

Yet, we must remember that God speaks in God’s own way, and the words that God speaks is usually words we need to hear, rarely intended for someone else.

Religious Nationalism, Revivalism Rising on the world stage

 

Picture from Terrasanta.net. (Click on the picture for link and source)

Picture from Terrasanta.net. (Click on the picture for link and source)

By Joe LaGuardia

Every election year, we see the influence of a demographic voting block, often pitched as a uniform, monolithic movement, called “evangelicalism”.

Evangelicalism, a loosely-defined subculture in American Christianity, rose to political prominence under the Christian Coalition in the late 1970s and has championed major reforms and legislation that transcend partisanship.

Now, nearly 40 years later, evangelicalism appears to be the national faith of the United States. For all the folks declaring that we’ve strayed from our Judeo-Christian origins as a nation, we still are one of the most religious countries in the world.

Some claim this is unique to our place and time — no other religion aside from Islam plays such an influential role in politics.  This myth reinforces the idea that America is morally exceptional, anchored in biblical values, and divinely blessed.

As times change and the global economy limps along, however, this no longer rings sincere or true.  In fact, a variety of nationalist religions are on the rise in other nations, and we are experiencing none other than a global revival of religion, as it were.

In Japan, for example, the government has been quietly pushing for the revival of Shintoism, an indigenous polytheistic religion of the island nation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a faithful Shinto disciple, is making the religion a central part of governance and social life, not only supporting Shinto shrines with tax dollars but also incorporating ideologies into his political philosophy and promoting the inclusion of its tenets in public education.

According to Michael Holtz, writing for The Christian Monitor, the emphasis on Shintoism resulted from a growing sense of national pride and a concern over “economic stagnation, materialism, and the rise of China.”

Shintoism has always had a precarious place in Japanese culture, but has historically provided the nation with a sense of power and security.  After the Second World War, the government exchanged Shintoism for a more pacifist, secular platform that emphasized industrialism and cultural growth.

Even now, fears exist that a return to Shintoism will influence broader militaristic fervor and lead to regional conflicts and Japanese aggression.

Russia is yet another nation instilling a religious awakening with nationalist pride among the populace.  The Russian government has increased its support of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This program of national spirituality, which dangerously aligns church and state, contends that Russia’s religious and cultural way of life dominates what it perceives to be the West’s evil imperialism, according to Wallace Daniel with The Christian Century.

According to Daniel, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow recently “argued that Western nations had ‘abandoned their Christian identity,'” claiming that “both liberal democracy and secularism as enemies of Orthodoxy and envisioned a ‘clash of civilization’ in which Russian Orthodox values stood against those of the secular West.”

Against Kirill’s wishes, the government brokered a historic meeting between Kirill and Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba.  It was the first time the two figureheads met in over 1000 years of church history, and conversation centered on political, economic, and religious aims between the East and West.

For some, the meeting was productive and reflected a religious commitment to greater cooperation; for others, it was a sign that a third World War, entrenched in both political and religious ideologies, is eminent.  With tensions rising between East and West in hotbeds like Ukraine and Syria, these hyperbolic claims may be well-founded.

The fact remains: As economies stall and the world shrinks in the wake of increasing regional tensions, people will turn to religions that reinforce tribal pride, quail fears regarding economic inequality, and promote the interests of nation-states bent on building the capital and leverage needed to elbow their way onto the global stage.