The Bible and the Newspaper: What is Truth?
Scripture lessons: John 14:1-6, 18:33-38
For decades, in sermons and articles I've commended to my congregations the instruction of the great theologian Karl Barth, that Christians must live with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Only now I learn that he never said that, at least not in so many words. Scholars at the Princeton Theological Seminary in the United States have reported that they can not find the statement in his writings or transcripts of his lectures. The closest that they can come is in his epoch-making study Epistle to the Romans (1921), which did for (or to) theology what his contemporary Einstein was doing to physics, where Barth wrote that “reading newspapers is urgently recommended for understanding the Epistle to the Romans” – which, as they say at fun fair games, is 'close, but no cigar'. Now, the curious thing is that Barth himself seems to remember having said it. Toward the end of his life he said in an interview (1966), “We stil need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.” And in Time Magazine's 1963 cover story on Barth we find, "[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians 'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.'" So either the lectures in which he said it were never transcribed, or perhaps he heard himself quoted so often as having said it that he accepted it as true. At any rate, whenever he said whatever he said about Christians shaping their lives around the Bible and the newspaper, he stood by it. And I continue to think it is good advice.
I find that one of the benefits of having to deliver newspapers in my old age to supplement my income – aside from the fact it is good exercise – is that I see a good deal more of newspapers than I did for many years. And over the last year I have become increasingly annoyed by what I see, in particular the lies being dished up daily as truth. So I propose to follow Barth's advice this morning and very literally take the Bible in one hand and the newspapers in the other, and look at this question of what is 'truth'. As Barth advised that we always must, I'l begin with the Bible.
Years ago in Brooklyn I did a series of Lenten sermons on 'questions Jesus asked' – like “Who do you say that I am?”, “And you, would you leave me too?”, “What gains a man if he wins the whole world and loses his life?”, “How much bread do you have?” and others. I also thought about doing a series on questions asked of Jesus: “What must I do to attain eternal life?”, “What is the greatest commandment?”. “How often do I have to forgive my brother?”, “When will the kingdom of God come?”, “Are we permitted to pay taxes to the Roman emperor?”, and of course Pilate's question, “What is truth?” I never got around to it, which is a pity, because they are all important questions, wel worth reviewing Jesus' answers. And the last, the question from Pilate, is not the least among them. I suppose it is relevant for all times – philosophers and poets have certainly given it a good workout, and particularly the English poet Keats in the early 19th century with “'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. The curious thing is that this is a question, unlike the others, which Jesus does not answer – or at least not directly; Pilate does not give him a chance. And that's because Pilate already knows the answer – at least, his answer, though he doesn't say it in so many words either. You need to picture the scene clearly. Jesus is on trial for his life before the Roman governor, on the charge of being a revolutionary or terrorist – specifically of claiming to be the 'King of the Jews', which implies a chal enge to the ruling power of Rome. Pilate and his prisoner are inside the governor's headquarters. Now: we need to pause for a moment, to recognise that this is the first of the major problems with this story. Where does this story come from? Who would have been the witness, if it happened? Remember, the disciples have all fled for their lives after Jesus' arrest. Even Peter, whom John reports followed his
master as far as the high priest's house, has by now fled in fear – and shame. But this is not even the high priest's house, where there might have been random Jews who might have been, or later become, sympathisers, and could have reported what they saw and heard. This is the heart of the Roman administration. Who would have seen this and reported it? Christians have tried to get around that in various ways. Those who believe in literal inspiration of scriptures – God or an angel literally dictated the text – of course have an easy answer: God was there, and now tells the story to John. Others, a bit more down to earth, invent some Roman soldier who saw the events and later become a Christian – or even imagine Pilate himself writing an account of them. There's not a shred of versimiltude in any of those stories – and rather than make up a story to justify our story, it we would be better off admitting that this scene is just that – a story, created by the writer of the Gospel of John (or his source) which imagines what he believed must have happened in the interview. But that it is a story, a fiction, does not make it false, any more than a play by Shakespeare is 'false' or a novel by Dostoevsky or Hesse – or, for that matter, a parable told by Jesus – is false, because it is fiction. Fiction can in fact be 'truer' than a 'factual' account when it comes to stating a truth about the human condition or the human psyche, simply because the story can eliminate all the messiness of human facticity and concentrate on that one truth.
So although our events are not factual, they are true. Pilate evidently distrusts the Jewish religious authorities and their motives, though he is not interested in wasting too much time in trying to find out the facts – I almost said 'the truth', although we will find out that is something a bit different. He gives Jesus a chance to state his side of the case. And what does this damned itinerant rabbi do – doesn't he realise he is on trial for his life? He plays word games! “Are you a king?” Pilate asks, possibly even hoping to hear a denial, an explanation, at least Jesus' side of the story. Or maybe just hoping to hear some radical rhetoric which would confirm the charges, and make it easier for Pilate to do his job. Instead Jesus asks questions back. “'King' is your word,” Jesus says. “My task is to witness to truth.” “What is truth?” Pilate snorts. Enough of this b.s. Jesus has blown his chance. This Jew doesn't seem to understand: Pilate is the one here who has the power to decide what truth is. Truth is whatever he says it is, because he has the power to made that decision. That is the pure and simple definition of truth in this world: TRUTH IS WHATEVER POWER SAYS IT IS, no more, and no less. Pilate doesn't have to say that; he does it. Another few minutes and he takes the expedient course, and Jesus dies.
Now: to turn to the papers, and a random selection of what passes for truth in them. Let's begin with the international scene. We all know about the 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' that Saddam Hussein was supposed to have. More recently we may recal the 'fact' that Khadaffi was distributing Viagra to his army to encourage rape, as they attacked 'innocent civilians' demonstrating for democracy. But I was absolutely startled several weeks ago at the degree of schizophrenia in the NRC Handelsblad in relation to Syria: on the op/ed page, there was a lengthy, well-sourced analysis of the routes by which Qatar (and other Sunni monarchies in the Gulf) were funding and arming the Syrian rebels, while the news pages continued to carry on about the kil ing of 'innocent civilian demonstrators'. Now, I don't question that civilians were, and are, being kil ed in the process of the Syrian government's trying to put down rebels being armed and funded from outside. But couldn't we at least give them the chance to excuse themselves in the same way Israel – and the US – tries to excuse itself whenever they kil a bunch of women and children, that it is an unfortunate and unintentional side effect of a necessary military action? Which brings me to another, more startling 'truth' from last Monday's NRC, which, after the massacre of 16 civilians, including nine children, by an American soldier in Afghanistan, sarkily complained that the Afghans were not turning out to demonstrate in as large numbers as they had about American soldiers burning Korans: shows what those irrational Afghan's priorities are, that they get more worked up about books than about the lives of their children. So much for the truth about their national character. And while we are on the topic of the truth about the character of third-world peoples, there is the 'truth' being bruited about by the government and liberal media (which is to say not just
the NRC) that we cannot have a general pardon for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers because that would encourage the tens of thousands of parents in the third world who are just waiting for the moment they can stuff their children on a plane to The Netherlands. Or there is economics. Every time we are going to privatize a public service we are told how it will make everything cheaper, improve the service, and offer so much more choice. Subjecting the mail, railways, public transit, energy and health insurance to the rigours of the market was going to make them more efficient, and cheaper, and force them to improve service to gain customers. Reminds me of the radio jingle we had in America during my childhood in the 1950s, when we were circling the wagons against Godless Communism during the Cold War, about “The market makes everything good!” Can you think of a single instance where that has worked? Even the advocates of the market can't; the best they can do is act surprised, say tell us it would have been even worse if whatever it was had not been privatized, and then rush off to the next privatization or deregulation – like dental prices in January, which we were told were supposed to go down, but which (no surprise) went up, and the privatization of hospitals – despite the fact that Sweden, which commercialized its hospitals three years ago, is in the midst of a scandal about how the 'efficiency' – and profit – was attained by staff cuts, which have drastical y eroded patient care. Of course, that won't happen here. Brothers and sisters, these are truths which dehumanize, which erode community, destroy solidarity among people, which ultimately kil people.
Truth is whatever power says it is. But isn't that generalizing? Maybe in politics truth is what power says it is, but what about scientific truth? What about empirical, experimental facts? Clear as a paal boven water, as the nose on your face. Every time I am discussing the importance of 'science' for social debates – I maintain it is totally unimportant – and am hit with that question, I bet we can come up with ten easy instances, off-hand, where science is useless an an arbiter – not because it can't produce evidence, but because it can (and does) produce evidence for whatever position it has been paid to support. Shal we try? The classic is: does smoking damage your health? For decades the pro-smoking lobby, largely bankrolled by the tobacco companies, and the anti-smoking lobby lobbed reports back and forth, one 'proving' that smoking was damaging, the other that it was not, criticising each other's samples, methods, analysis. The issue was final y decided, not by science, but by court decisions, and by political lobbying that got parliaments to pass laws mandating warnings on cigarette packs, and smoking bans. What about whether mobile phones give you brain tumours? Same scene we had with smoking, but the argy-bargy is stil gong on. And the radiation from mobile telephone masts, and cancer? Jury's stil out on that one, too. What about the issue of climate change? Yes, we can track a warming trend in temperatures over the last couple hundred years – but what if we go back farther? Is it significant, or merely part of a normal cycle? And both more important, and even less open to proof: is man responsible for this? Or it is again a natural cycle? Does smoking weed cause psychosis? After all, a large percentage of people who have experienced psychotic episodes did smoke weed. Or are we looking at samples through the wrong end of the telescope: the vast majority of people who have smoked weed do not become psychotic. Does looking at pornography or playing violent video games and MTV videos cause rape and violence? Or, on the contrary, does looking serve as an escape valve, and decrease them? Studies go both ways; which side wil ultimately be accepted is a political decision, largely the outcome of the amount of money poured into obtaining it. Legislators or judges choose one side or the other, and that – and not the science – settles the issue. O.K., that's only seven, but you get the picture. The softer the science, the harder the questions. Take economics. (Please!) When I was in secondary school we were taught that it was as certain as the law that says what goes up must come down, that if the total of the total value of stock market exceeded the value of the supplies of raw materials on hand, the value of the factories, and the stocks of unsold goods by more than a couple of percentage points representing the good name of the firm and any expertise it possessed, there was certain to be a market crash. Twenty years later, we were
being told that there was no connection whatsoever between these things and the market value of companies. It was like being told that Newton's Law had been repealed. If the old laws of economics were that wrong, why should we believe the newly discovered laws hold true? Or what is the truth about capitalism? Is it an immoral gospel of self-interest, merely a system which steals the labour of the many to place wealth in the pockets of a few? Or is it good, and even moral, because in your quest for self-enrichment everyone else is enriched too? Does it reward the intelligent and hard-working and punish the lazy and improvident, or is it legalized theft? Depending on the economists involved, there are statistics which support both sides. There are also, as Mark Twain noted, lies, damn lies and statistics.
Pilate was right: Truth is what power says it is. For all practical purposes, in this world the truth at any particular moment is whatever power can enforce. Sometimes, when power changes hands, the truth changes too. But that means there is one more factor to be considered: who has the real power, the lasting power, the last word – who gets to draw the bottom line? Pilate may have been the rooster on the dung hil of Jerusalem at that moment, who had the power to define the truth about Jesus. Caesar, farther away in Rome, may have had the power to define truth throughout most of the Western world in that century, and for another one or two to come. But Pilate was replaced three years later, and disappears from history fifteen years later, and Rome eventual y declined and fell, and was replaced by other power structures. Are we then condemned to just a succession of 'truths'?
One of the images in my personal mythology comes from a film that I repeatedly saw as a kid. I grew up – well, from six to twelve – in a Lutheran church, simply because it was only two blocks away from my parent's home in the suburbs of Detroit. At least twice a year – on Reformation Day, and in summer Bible School – they showed this film biography of Martin Luther. The great set-piece of this film was Luther at the Diet of Worms (which we kids otherwise thought was very funny, Luther ate a diet of worms!). Like Jesus, he was on trial for his life. Unlike Jesus' defence, Luther was voluble in his: in close-up you see him declaiming his arguments. His discourse ends with him placing his right hand on the Bible on the lectern next to him and spouting the immortal words of defiance, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And then, as the music of A Mighty Fortress is Our God swells in the soundtrack, the camera starts to pan back and upward, slowly, ever so slowly, into the rafters. You see Luther standing all alone in an empty space in the centre of the hal , growing smaller and smaller as the camera moves away. Then, as the frame widens more, the Diet comes in view, along the walls: the armed guards and soldiers, the ranks of scholars and monks and priests in their black robes, the nobles and final y the Emperor himself, hundreds and hundreds of figures representing all earthly authority, the military, the church, the universities, the nobility, the Holy Roman Empire – to finish off with that last line, which we sang a few minutes ago, “God's truth abideth stil , His kingdom is forever.” Al of that worldly pomp, all of that worldly power, is passing: God's truth alone remains, will remain. On one hand, what an incredible piece of propaganda. On the other hand, this time it is propaganda for the truth.
For it is ultimately God – whether you use the name The Lord, or God, or Al ah, or any of the many other names of God which have been revealed to man in Scriptures (the Eternal, the All-merciful, the Omnipotent, the Al -Wise, the Creator, the Father, and occasionally the Mother too), or in the course of religious experience – it is ultimately God who is in charge, and who in the beginning and the end gets to define truth. And that truth is revealed and collected in the scriptures – not in the sort of literal revelation I mentioned earlier in the sermon, a sort of divine dictee, but in the meditations and stories and hymns and all the other kinds of literature found in the scriptures, the results of man's encounters with God, which then survived because they continued to speak, through the Spirit of God, to resonate in the lives of those in subsequent generations, to enter a canon, containing all sorts of abiding truths in which these subsequent generations find their own experience reflected. Some of
these are partial truths, no less true for that, related to specific circumstances. One can think of what I like to call the 'bitching psalms' - “O Lord, how my enemies taunt me! Kick their butt, Lord!”, that kind of stuff: wel , that's a part of our experience with God too, and probably a bit more often than we might like to admit in polite society. But it also includes great and overarching truths, that are true forever and everywhere. The first and greatest of these is that this God cares deeply about the people he created. Our religions tell that story in different ways: Judaism tells about a God who takes evening walks in his Garden, who sits under Abram's tent-flap, who hears the cry of the oppressed in Egypt and brings them out of their oppression; Christianity tells the story in terms of more than just God's involvement with mankind in history, but insists on God's actual entry into history by taking on human flesh, the incarnation; Islam backs off a step and returns to God speaking to his people through his prophets, to proclaim his mercy for those who believe, who remember Him. And yes, all of them betray that message in their own way – the people Israel, called to be a blessing to the nations, by a terrible exclusivism, Christianity by an unholy pact with the powers of this world, Islam, at least in its present politicized form, by a terrible narrowness that excludes even other believers – witness the events in Belgium this last week, not to mention Syria. Which brings us to a second truth: that this God is a merciful, forgiving God. In the prophet Hosea he is a God whose heart is “changed within me” (11:8). Christianity, more so than its older and younger siblings, with its story of the crucifixion, emphasizes that this mercy is costly: there is a price to be paid in and for forgiveness and reconciliation – for the party who is wronged, the price of accepting the wrong and not 'getting yours' back, for the offender, the price of restitution or compensation, of attempting to make amends. Which leads us to the third truth: that the ultimate goal of this process of reconciliation is human solidarity, the human solidarity that is so damaged by the 'truths' of this world. In a little over two weeks we wil celebrate the essential Christian ritual of this solidarity: Maundy Thursday (Witte donderdag). It is usual y celebrated as the institution of the Lord's Supper, emphasizing the vertical communion with God. That may be so – though I have my doubts, which shows what a heretic I am. Many years ago I thought there was something a bit strange about the language there: do “this” – assumed to mean the bread and and wine – in remembrance. You “do” something active, not a predicate object. How does one “do” bread and wine? I know, in Los Angeles and New York, people “do” lunch: “We have to do lunch some time.” But it seems to me that there is a clearer and more obvious meaning at the time Jesus spoke the words – particularly when one realizes that the development of Eucharistic theology took some decades, if not centuries. It seems to me that the clearer meaning is simply 'whenever you do this' – sit down to break bread together in solidarity with one another – 'do it in remembrance of me'. I recognize that is a minority position (to say the least) in the church, which is why I was so chuffed to do a translation of a Huub Oosterhuis communion liturgy some years ago which indicated that he was interpreting the words the same way, as a ritual of fellowship. I've used that liturgy ever since – and hope you may join us here on Maundy Thursday when we will be using it again.
Brothers and sisters, truth is not what you find in the newspapers. It is not what you hear from government spokespersons. Truth is what you find in the Word of God, in the scriptures, ultimately (for Christians) in the person and work of Jesus Christ – and that is a testimony to the concern of God for his creation, to God as the Al -merciful, Compassionate, who desires nothing less than the reconciliation of his people with himself and with one another, and a life which testifies to that reconciliation, that fellowship, in our rituals, and in concern for one another, loving our neighbour as ourselves.
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