Truth in a post-truth world

A lie always harms another; if not some other particular man, it still harms mankind generally.

Immanuel Kant1 18th Century Philosopher
[3700 words, 12 minute read]

We enter 2021 in the middle of a battle for truth. Our globalised world has always held a massive range of ideas, worldviews and ways of judging reality. Yet there is a growing phenomenon for Western nations to grapple with, as the very nature of truth is questioned and challenged, and technology spreads a spectrum of opinions, in a matter of seconds, across the planet.

Increasingly we hear accusations that facts have been misrepresented or, worse, manipulated. Others are only too ready to make us aware of our own echo-chambers reinforcing our views as ‘true’. It really feels like a battle, and in the middle are Christians who want to hold to the highest truth.

How best can Christians respond to the challenge of a society struggling with post-truth, fake news and ‘alternative facts’? 
Can we navigate a route through competing viewpoints, often viciously aligned against one another?

In 2020 we published a book about discipleship which included a chapter all about this, with positive suggestions for Christians to put in place, both for our everyday lives, and as we seek to lead or mentor others towards Jesus. It is reproduced below.

We hope it’s helpful in drawing us back to Jesus who, rather famously and helpfully, cornered the market of truth when He said “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

[Excerpt from The XYZ of Discipleship by Nick & Marjorie Allan, 2020]

A Gathering Storm

There is a gathering storm, a growing trend within Western mindsets – a slide towards a post-truth world. In the postmodern world of academia and popular culture there is no longer one fixed source or interpretation of truth, and every opinion is relative and open to ‘editing’ or reinterpretation, like a Wikipedia article.

There are strong forces within culture which now propose that truth should be seen as relative, and traditional sources of orthodoxy or authority in truth and life are now often viewed with suspicion and resisted. More sinister still is the rise of ‘alternative facts’ and post-truth as a valid way of thinking, speaking, leading others and justifying actions. Add to this the rise of deliberate malicious lie-telling, misinformation and ‘fake news’ which is difficult to discern, and its pernicious impact impossible to measure.

We have witnessed the erosion of public trust in establishment figures as a series of scandals and exposes have revealed deeply cynical cover-ups, particularly in past ten years, with high-profile instances such as the Jimmy Savile scandal and BBC cover-up, the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook information scandal, or admissions of paedophilia within the established Church.

That is not to say that truth is dead. Far from it. It remains that most people in Western society hold that some things are ‘true’ and truth does still prevail as a concept. It is fiercely defended by many including the influential news media whose function has traditionally been to expose and report truth and facts.

Together we face a philosophical and cultural atmosphere that is increasingly incoherent and breeds mistrust and confusion among those authentically seeking the truth. ‘What is truth?’ asks Pontius Pilate (John 18:38) on behalf of a whole generation.

Alternative facts and post-truth

Into this mixed-up way of interpreting reality is growing a new trend which is extremely dangerous for society and Christian discipleship. In 2017 a White House spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, rebuffed an NBC journalist’s suggestion that her boss, the Press Secretary Sean Spicer, had lied about the numbers of people who attended President Trump’s inauguration when calling it ‘the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe’.2

Conway’s rebuff has gone down in history. She didn’t view Spicer’s comment as a lie. She wouldn’t admit his numbers were false but simply ‘alternative facts’. If everything is relative including the source of truth, then Sean Spicer’s interpretation of reality suddenly and shockingly earned itself legitimacy. It was not deemed as wrong, but simply as alternative. This is a frightening extrapolation of our prevalent relativist philosophy.

Successful communication is now coming to rely less on the currency of facts or verifiable truth than on its ability to persuade and to win an emotional battle, to win people over. Another word for this is propaganda. The media, or any person, may now redefine reality by your ‘facts’ against my ‘alternative facts’.

Most people still want truth and believe in facts. Today’s danger is that we may be approaching what Orwell highlighted satirically as one of the worst crimes of totalitarian regimes: ‘Doublethink’. ‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’3 The problem is that when you choose your own reality without reference or convention, you also select your own falsehood.

Fake news

Another trend is further destabilising people’s trust in truth. ‘Fake news’ is not a new phenomenon, but today the deliberate spreading of falsehood and disinformation seems to be seeping into our mainstream social media. The devil is the father of fake news. Jesus said the devil ‘is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44), whose tactic is not so much to spread outright falsehood but rather to sow doubt.

Regarding the fake news phenomenon, journalist Matthew d’Ancona says ‘the trick is to provide disruptive entertainment as a distraction’,4 so that the conversation and disagreements simply roll on, rather than finding a conclusion in truth or fact.

Let me entertain you

What has risen in the place of an insistence on evidence-based approaches to determining the truth? What now seeks to fill the gap where rationality has retreated? Story. More than ever in perhaps the past 1,000 years, the power of story prevails. The place of ‘meta-narratives’ has gone – any single grand explanation for all of life’s meaning is rejected, so that ‘religion’ is now treated much like the epic stories of Greek and Roman epic myths: deep and meaningful but not actually true. But the power of simple, engaging stories is on the rise.

Two recent USA presidential campaigns have been won on the power of a story. It was Obama’s audacity of hope which harnessed the grass-roots votes of the women, minorities and the young by his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. In Trump’s 2016 victory, the story of his campaign mattered arguably more than the facts. What captured the popular attention was a fanciful promise to ‘Make America Great Again!’ against the danger of ‘crooked Hilary’ and her Washington cronies. ‘The effect was narcotic rather than rational’, says one commentator.5

The key to influencing public opinion today lies in harnessing an emotional connection. It has always been part of decision making, but today it has become so elevated that if ‘it feels right’ then it basically is counted as right. This is emotional evaluation. We are in danger of making decisions based upon popularity not substance, traction before truth. Not exclusively, of course, but the fact of the matter is seriously in danger of being overtaken by the feeling of the matter. ‘Post-Trust is, first and foremost, an emotional phenomenon. It concerns our attitude to truth, rather than truth itself.’6

Platform power

What makes this possible is the rise of platform power. In a world of relativity, anybody with an opinion and a platform to share it instantly becomes elevated to the status of an expert.

The dangers are clear: we now decide by picking sides rather than evaluating evidence. Whoever tells the best story, whoever shouts the loudest, or sings the sweetest now earns my vote, or attention, or even my devotion and destiny. The internet does not help; it allows equal access to the full range of opinions and is indifferent to truth and lies. Its algorisms tend to ignore complexity and subtlety. They encourage the confirmation bias of our personal echo chambers instead.

What is our response?

In today’s prevailing culture we are heading towards a situation where as long as the stories feel true, then they resonate, and you may consider them to be true. If you hear the same thing repeated enough it becomes like ‘truth’ to you. Jesus spoke powerfully against this kind of deception:

Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is! No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.

Matthew. 6:22-24

Confidence in the power of our story

How can Christians of every age group help our society at large to combat the worst dangers of this growing post-truth era? Christians have an amazing story to tell! It is the antidote to today’s hopeless narratives built upon disillusionment or confusion. We can be confident. We live a gospel that is incredibly powerful and empowering. With equal measures of humility and confidence, we have the opportunity to be culturally proactive, not always just culturally reactive – to disciple our prevailing culture with compassion and empathy. Where we have public platforms, we may set the tone and expectation, help people to interpret the times and evaluate reality.

We can speak out against false news and post-truth, but in a way that can be heard and received. Not just the dry facts – we must play the same communication game. Truth needs to be stated and repeated, but with an emotional delivery. Let us tell our story! It is powerful, emotive, but rooted in historical and eternal truth. We have to speak to head and heart at the same time. Jesus knew this when He said, ‘Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves’ (Matt. 10:16).

The Church is commissioned to be a redemptive community. We believe that the Church can have a perfectly robust response to tensions within culture, for example by maintaining its integrity and orthodoxy in issues, but without holding a judgemental response, or an apparently uncomprehending or unsympathetic response. Nobody, especially the followers of our vastly creative, inventive, multifaceted God, needs to enforce absolute uniformity of views or faith. Nobody should claim to have the monopoly on the experience or interpretation of God. Sometimes the Church gets uppity and stuck on secondary rather than primary issues.

We are a missionary people, embodying Jesus’ passion ‘to seek and save those who are lost’ (Luke 19:10). Many young adults just want to be listened to and heard properly a long time before we dare to point them towards an alternative lifestyle or world view such as Christianity represents. We ought to respond to society’s confusions not with condemnation but with compassion. Compassion is better than sympathy or even empathy, because compassion seeks to intervene to bring about redemption. That will entail demonstrating great pastoral sensitivity and patience as we point people towards the love and truth of Jesus.

How do we disciple people in this context?

Here are six ways to help people to navigate through the growing storm:

1. Tell a better story

Christians are ideally placed to tell a better, more compelling story than that of prevailing culture. Do not underestimate the power of the story you carry within your heart and life, the gospel that drips with goodness. It is the greatest story ever told and we know it ends well. Our young people experience such anxiety and disquiet, but the gospel speaks of hope and purpose. Let us call them towards a life of greatness, of empowered humility.

We have to operate within the current parameters of society. Facts are no longer enough. The ground has shifted, so our message and methods must adapt too. Emotional evaluation has risen to the top of the pile. Our approach must be emotionally intelligent, weaving facts alongside a compelling storyline. Isn’t that what preachers have always done? Let us appeal to head and heart alike. Let us speak to the roots and the heart of the issue as we address real-life concerns. People applaud and give platform to those they grow to trust and those who are true to themselves in integrity and authenticity. It is all about relationship-building, just as discipleship has always been.

As we learn to tell the story of what Jesus has done for us, we help others to locate their own way-markers in their journey towards Jesus. What God can do for one person He can do for another.

2. Jesus is the only way – the Bible is the true foundation

Times change, but Jesus remains ‘the way, the truth, and the life’. In our discipleship, it is vital that we do not compromise on Jesus being truth, and the only way to the Father. Jesus is utterly unique. He says, ‘I am the way’ (John 14:6). This actually closes every other way to salvation. There is a tremendous invitation because Jesus is the answer to all of life’s questions, and we can encourage and teach people in how to know and hear God for themselves by the Holy Spirit who will ‘lead [them] into all . . . truth’ (John 16:13 GNT). At the same time, we must resist the urge to control the outcomes!

Telling a better story does not mean we switch from a higher call for commitment and self-sacrifice to a pitch that promises immediate obvious benefits without mentioning perseverance and character change. Like Jesus, we are aiming to build resilient disciples. Discipleship is about going deep, not shallow. We may come with honesty and expectation of glorious transformation. We must help young adults in learning to read the Bible and learning to trust in it as the greatest source of truth about God and humanity. Get it into their hands (not just their phones) and grapple together with how to best to interpret and apply it for today.

Many people doubt the truth or reliability of the Bible, partly because they do not understand how it was compiled, or they get stuck on its apparent contradictions or ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes. Do not assume that even those who grew up within church/Sunday school actually feel confident in handling the texts. Instead, find engaging ways to inform and equip them to read and interpret it themselves, and alongside their peers.

3. Personal experience translated within community

Many young adults rank their personal experience as the highest indicator of truth, or what to trust as accurate, authentic, authoritative. This can work to our advantage in discipleship by encouraging people to find their own relationship with God, at a deep personal level. Encourage personal encounter through the power of the Spirit, who is the greatest discipler and can be trusted to ‘guide you into all truth’ (John 16:13).

But the best kind of theology develops in community. When Jesus discipled His followers, He very rarely did it alone, He did it among a trusted, like-minded small community. We have found that being a committed member of a trusted small group-sized community provides young adults with the safest foundation to process life and questions of discipleship.

Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash

A peer group of Christians will hopefully even out the effect of pick ’n’ mix theology, by challenging and debating the more extreme ends of people’s opinions. Those who seek to disciple emerging adults must walk alongside them, through their highs and lows, helping them to navigate by identifying the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and prompting them to come to conclusions fully informed by faith.

The danger is that we embrace isolation and we do our own personalised theology aside from community and accountability. We’re heard it described this as ‘Google theology’ which provides easy access to those people who will confirm your prejudices or existing errors. But Christian theology is best established in accountable Christian community.

4. Ask the deep questions

Helping people to seek truth and be true to Jesus’ ways is vital. It is not enough to know about the truth. People need to be helped to assess their own lives, mindsets, decisions, choices against the benchmark of Jesus as revealed principally through the Bible. How is biblical truth and God’s character and expectations fitting into and moulding my everyday behaviour and character? ‘Blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice’ (Luke 11:28).

Jesus’ model is mindset change. ‘Repent . . . and believe the Good News’ (Mark 1:15) may be interpreted as ‘change your mind’ (metanoia) and ‘step out in faith’ (pistis) in your new revelation.

Once a person has encountered God, we should help them to assess which of their prevailing mindsets or truths Jesus is challenging to change in the light of His new revelation to them. Then we accompany them in dismantling the old way of thinking, or the captivity to the old nature/self and aligning their thinking and action to the truth in Jesus.

Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Romans 6:17-18

Deep discipleship means encouraging reflective practice in people. Helping them to think carefully, from a godly perspective, on all issues of life and then to act in a way that is true to their convictions and the revelation God will give. In a culture which prizes asking the big questions, many young people we know are hungry for deep answers. This should be encouraged and helped. We are often struck by the inquisitive minds in our midst who hunger for answers of substance to their perfectly normal questions about Church history, theology, the Scriptures and the nature of the Church herself. There has never been an easier era in which people may locate further resources to dig deeper.

5. Learn to discern

We are aiming to help people to be very discerning in where they find their source of authority, their models for life and thought. Today’s trendy internet vloggers are better placed to disciple my children in everyday opinions than I may be. They have access direct to my own teenage children’s devices, and a platform to influence the whole world. The problem is, they are often peddling a brand of pick ’n’ mix pop-psychology and morality that is miles away from Jesus’ way.

It is absolutely vital that we equip people in discernment. What are the values or motivations that are bombarding them from the web, their peers, their education or entertainment? Where is the truth, where is the lie or the ungodly morality which presents itself so appealingly? What ideas are being shared and reposted without due diligence?

Our family plays a game during long car journeys called Spot the Lie. We ask the children to dissect the subtle messages portrayed on advertising billboards. What lies or manipulations are masquerading in seductive images or words?

It is often not as simple as discerning between obvious right and wrong. The power of story or the shiny packaging of social media can sugar-wrap a detrimental untruth. And people tend to trust what they like, what makes them feel good. As George Orwell observed in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.’7

Discernment requires some hard thinking and slowing down. Discernment means looking beyond our personalised house of mirrors and echo chamber or our natural individualism. Training in discernment means we do not accept the premise of every proposition, however much we might be attracted to it.

6. The power of waiting and limitations

Life for a young adult can fly at 100 miles an hour. This is the instant generation, who demand an instant fix and immediate results, having little patience for ‘process’ or gradual development (except, we’ve noticed, for home brew). We see this in pastoral care, and lately a Christian GP told me she has experienced just the same attitude in her consulting rooms among these generations. Experiencing limits and limitations, having to wait for something, coming up against a boundary marker: none are popular with young adults – yet they may be just the medicine they require.

Help a person to avoid the crippling paralysis of multichoice by actively choosing to slow down and smell the coffee. To embrace the need to stop. Simply to breathe a little and take stock of events. To wait a while. As Jesus recommends, to ‘deny’ yourself for a while (Matt. 16:24, NIV).

Wisdom shows that it is through being denied or failing that a person can truly grow the most in their character and spirituality, if only they would embrace the process and not buck at it. Nobody can teach this; a person has to experience it for themselves – but a wise mentor can at least make people aware of these truths and prepare them through occasional practice.

There is a lot to be said for the ancient holy habits, or spiritual discipline practices.8

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

We’ve noticed that young adults may love the disciplines of engagement, such as worship, celebration and meeting together. In a fast-paced world which often lacks a depth of discernment, it is the disciplines of abstinence which may hold the key to finding truth.

‘Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me”’ (Matt. 16:24).

Young adults are prone to significant digital distractions and experience almost continuous intrusions into their thoughtspace. They have learned multitasking as a result, but the flip side is a chronic lack of solitude and of genuine inner-work. Of course, this has been typical of young adults for centuries; it is not a specifically new issue, but it is a particularly pressing and pernicious one for the twenty-first century.

This extract is taken from ‘The XYZ of Discipleship: Understanding and Reaching Generations Y & Z’ by Nick & Marjorie Allan, published 2020 by Malcolm Down Ltd. Find out more here: www.xyzdiscipleship.com

Sources:

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy, ed. and trans. Lewis White Beck (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 346-350.
  2. Elle Hunt, ‘Trump’s Inauguration Crowd: Sean Spicer’s Claims versus the Evidence’, The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 January 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/22/trump-inauguration-crowd-sean-spicers-claims-versusthe-evidence (accessed 6.12.19).
  3. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Classics, New Ed., 2004).
  4. Matthew d’Ancona, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury Press, 2017), p. 34.
  5. Ibid. p.15
  6. Ibid. p.26
  7. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Classics, New Ed., 2004).
  8. For three great resources, see Dallas Willard’s classic book, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
    Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008).
    John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

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