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29 June 2017

The truth about fake news

The truth about fake news

Truthiness is something that that has the ring of truth about it without actually being true. An idea has truthiness if it conforms to our suspicions and previously held positions. Truthiness is dangerous in politics, but perhaps even more challenging when it comes to theology – what we believe about God. 

Over the past couple of years two trends have developed that have challenged our relationship with truth, and truthiness is the corrosive bond that links them. Post-truth is the idea that evidence about a situation takes second place to our feelings. For example we might think that leaving the EU will mean the UK is at greater risk of terrorist attack, and feel that way regardless of the evidence about national security. Or we might think that leaving the EU will give us greater control over our decisions, and hold to this regardless of the complexities of decision making processes in or out of the EU. 

Post-truth is not a new phenomenon – as a society we have had a casual relationship with truth for some time. We have decided that some things are absolutely right and others without question wrong, and in other areas decided that truth is what we want it to be. This is relativism, where the only things that we can say are true are those which can be tested and verified. Christians have witnessed society’s scepticism about truth over many years, a kind of affirmation of the right to believe certain things, but a pressing intolerance if we claim them to be truth. 

Fake news is the second thread and is related to post-truth; it feeds off the climate that it has thrived in. Fake news is the wilful acceptance of ideas that are not true, and the unwillingness to go to the trouble of checking their claims. Our antagonism to truth has reached such endemic levels that when people are presented with evidence that what they are saying or sharing is not true it does not correct them, but reinforces their attachment to false ideas. 

Fake news is a big problem because it leads us to false conclusions. But it’s an even bigger problem because it undermines our ability to trust anything or anyone. 

The good news of Jesus is sometimes dismissed as fake news, the message that Jesus died and rose from the dead is rejected without the evidence being considered. That God can intervene in our world and individual lives yesterday, today and tomorrow, is dismissed as fantasy. 

How then do we lead a world into truth when the word seems to have lost its meaning? In the words of scripture: “truth has stumbled on the street”.[1] We no longer have a common understanding of truth that lets us trust one another, and truth is only true if it can be fact checked. 

Christians don’t speak truth simply so that the things they say are correct and accurate. What the focus on fake news, or alternative facts, misses is that truth is more complex than whether a statistic is accurate, an event real or a quote genuine. 

Christianity stands alone in its belief that truth comes in the form of a person. Not in a theoretical idea, or through a pattern of behaviour, or how we feel, but in the person of Jesus did eternal truth come to earth and became known, enabling us to know God. It was in this act of love that truth was revealed and made accessible to all. 

We are committed to truth because it provides the foundation of our life and faith: truth in the knowledge of God and a belief in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our salvation focuses our actions and words. John Stott once wrote: “Our claim is that God has revealed himself by speaking; that this divine (or God breathed) speech has been written down and preserved in Scripture; and that Scripture is, in fact, God’s word written, which therefore is true and reliable and has divine authority over men.” [2] 

But there is a dimension of the Christian faith that does not fit the fact checking nature of contemporary society’s scepticism towards truth, faith by its very nature cannot be 100 per cent verified, it requires trust, it requires accepting something we cannot fully guarantee. Society wants truth but won’t trust: it is truth that is now in the eye of the beholder. 

In John’s gospel Jesus is recorded as saying to the Jews who had believed him: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[3] Truth is something which comes as we obey Jesus’ teaching rather than something required to be proved before we decide whether to obey.

 

[1] Isaiah 59:14 

[2] Stott, John (1972) Understanding the Bible (Scripture Union Publishing: London) 

[3] John 8:31-32 

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