‘You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson’s character famously said to Tom Cruise’s character in “A Few Good Men.” Nicholson’s character was testifying in a military trial. We have an impeachment trial pending, symptomatic of a larger truth — a nation on trial and truth at stake. On Facebook, in closed-door hearings, and in public debates, we hide from truth. As the scenario goes, we prefer a lie, or at least some version of truth that confirms our bias.
The actual truth would force us to retell the story that we tell ourselves. Truth is messy and bursts our protective bubbles and biases — those things we want to be true.
Social media platforms disagree in their respective policies for handling truth. Facebook defends its current practice of accepting all paid ads under the First Amendment, thus protecting free speech without regard for its proximity to truth. While Facebook refuses to reject untrue political ads — not simply the usual “spin,” but provable falsehoods or total fabrications — Twitter has done the opposite. They now totally ban all political advertising out of an over-wrought concern that such social media reach grants politicians too much power to deceive the gullible masses.
How gullible are we? I sense more distrust than gullibility out there. Confident that “the truth is out there” we investigate to a point, meaning, we “Google it.” But amateur truth-seekers and fact-checkers invariably succumb to everyone’s favorite story-telling mantra, “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.”
Even preachers have a tough time convincing our people of the unvarnished truth, or that biblical truth can be applied objectively. Jesus is the embodiment of The Way, the Truth and the Life — quoting what Jesus said of himself, as recorded in John 14:6. But as soon as I proclaim that to skeptics, I am met with a quick retort: “That’s your truth, but mine is….” OR “That may be your experience or opinion, but here’s what’s true for me.”
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We all want “truth that will set us free” (John 8:32), and I see that freedom as accruing to those who follow the truth, as it is knowable in Jesus Christ. But I know many who will disagree with me and question the authority or reliability of my sources. Or they will ask, “How do you know the Bible is true?” If I get the chance, I cite how science and faith are not at odds, or that history and archeology confirm much of the Bible. I know of secular lawyers who have put God in the dock and set out to disprove Christianity, only to be persuaded by the evidence of the Resurrection, for example.
Pastors are to “rightly handle the word of truth,” as the elder apostle Paul tells a young pastor Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15). But in our sermon preparation, we struggle to agree on what the Bible means or how to apply it. We wrestle with ambiguity, with truth that make us squirm, and with truth that speaks to us so personally. As with any politician or pundit, preachers can find the “facts” that support the “truth” we want to convey on any given Sunday. Who of us have not left out “inconvenient truths” that would support an alternate worldview?
TIME magazine chose as “Persons of the Year” in 2018 the “guardians of the truth,” highlighting the role of the free — and increasingly persecuted — press. Pastors are also charged with guarding what’s been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:12-14). Back in the days before the Bible was widely published (beginning in 1611, under King James I of England), pastors and priests were the only educated ones with access to read and interpret truth for masses of illiterate people. Now, with the Bible on smart phones and access to the Internet proliferating, anyone can corroborate, or discredit, what the preacher is saying.
Having to put “truth” in air quotes does not bode well for preachers, for journalists or other guardians of the truth. The oppressed press corps will be hard-pressed to faithfully winnow the facts within the impeachment hearings, now being televised live from DC. Pastors will be hard-pressed to compete for airtime with such news and spin. We can hope and pray that truth itself is not on trial, but that objective reality still matters — even as we drown in social media and leaks of rumors and fake news. Sometimes — as in the case of gravity, mortality or climate change — truth cannot be denied or fabricated but will impose its inexorable will on us.
With Leonard Pitts, in a Nov. 4 op-ed, I conclude: “Like climate change, this era of ‘alternative facts’ is an existential crisis that will require a race-to-the-moon urgency — not simply from government, social media and news media, but also… from us as citizens.” Otherwise it’s sadly true: We can’t handle the truth.