The truth will set you free

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"What is truth?" (John 18:38)

The question of Pontius Pilate remains relevant to every period in history. Ours is a world where truth claims are made routinely without reference to credible sources. Passion alone seems to be what counts to an alarming number of folks. If such passion is clearly labeled as opinion, there is no difficulty. However, when passion is represented as an empirical truth claim, it is a disservice to all.

A case in point: Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it seems many are willing to believe the lies, distortions and misrepresentations received regularly through e-mail. This has happened, I'm persuaded, because national mainstream media outlets seem unable to steer a middle course when it comes to issues. When newspeople give the distinct impression that they are "in the tank" for a certain vision of reality, we -- the news consumers -- are intellectually poorer for it. Rupert Murdoch, owner and founder of Fox News, admitted to Atlantic Monthly in its July/August edition that there is no such thing as objectivity in media. The best we can hope for, he believes, is some sort of balance. "Balance" is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Advocacy journalism, once the province of special-interest media, has now gone mainstream. Every media source, it seems, has a point of view. In truth, media have always had a bias, either right or left. The difference is the bias is now brazenly on display. In addition to "point of view" journalism, we have opposition research by the candidates themselves and so-called "truth squads."

In this climate, truth can be hard to discern. Pilate's question still resonates. When advocacy or "point-of-view" journalism is omnipresent, when candidates' opposition research unearths seamy tidbits, news consumers find themselves driven -- as lemmings to the sea -- to the one place we should never go for truth: the Internet. The Internet, for all its gifts to humanity, is a cesspool when it comes to information. My inbox is regularly filled with preposterous truth claims. The most stubbornly persistent of these e-mail claims is the outrageous assertion that Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim. (Obama is not much of a churchgoer; he has admitted as much. Neither is Sen. John McCain, by the way.)

Why are we tempted to believe such outright falsehoods as "Obama is a stealth Muslim"? There is absolutely no credible evidence that Obama is anything other than what he claims to be: a Christian. Why are we tempted? Because "Aunt Mary" sent it to us via e-mail. Aunt Mary got it from her second cousin, who in turn got it from his mother-in-law, who got it from ... well, she can't remember who sent it to her. We no longer trust media outlets to chart a middle course, so we retreat, unknowingly, into the truth claims made by friends and family.

Jesus' words about truth are prescient here: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." (John 14:6) "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32) "When the Holy Spirit comes, he will lead you into all truth." (John 16:13)

This election season, especially, we need a healthy dose of Holy Spirit to negotiate the minefields of passion masquerading as evidence. The Holy Spirit's job, in part, is to remind us of the words of Jesus. In the coming bombardment of claims of truth between now and November, may the Holy Spirit's reminders of Jesus' words be a prism through which all such rhetoric may be unmasked. There is much dirt coming our way the next few months. To keep ourselves clean, may we lean into an unimpeachable source. So come, Holy Spirit. Come.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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