There is a fascinating line in John’s gospel that is often overlooked. Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the politically weak governor of Judea. Jesus was brought to him by a group of religious fanatics with no real data or evidence, just blind rage with a petty accusation. Pilate is all questions, just trying to get a hold on the situation.
Jesus replies, “For this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37 CEB)
This vague theological statement is par for the course for Jesus.
But Pilate gets the million dollar question, the question we all are asking, “What is truth?”
This is my question as a pastor in today’s world. “What is truth?” and I am as equally frustrated as Pilate that Jesus doesn’t give me an easy answer.
Over the last three weeks I have been reading all the articles about the fake news which saturated our feeds over the last several months. My favorite is this one put out by NPR about a liberal who writes fake news articles that attack liberals because he enjoys how quickly conservatives will spread lies.
And those lies have spread quickly. Over the last several months, completely false articles were shared more times on Twitter and Facebook than real news. Over the last year fake news sites have grown exponentially and they are now a legitimate economic market. People are becoming rich by spreading lies on the internet. Some days I hate having integrity.
If it all stayed on the internet I would probably be okay with it. In fact, I most certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post. However, those lies have spread into my congregation and into my friendship groups. They’ve even spread into my family. Everywhere I go someone says, “I heard somewhere that. . .” followed by a completely unverified piece of data.
I would correct people on how wrong they are but there is no use to it. After all in a world saturated by lies, I am not even sure if I know what is correct. And the last thing anybody wants is a smart phone stand off where our thumbs quickly search to verify opinions as we argue about which websites are authoritative.
“Fox News said. . .”
“You can’t believe anything they say! They’re conservative.”
“Well Huffington Post says,”
“Huffington Post?! Really, Huffington Post?!?!?! They are a glorified dorm room blog!?”
“Well The New York Times,”
“I can’t believe you would even bring them up! You lousy liberal!”
Nobody is friends after such a conversation. Nobody is even Christian after that.
The problem isn’t just fake news. There is also the problem that now more than ever people are claiming the “real” news’ sites are hopelessly compromised. I saw a conversation the other day where someone cited “Snopes” and was quickly dismissed with “Snopes is getting everything wrong now too.”
It seems we have successfully created a world where no one can be trusted.
This has crept into my sermons as well. I now step out of the pulpit every Sunday morning wondering that if some datum was attacked if I’d even be able to defend it. There is always another way to interpret a passage, always another theory left out, always another resource to double check and as is commonly held to be true in my profession, “The next Sunday is always 3 days away!”
In such dilemmas, historical perspective has always helped. After all Mark Twain noted in the mid 19th century, “A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Only Mark Twain didn’t say that. After all it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” I read that on the internet.
Putting fake quotes aside, for centuries, even millennia, lies spread around the world with no help from the internet. Let us not forget the earth was once almost certainly flat and the best way to heal people was to bleed them slowly but surely. Even John Wesley, the great patriarch of my tradition, published a book of home remedies that weren’t exactly remedial. He was one of the great fake news anchors of his generation. His brother Charles Wesley also embarrassingly and wrongly predicted the end of the world.
So fake news isn’t new. Lies have been spreading faster than the truth for millennium.
That is of no comfort to me. The fact that we have never been good at “truth” doesn’t help me when I have to get up and preach a sermon once a week that is supposedly “true” but which even I can tear apart with relative ease.
With poor Pontius Pilate, I ask, “What is truth?” If I can’t trust anything I am hearing and have huge qualms even about what I am sharing and saying, how can I pastor with any sort of integrity? What is truth?
Luckily the good gospel has all ready answered the question. Truth has actually come up in John’s gospel several times before chapter 18 but nowhere more prominently than in Jesus’ famous declaration to weeping sisters, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
For us Christians, truth is not a datum or an article or a fact and it certainly isn’t a book. Truth is a person.
What is truth? “Well Pilate, I am the truth.” Truth is a personality.
When I get up to preach or sit down to write or even engage in conversations I am way more concerned with proclaiming a person than I am with facts or data.
If this is “true” than our obsession with data and articles and how true or false they are may be idolatrous. We may be more obsessed with facts than with Jesus and if that is true repentance is needed, not fact checks. This is a repentance that seeks to serve the true God of humility while rejecting the serve of fact checks which serve our pride.
At the very least that is what I am going to tell myself next time someone fact checks me.