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what is truth?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the 18th chapter of the gospel of John this week. It's the story of Jesus being arrested, but in John's careful writerly hands, it becomes a story about truth.

First, you’ve got Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, approached by Judas and some soldiers. When he tells them the truth about who he is, they’re literally struck by it: he says, “I am he,” (echoing God’s revelation of himself to Moses as the I AM) and they draw back and fall to the ground (John 18:6). The truth is powerful.

The soldiers arrest Jesus and take him in for questioning, pretending that they want to get to the truth. Meanwhile, Peter gets grilled by a servant girl, and lies about his identity. Cut to inside: Jesus tells the high priest that he has always “spoken openly" and “said nothing in secret”. He is struck for telling the truth. Cut to the courtyard: here is Peter lying again. 

Finally Jesus is brought before Pilate, and in answering Pilate’s questions, Jesus says, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Jesus could have gone in a dozen directions here. He could have said he was born to bring salvation, or that his purpose in coming to earth was to reconcile all things to God. Those  would have been true. He chose a different emphasis. He emphasized truth.

Then Pilate: “What is truth?”

 

What is truth? 

 

Truth is dangerous: it can knock you flat on you back, it can get you in trouble with the authorities. Truth, John has already told us in this gospel, can set us free (8:32). And truth is a person, Jesus, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).

My friend Alan Noble says that our country is in the midst of “an epistemological crisis.” We’ve been sucked in by fake news sites, willingly sharing articles that fit our confirmation bias without stopping to check the facts. We’ve elected a president who lies compulsively. All politicians lie - all humans lie! - but the rate at which and the way in which President Trump and his administration lie is unique. Calling them "alternative facts" does not change what they are; a lie by any other name stinks just as much. And at the same time as Trump lies, he is actively attempting to discredit and silence all other media, calling journalists liars if they write stories he doesn't like. He is trying to create a sense among the general public that certain things are just unknowable.

Regardless of what you believe about Trump's policies and positions, his attitude toward truth is deeply dangerous and frightening.

What can we do to subversively work for Truth in the age of Trump?

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s small book Caring For Words in a Culture of Lies offers some helpful ways forward. As lovers of Jesus, we are lovers of truth. We believe in being careful with our words. Here’s what she suggests we can do to steward our words well:

1. Love words–“We care for words when we use them thankfully, recognizing in each kind a specific gift . . .”

2. Tell the truth–Be precise, free of hyperbole. Be careful to say what you mean and be sensitive to how it will be heard.

3. Don’t tolerate lies–Confront lies by being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Do so in love, in truth, and in humility.

4. Read well–Reading is a morally consequential act. Reading is “manna for the journey,” and a tangible, profound way to love God with our minds.

5. Stay in conversation–Conversation is a communal act; a mutual commitment to stick with the topic and one another and see it to the other side. Don’t flee when the conversation gets hard. Stay. Be curious about other points of view.

6. Share stories–Stories connect. Stories help us cultivate compassion, taking us to places we otherwise wouldn’t go.

7. Love the long sentence–In an age of 140 characters, to persevere through the long sentence cultivates a mental grit that allows us to sustain thought beyond the clickbait headlines of our day.

8. Practice poetry–Poetry draws us into paradox; it draws us into play. All the while we are stretched and challenged to understand the complexity of life. You can’t speed read a poem. You must sit with it for awhile. 

9. Attend to translation–Translation considers for context and culture. Translation takes care to be understood amid difference. It’s an effort to communicate effectively with others.

10. Play–Play with words.”To play is to claim our freedom as beloved children of God and to perform our most sacred tasks–what we are called to do in the world–with abandon and delight, free to experiment and fail, free to find out and reconsider . . .”

11. Pray–Prayer reminds us of who God is and who we are. It uses the gift of language to commune with the Giver of language. It instills a respect of language and from where it derives.

12. Cherish silence–Silence is not the absence of noise, but “a place we enter.” It’s not empty. Rather, silence is FULL. Silence can restore our hearts, minds, souls and bodies to be more caring with our words.

(These summaries helpfully written by my friend Drew here.)

 

In a time of such great political and cultural upheaval, it feels strange to be touting my book, which releases on Wednesday. But in its own way, this book is the result of me caring for words: thinking deeply about the Christian rhetoric around missions, sharing my own story, and rethinking the way that I talk about God and faith. I believe that creating something beautiful and true is one of the best acts of resistance we have against a culture of lies, and this book is my attempt to do that.

And I hope that you will join me by sharing YOUR stories as part of my book launch celebration next week. There are two ways that you can play along - I want to share them now so that you'll have time to think about how you want to get involved.

1.The Instagram share! (Feb 1)
Post a picture of yourself when you wanted to change the world. For the caption, write a note to yourself at that time, or write about one thing you know now that you wish you had known then. Use the hashtag #dangerousterritorybook

2. The blog carnival! (Feb 1-7) 
If you have a blog, join the dangerous territory link-up! Write a post using one of the following prompts. Here on my blog I will post links to all of your posts, and I’ll share them on social media. This link-up is open to everyone, so please invite friends to join, too!

  • Write about one of your own “misguided quests”
  • Or write about how a cross-cultural interaction (or a relationship with someone different from you) widened your perspective on the world
  • Or write about a time you experienced God’s grace in a fresh way

I can't wait to hear your stories so that we can learn from each other about how God is at work.