Monday, November 27, 2006

Truths that Aren’t Truthy

John 18:33-38
Revelation 1: 4b-8

“Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”—The American Dialect Society

On late night TV, there are sometimes shows that are significant for various reasons. When I am up late enough, I like to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show that comes after it is one I am not such a great fan of, but it does have its moments. It’s called The Colbert Report, and it is “hosted” by a former “correspondent” on The Daily Show, named Steven Colbert. If you’ve seen the most recent cover of the Rolling Stone magazine, these are the two guys I am talking about.

Colbert discovered a word that has caught fire in some circles, a world that he used the night his show premiered. The word is “truthiness”. The American Dialect Society defines it like this: “Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

We live in a time when people sometimes choose to trust their beliefs rather than discover or acknowledge what the truth is. A lifetime of belief, or a course of action based on that belief can sometimes turn out to be less than what is actually true.

Beliefs like the one that if you work hard, educate yourself, you can become whatever it is you want to be.

This is part and parcel of the American dream, the basic credo of who we are as a nation. When we list the qualities we most admire about ourselves, becoming who we dream we want to be is pretty high on the list. Our grandfathers and grandmothers, perhaps even our mothers and fathers, perhaps even we, came here to the US with this promise in our minds.

We can control our own destiny, if we learn how to rely only on ourselves and the gifts we have. This is very truthy. Most of the time, it is even true. From all I hear these days, we are still the beacon nation, the nation where people go to improve their lives, to have the possibility of improving ourselves and our children—a place to escape from the castes of the homeland, the brutality of a government, the ironclad cultural roles we long to break out of. From the Pilgrims to the landed gentry of Virginia, the indentured servants to the miners from many countries in Europe who populated this valley and these mountains, all came to improve their material status. We have become a great nation because we are the mix of the talents of everyone who came to our shores.

It’s truthy, it is even partly true. But only partly. Many people have dreams that circumstances will not allow them to realize. Their dreams may not match their talents. Their circumstances may not allow them to achieve everything they planned for.

But as Christians, we believe in more than just the American Dream of material success. When I say “material success”, I do not mean the kind of material success that allows us to buy the Playstation III as soon as it is released. Most of us, frankly, aren’t in that place. We want to provide food, housing, education and some measure of comfort to our families and ourselves. We live in a culture where we are told that if we work hard, live right and be patient, we will succeed in these matters. Many people in many countries do not even have this possibility, and that is why we are still so attractive to so many people, imperfect as we are as a country.

But as a Christian, success has a different definition. As Christians, we are not rewarded for the strength of our backs, the quickness of our minds, the power of our portfolios. We are rewarded for our obedience, expected to do all in our power to let the other succeed with our help, even when it affects our material success. Ultimately, to use some midieval terms, we are called to surrender ourselves, body and soul, willingly, to someone else. We have talents, gifts and graces, and our willingness to offer them for the benefit of someone else is the measure of our success.

It’s a truth that doesn’t sound very truthy. It doesn’t feel right to us, raised as we are to be self-reliant, independent and wary. In an era of democracy, we Christians are to use the language of kings and subjects. Christ is our King, we are his subjects. You’re probably thinking that that sounds rather distasteful, and I agree with you. I like to feel as if I became a minister by the virtue of my own labor and the support of Donna and our parents, that I somehow “earned” it. And truthfully, all of that helped. But the truth is that if God didn’t want me to be a minister, I wouldn’t have become one. That’s the non-truthy bit.

Pilate was a man who probably believed he had earned the right to be the Roman leader of Jerusalem and the area round it. He was Roman, he believed in whatever the culture believed created him as a successful leader. Jesus, to him, must be a threat, because he claims that he is a king, but he is confused about what sort of King that is. He hears the truth in the statement “if my Kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But my Kingdom is not from here”. He understands, perhaps even feels the leadership or the divinity of Jesus.

Pilate’s been around leaders, and this sorry, beat up specimen of a man feels like a king. But he is not acting like a king should. Whoever his people may be, there is no organized uprising of Jesus-backers in the city. “For this I was born”, Jesus says, “and for this I came into the world.” For this? For trial? For execution? A King? For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”.

What is the truth?
The truth is that because we are Christians, Jesus Christ is our King.
The truth is that because we are Christians, we are his subjects.

What is Truthy?
If the American Dialect Society is right about the definition of truthy, that truthiness refers to preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true, then it is very truthy that we somehow are Christians by right.

We are Christians by the grace of God, not by right. And there is no truthiness there!

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