Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Does Truth Matter?

I remember a conversation I had with Karl once, back when he worked the front desk at Covenant Village in Turlock. He was sharing, with some sorrow, stories of the lies, scams, and traps into which so many of the residents there fell.

No, not Nigerian inheritance scams. Most had figured that one out already.

They were usually the political or religious ones. More than one resident would proudly display their "authentic, autographed" portrait of George W. Bush (and Laura, too), which they received after sending in their ($fill in the blank) donation to the Republican Party. There might have been one with an "authentic, autographed" portrait of Bill Clinton (and Hillary, too), as well, but this was, after all, Turlock - not exactly a hotbed of liberalism. And then there were the ones with the "authentic, autographed" portraits of Paul Crouch (and Jan, too), which they received as thanks for sending in their monthly donation of ($fill in the blank) to TBN. Karl told me once or twice he had tried to explain the nature of these "autographed pictures," the fact that they are mass-produced, that George W. Bush never sat down at his desk, opened up a letter from Mr. And Mrs. Soderswansonberg, and, upon discovering a check, said to himself "I'm going to send along a thank-you note with my picture." But it was a losing cause. They believed it was personally autographed by the POTUS, or by Paul Crouch himself. And so they continued to send in their money.

A couple years ago, I received an email forward from a woman connected with our church, in which a case was made, painstaking piece of evidence by painstaking piece of evidence, that Barack Hussein Obama is the Antichrist. This was before the election, and the email made it clear that any Christian who voted for Obama would guilty of voting for the Antichrist. I took the time to respond, pointing out that, a) the historical evidence contained in the email was fabricated nonsense, lies, and blatant misrepresentation; b) the theology used to support this view of the antichrist was in no way, shape, or form anything that could be considered a proper use of biblical texts, not to mention also fabricated nonsense and lies; and c) as Christians we are to be a people marked by truth, wisdom, and love, and spreading these kinds of emails does damage to our witness and work in the world.

She promptly wrote back, asking to be removed from our contact lists.

Last year I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial garden and plaque in Longbranch. Besides being the presiding minister, I was to play "Taps" as part of the dedication. A few weeks before the event one of the organizers sent me a link to a website detailing the history of Taps, a story which had deeply moved her. I read it, but it sounded suspicious, so did a bit of research. And yes, the story was a fabrication. Touching, to be sure, but not the truth. When I told her, she was disappointed, but it didn't affect the event in any way. (you can read the false story, and the true story of Taps here)

And yet, since then, that story has reappeared across my radar a few times, like yesterday's Memorial Day ceremony at Fair Harbor, at which I played Taps while the memorial wreath was laid upon the water. The Taps story was retold, and it was moving, make no mistake. And the ceremony was beautiful, poignant, and touching. (On a side note, a number of people came forward to lay carnations in memory of a loved one who had died in battle, some back in WW2, one in Afghanistan last year. It was a powerful, emotional moment). I was honored to take part.

But I was reminded that the world is full of these kinds of stories. Some, like the Taps story, are mostly harmless. Others, like the belief that "my picture is autographed," are a little sad in that they come under false pretenses that cost real money. And others, like "Obama is the antichrist," are pretty much sinful. And yet to be a truth-teller carries a real cost. I've offended more than just the one person when I've responded to email forwards that were untrue. Karl realized that all his efforts to dissuade residents of the Village were for naught; either they simply ignored him and held on to their belief, or they were offended that he denied it.

The most difficult piece for me is that we're not talking about opinion here. It's not "a matter of opinion" whether or not Obama is the antichrist. He's not. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not those pictures were "authentically autographed," they weren't. There is a truth here. But it seems we like our myths and legends better than the truth, and we don't like the truth-tellers who come along and knock those stories. And it seems we're just a little to gullible at times. Which may not always be a bad thing; I'd much rather believe the best of people than become a cynic.

I guess what I'm wondering in all of this is whether it's better to go around heading off all these untruths, or just let people enjoy them. Whether it's better to let people remain blissfully unaware, or destroy that bliss with a dose of reality. I believe it's situational; there are some issues that we cannot let slide, but there are other times when I find I'm just not up to the task of ruining somebody's day just to keep the record straight.

Still, if we are to be a people of the truth, which is better? Speaking the truth and destroying somebody else's bliss, or allowing them to hang on to the untruth that makes them happy?


Lori said...

Thanks for sharing this Dan, it is indeed a sad thing when people get all caught up in false rumor (issued as fact) and the deceitful practices of minstries and other organizations. I have seen it time and again myself, especially with the elderly.
Now, if you send me a love gift of just $100, I will send you an authentic, mass produced picture of me and my collie. Ha.

Ann said...

I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one who has offended people by telling them the truth, Dan! ;-) I've also been asked to desist emailing truthful responses! Once, I scooted out the side door of a church so as not to speak to anyone after hearing the pastor quote the urban legends about Mr. Rogers' supposed tattoos and Cap'n Kangaroo's military service at Iwo Jima. What I really wanted to do was ask, "have you heard of snopes.com?"
:D Hey, Lori, send me your address, and I'll give you my bank account number, too!

jake.dockter@gmail.com said...

I agree with you on most of these points Dan, that scams are real and that often times we get the hood pulled over our eyes. But I also think there is power in fiction, story and myth that we can' deny. For some of those old folks, dealing with some real and heavy stuff in their life, the made up story may be better than the real one. They may have many coping mechanisms in place and pointing out the truth may cause some these to begin to fall. Sometimes false hopes, stories and realities are all we've got.
I also think its important to realize that a lot of people out there our belief in God and the whole weirdness that comes with it seems like we are being duped and tricked as well. It is easy to worry about those other people who "believe that!" but lets not forget that to a lot of the world we are also people who believe in some weird things. Those things to the outside world seem pretty bizarre.

Finally, I am wary of connecting Truth with facts. It seems in the piece here that truth and reality are connected to facts and rational arguments. When as christians some things we believe in are not rational and are hard to attribute as facts. It also reminds us to question "do i believe because it has been rationally proven" (which doesn't have a lot to with faith, more like math) or "am i convinced because of faith and movement and GODS grace and for some reason I am compelled". I think that if we focus on true and scientific fact we lose the power of story, of poetry and metaphor. God is a not a rock, but we go around saying he is one as does the Psalmist. God is not a shepherd but we say he is. These are not facts of God but they are metaphors that help and they are equally true.In the same sense of describing my wife and my love for her, I have to rely on "untruths" to describe a true thing. I love her like _____________ she is beautiful like____________________. Her love is like a spring in the desert. This is not true but it is true. In actual factual terms it cannot be, but in the grand poetry of life and love it is fully true. Someone could come along and decode and demystify my statements and beliefs but that would not change the feeling the the Truth of the situation.