The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

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FOLLOWING JESUS

FOLLOWING JESUS

The first thing and the last thing that Jesus said to Peter was the same—“Follow me!” The first occasion was when Peter and his brother were casting a net into the Galilean Lake. Jesus passed by and called out, “Follow me, and I will teach you to fish for men” (Mk. 1: 16-18). Peter quickly responded and became a follower of Jesus.

 

Throughout the preaching tours of Jesus in Palestine, Peter continued to follow. In the fishing villages, on the mountains, in the desert, by the lake—he followed and he listened. Many months later, on the night that Jesus was betrayed, Peter even declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and to death (Lk. 22:33), though as Luke makes clear, due to his fear Peter only followed at a distance (Lk. 22:54). On that same night, he eventually denied that he even knew Jesus (Lk. 22:55-62).

“Follow me!”

After Jesus had risen from the dead, he left Peter with the same command as at the beginning, “Follow me!” Peter had questioned the Lord about the future of another of the disciples, but Jesus simply said to him, “What is that to you? You must follow me!” (Jn. 21:19-22).

 

Finally, in later life, Peter wrote to a group of churches with this admonition: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pe. 2:21).

 

So, then, what does it mean to follow Jesus? Obviously, it cannot mean for us exactly the same thing that it meant to the rural people of Galilee who had Jesus physically in their midst. The call to follow Jesus must mean more than travelling around the countryside while listening to Jesus preach, for as Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, Christ left us an example that we should follow in his steps, and it is apparent that he was talking about a way of life rather than a geographical route.

 

And so we begin with the word “disciple”. The followers of Jesus were called his disciples, and the term refers to someone who is a learner or a student. One who follows Jesus is always learning more about him, learning not only in the sense of intellectual awareness, but even more importantly, in the sense of learning to live according to the pattern which Jesus taught. This is why John wrote, “Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus walked” (1 Jn. 2:6).

 

In the gospels, Jesus made the call to discipleship central in his teachings. He knew that at the very core of human nature was selfishness, pride, and the desire for power. So, he taught that to follow him, one must say “no” to him or herself (Lk. 9:23-24). Those who wished to follow Jesus but still retain other loyalties could not do so (Lk. 9:57-62). In fact, even family loyalties must be sacrificed, if necessary, in order to follow Jesus (Lk. 14:25-27). The cost of discipleship is the willingness to give up everything for Jesus (Lk. 14:28-33). It is the acceptance of Jesus’ radical claims about himself, and the submission of our lives to him as the Lord of life.

jesus feet

The call to follow Jesus is an intense daily challenge. This is why Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must … take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). This brings ethics to bear:  In every circumstance in life, to follow Jesus means that you ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” When making decisions, when confronting clients, when socializing with friends, when addressing those in need—all these circumstances are to be controlled by the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” Sometimes, perhaps often, the answer will be acutely uncomfortable, because it will deeply conflict with our own wishes.

 

To a wealthy young man who claimed to have kept the ten commandments from his youth, Jesus said, “Go, sell everything you own and give it away. Then come and follow me” (Mk. 10:21). Sadly, the young man turned away. His love of wealth prevented him from following Jesus. The refusal to follow Jesus can be for many reasons. For the crowds in Galilee, it was the scandal of Jesus’ claims about himself (Jn. 6:53-66). For the Jewish leaders, it was a deep loyalty to their traditional religion (Jn. 9:13, 16, 24-29). For Judas, it was disillusionment (Mt. 26:14-16, 20-25). For yet others, it was a field or a purchase or a marriage (Lk. 14:16-24).

When Jesus calls us to follow him, he always seems to ask us to give up that thing which is most likely to draw us away from him. As someone once said, “The things that I do not understand about the sayings of Jesus are not what disturb me. What disturb me are the things that I understand all too well!”

“The things that I do not understand about the sayings of Jesus are not what disturb me. What disturb me are the things that I understand all too well!”

One might well ask with Peter, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt. 19:27). But Jesus replied, “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life” (Lk. 18:29-30).

Something should also be said about the importance of knowing the stories of Jesus.

The accounts of the teachings and actions of Jesus were the primary preaching material for the earliest Christians. While they did not have the advantage of a printed Bible, as we do today, the public reading of the gospels and the retelling of the stories of Jesus were eagerly received. Today, Christians can become familiar with the life of Jesus both by hearing and by reading, and it cannot be over-emphasised that they must learn more about Jesus.  To claim to follow Jesus without any familiarity concerning his life and words is to lapse into an ambivalent subjectivism.

 

It would be impossible here to enumerate all of the teachings of Jesus. Nevertheless, the essence of the life to which Jesus called us can be sketched in. Jesus himself said that upon two commandments hung the entire law and prophets of the Old Testament: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind—and to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Lk. 10:25-27). Who is one’s neighbour? It is anyone with a need (Lk. 10:29-37). Jesus was concerned about things such as forgiving people of their offenses (Mt. 6:14-15; 18:21-35) and loving those who did not love in return (Mt. 5:43-48). The sum of the life of Jesus has been aptly encapsulated by one person who said that Jesus simply “found wounds and healed them.” He was the “man for others.” He called his followers to servanthood (Jn. 13:1-17), not to power (Mt. 20:20-28). One of his final sayings on the cross was a prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34); and not merely his immediate executioners, but humanity as executioners. 

Were_You_There

Source: Wikipedia

The 1899 classic ‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” made famous by many, including Johnny Cash, implies, rightly, a whole human race experience, if only we will see that.  This is similarly captured in the film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ by Mel Gibson, who filmed the nails being hammered into the hands/wrists of Jesus by his own hand!  So, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” is not only an immediate prayer of Jesus, but a cosmic expression of soteriological plenum.  It is worth remembering that Jesus only says what the Father tells him to say; and by sheer Trinitarian logic, the Father answers the prayers of Jesus.  Thus, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” is the prayer of the Human Christ that finds its fulfilment in the Cosmic Christ:  How can it be anything else?  “Behold, I am making all things new!”  I’m pretty sure I know what “all” means.

Jesus simply “found wounds and healed them.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The call to discipleship is a gracious call, but it is also a costly call. As Bonhoeffer said, “It is costly because it costs a [person] his life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life.”

So to you and me, just as to Peter and Andrew and James and John; and Tony and Bill and Sue and Margaret and Ann and John and Steve and Judith and Bonnie and Andrew and Abigail and Tania and Roger and Richard and Laura and Michael and Julie, Jesus says, “Follow me! Follow me and I will make you…”

He will (re)make you!

As St Ambrose said, “Truly a mighty remedy, that not only removed the scar of an old wound, but even cut the root and source of passion. O Faith, richer than all treasure-houses; O excellent remedy, healing our wounds and sins!”

Dodman Cross

Prophecy: “Ad hoc cries of an expressive, diagnostic, or tactical nature, delivered as ‘spontaneous’ mini-messages” it is not!

Some thoughts……

On Prophecy

Broadly speaking, my view is that prophecy is either an anointing of the Spirit or a gift of the Spirit, depending on which form of prophecy is in view.

I believe that the biblical prophets had a unique anointing that nobody else has had since the closing of the canon.

The canon of Scripture is slightly disputed in that 1 Enoch is part of the Ethiopian canon. It is interesting that 1 Enoch correctly predicts the ambiguity surrounding its future reception!  Beyond disputes about the extent of the canon (there is no canonical statement about the limits of the canon!), I am a cessationist when it comes to the anointing of the biblical prophets.

I am not a cessationist when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, since such a view seems absurd given Paul’s and Peter’s view of the church as a body that grows out of each part doing its work and administering God’s grace in its various forms.

To distinguish between more and less “spectacular” gifts in this respect seems arbitrary, since each part of a body remains important. To say that any gift has ceased is to say that a part of the body has become unnecessary, which is precisely what Paul warns against.

To distinguish between the inaugural and the continuative has some validity: the Scriptures constitute a once-for-all inaugural revelation; but the Holy Spirit relates the Scriptures to us ever-freshly in a continuing manner. However, when it comes to the gifts of the Spirit, the inaugural vs. continuative distinction becomes invalid as stated above, and it is better to speak in terms of anointing (inaugural) vs. gifts (continuative).

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X marks the spot

X marks the spot

Having had the best part of the weekend in Oxford (Baptist Union Assembly), I must say what an inspiring place it is.  I’m sure the sun shining was a major factor, not to mention  the incredible falafal wraps I enjoyed, with a decent pint at the famous pub favoured by C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.

pub

C. S. Lewis was ‘ere.

I wandered around the oldest University in the world, Balliol College (£2 entry fee!), established in the 13th century, and counts among its past students Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, and in 1360 AD John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English – a dangerous thing to do.

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John Wycliffe, c. 1360

 

The main entrance to the college is on Broad Street, and it was here that a terrible event took place in both 1555 and 1556.  This cross marks the spot where three Reformers were burnt at the stake for their part in the Reformation, accused of “heresy”, i.e. Protestantism.

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Martyr’s Cross, Broad Street, Oxford

Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester); Nicolas Ridley (Bishop of London); and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), were burned alive on this spot.  To the left is Balliol College, and to the right are some shops, including outside seating areas for the coffee drinkers.  It is an incredible thing to see and think about.  This sign to the left of the cross describes the scene:

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Eucharist is….

The biblical meaning of ‘Eucharist’ (or ‘Communion’ or ‘The Lord’s Supper’) as it comes to us through the Old and New Testaments, contains a vast array of images and meanings that are there to prevent us from dogmatic one-dimensionalism, but gift us with a multi-dimensionalism of blessing and enrichment:

From the OT:
Eucharist is….
… a re-enactment of a salvation event.
… the celebration of the sealing of a covenant.
… an anticipation of the messianic banquet.

Communion

From the Meals of Jesus:
Eucharist is….
… a remembering of the table fellowship of Jesus with its overtones of God’s acceptance and forgiveness.
… a sharing in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection appearances in which he ate and drank with his disciples. Continue reading

Sweeter to your taste

Art of reading ScriptureI came across this wonderful reference from a 12th century sermon in the excellent book ‘The Art of Reading Scripture’, page 208.

The quote is by Guerric of Igny, Liturgical sermons, vol. 2, translated by ‘Monks of Mount Saint Bernard, CF 32, 1971, page 81.

“What I have placed before you brethren, is like an egg or a nut; break the shell and you will find the food. Beneath the image of Joseph you will find the Paschal Lamb, Jesus, the one for whom you yearn. The great depth at which he is hidden and the diligence necessary in seeking him and the difficulty you will have in finding him will only make him sweeter to your taste. . . . And so here is the explanation in a nutshell: If we think with faith and reverence about the meaning of his name (Gen 30:24 : Joseph=”May He Add”; sounds like Heb. ”He has taken away” – my comment). . . . That after he had been sold by his own he redeemed his own from death, that he was humbled even to imprisonment, then elevated to a throne, and was rewarded for his work by being given a new name among the nations (Gen 41:45) – ‘The Saviour of the World’ – if we think about all these things reverently and faithfully, we shall surely recognize how truly it was said by the Lord (Hos 12:10), “Through the prophets, I gave parables.”

 

But the Bible says….

Anyone who opens up their Bible becomes an interpreter.  The task of an interpreter is to correctly interpret, to separate the Word for all time over and against that which is merely cultural or temporary.

For example, on Saturday I had a rare steak and it oozed with blood, contrary to Acts 15:29.  I have also never had my feet washed in church (John 13:14).  Both of these are scriptural New Testament commands, so the question becomes, as we interpret the text – how am I interpreting this text over and against another text?

Bible,open

Below is a list put together from a missionary who was (is?) based in Ethiopia, and so obviously had to contend with cross-cultural interpretation as well as basic biblical hermeneutics.  The point of the list is to raise the question of each text:  what is meant to be temporary and what is meant to be timeless?  It would be a great exercise to use in any Bible study with adults and I think, especially teenagers who are learning to read Scripture well, and help to prevent the classic line we often hear, “But the Bible says….!”

I came across the list when I worked with the mission agency YWAM, and we used it on the School of Biblical Studies.  Enjoy!

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