Last week I met with a group of folks who are predisposed to a missional perspective on ministry. Our topic for the day was “What does ministry and mission look like in a Post-Truth Culture?” It is obvious that the current political atmosphere was one of the basis of this topic. First, let me say that this group of women and men all serve in some form of leadership role within their worshiping contexts. There is certainly reason for concern when truth and facts are manipulated and lies become categorically euphemized as “alternative facts.” Secondly, the purpose of the conversation wasn’t about becoming involved in a political debate, but intentionally opening a dialogue concerning ministry in a culture where lying has become mainstream.
For the purpose of this post, I will lay out my argument that Christians have a particular role to play in this context. This situation in which we find ourselves has in fact been developing over several decades. I remember a time in the late nineties when cheating on tests in college was at times rewarded as being innovative problem solving. Deception and lies are as old as time. If this is the case, then what is it about right now that is most troubling? If I were to look at it from the dichotomy of national politics, I would most likely point out the blatant ways in which lies are told to shape a desired “truth.” I would point out the use of “convenient truths” that help to construct perception. For me the temptation is to throw my hands in the air and exclaim with Pilot, “What is truth?”
What I find most clear is that this “Post-truth” culture is not limited to any political categorization. In fact I see it as the logical progression of Modernity. Philosophically speaking, with modernity came a shift in emphasis to facts that support truth statements. Therefore when Kant proclaimed “Think for yourselves” he was essentially calling on the masses of society to check the facts. Question the authoritative statements made by the church and don’t simply accept them as true. What Postmodernity does is take this simple skepticism to the extreme and call all truth claims into question. In the postmodern world facts change. Where modernity emphasized objectivity and empirical evidences, Postmodernity calls into question all factual claims that support truth statements. Moreover, with Postmodernity comes an extreme emphasis upon human agency and choice to the degree that one now has the ability to choose what reality she wants.
In light of the children of Modernity (capitalism, democracy, etc.) comes the means to create your own personal reality. There is no more emphatic lie than to manipulate stories and facts for the purpose of creating a desired reality. As it is now predominately accepted that perspective shapes perception (see Gadamer, Derrida, etc.), it becomes impossible to make truth claims without attaching the Postmodern qualifier “for me.” Admittedly, all objective truth is interpreted subjectively. Where we have gone wrong is with the desire for truth itself. People now believe that they can create truth by manipulating perception.
Here is my argument. Looking back on the emergence of society’s obsession with fame, one cannot miss the use of lies and deception to create personas that are more spectacle than real. What western culture discovered was that if a person became famous a brand was created that could be used to generate wealth in the media market. A timeless truism is that with wealth comes success and power. Lies are often used to build up a person’s image for practical benefits. However, what has become most striking in western culture is the desire to create reality by means of manipulating facts to create a desired perception. Part of the logic behind this finds its roots in the marketplace as massive campaigns have sought to strike at the hearts of the masses for the purpose of selling them a product. This logic goes as follows: if you tell the lie convincingly consisting of just the right amount of truth; and if you speak it loudly enough; and finally if you speak it enough times it will become the governing reality. In the mind of such logic, perception is everything.
Unfortunately, this is where we are as a society. So the question (at least in my mind) is what is the role of a Jesus follower in such a culture as this? Going back to the conversation of those leaders, what seemed most important was to be representative of “the Truth.” And how does on be such a representative? In spite of the overwhelming obstacles this culture is providing, being a faithful presence, practicing simplicity, and especially emphasizing Jesus’ teaching to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” But this in itself is not enough. It is not enough to merely speak out when words no longer hold meaning. I am convinced that those who confess that they follow Jesus are essentially called to live according to the truth. What this means is that as a disciple conforms to the teachings of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount), that disciple’s life will essentially become a living embodiment of the Truth. Therefore a faithful presence is nothing more than living a life that is consistent with the belief claims that the disciple makes. It requires an intentional focus upon the one who claims to be truth. The response must be one where the disciple rolls up the shirt sleeves and begins the difficult work of serving the widows, orphans and aliens in the community. It means that it is time to go to work becoming the truth that our neighbors and world desperately need. In a culture where words have lost their meaning, more is required.