The wise men enter the stable somberly, anticipatory music building in the background. Bejeweled and looking very wise indeed, they carry their gifts and approach the child in the manger with his mother sitting by. They kneel and offer their praise and homage to the infant:
“We worship you, O Brian, who are Lord over us all. Praise unto you, Brian, and to the Lord, our Father. Amen.”
This is not the actual nativity. This is the beginning of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a comedy of errors where a man named Brian is continually mistaken for Jesus throughout his life. The wise men realize their mistake and return to take back the gifts and bring them to the true Christ child. The joke, of course, is that they misread the stars and ended up in the wrong stable. The good news they had divined from their study of astrology was nearly usurped by a false report.
We are living in the era of fake news. Fabricated news stories (like one claiming Pope Francis had endorsed then-candidate Donald Trump). Non-existent tweets shared as falsified images (like one that looked like Trump threatened to arrest Alec Baldwin for portraying him on SNL). The occasional article from The Onion that your grandma* takes literally and shares on Facebook as fact (always, always check for satire…).
But fake news isn’t new. Christians worship a God who sent a Messiah at a time when claiming to be the Messiah was almost fashionable. Part of the genius of Life of Brian is that it puts a comedic spin on a chaotic reality of the times. In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan says this:
“There were dozens of people who walked through the Holy Land claiming to be the Messiah, curing the sick, exorcising demons, challenging Rome, gathering followers. In a way, there’s nothing unique about what Jesus did. In fact, many of these so-called false Messiahs we know by name. Some of them were even more famous in their own lifetimes than Jesus was. They had more followers than Jesus did. What I’m fascinated by is that out of that dozen or so so-called Messiahs in first-century Palestine, only one of them is still called ‘Messiah.’”
These Messiah contenders were their own fake news. Jesus’ own work and identity was dismissed as fake news, even as blasphemy. The Gospels warn repeatedly about being led astray by false prophets,** but Jesus himself was called a false prophet by his detractors. The good news was as hard to hear above the clamor of first-century Palestinian fake news as it is over the racket of today’s lies, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
I’m not just talking about news regarding Jesus or Christianity. I’m talked about everything we trust as a source of information and truth. There is something disconcerting about hearing the president-elect tack on the adjective “dishonest” every time he utters the word “media.” Of course, news and journalism should be scrutinized and held to a high standard of integrity. But when all of it is dismissed outright, good reporting doesn’t stand a chance. The news becomes a free-for-all of confirmation bias. More broadly, every authority in society comes under fire, to the extent that no one knows whom to trust anymore.
Some have argued that we ought to retire the term “fake news.” It many cases, it has gone from being a label for actual lies to being a label for anything that contradicts someone’s worldview. For some, “fake news” has nothing to do with fact and everything to do with whether they agree with it or not.
There is a tension here that is familiar to Christianity. Since the earliest days of its establishment as a religion, the term “heresy” has been used to signify anything falling outside the realm of orthodoxy. Sometimes, we use that term too broadly—any nitpicky bit of doctrine that doesn’t align with our perspective, anything that threatens our particular way of practicing our faith, becomes heresy.
On the other hand, there are real heresies that are harmful to people and to creation. Both “heresy” and “fake news” can be used in petty ways, which threatens their impact when it really matters. Actual fake news needs to be called out and named and condemned. But where is the line between fake and inconvenient?
Another argument against the term “fake news” is that we should focus less on that and more on bad reporting. There are made-up news stories, and then there are poorly researched, lazily reported accounts of world events that can do real harm. It’s easy to see where bad reporting happens in Christianity—in fact, it goes all the way back to the garden of Eden.
In Genesis 2, God gives Adam and Eve every tree of the garden to eat—except one: “‘but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’” (2:17). In the following chapter, the serpent tempts Eve to eat from that tree, asking the leading question, “‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’” (3:1). Eve responds by misquoting God: “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die”’” (3:2-3).
Both the serpent and Eve engage in bad reporting. Both put words in God’s mouth (see the italics I added in the verses above). This isn’t entirely made-up news. There is a kernel of truth, of reality, that both cling to but from which both stray. And that straying makes all the difference.
For its 2016 Word of the Year, the Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth”: “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’” It refers to a time in which the truth has become irrelevant.
It’s not just that people are indifferent to truth—it’s that we are past the point when the truth makes any difference. Facts can be presented, and people simply don’t believe it. Take the example of climate change. Take the widespread belief that Obama is Muslim. Take the assertion that the current administration has not enforced border laws when in fact Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president.
It is against this background of skepticism that I am charged with cultivating faith in God by way of faith in my work and the institution I represent. In a time when Americans trust the military more than religious leaders, I am called to build trust within a divided church, not to mention across even deeper lines of division by race, class, and creed. In this world of fake news, it is my job to proclaim the good news. In this era of post-truth, I am supposed to stand on the highest truth.
The hymn “I Know Whom I Have Believed” goes like this:
I know not why God’s wondrous grace
to me he hath made known,
nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
redeemed me for his own.
(Refrain:) But I know whom I have believed,
and am persuaded that he is able
to keep that which I’ve committed
unto him against that day.
I know not how this saving faith
to me he did impart,
nor how believing in his word
wrought peace within my heart. (Refrain)
I know not how the Spirit moves,
convincing us of sin,
revealing Jesus through the word,
creating faith in him. (Refrain)
I know not when my Lord may come,
at night or noonday fair,
nor if I walk the vale with him,
or meet him in the air. (Refrain)
Notice the pattern: “I know not why…how…when…But I know whom.” The “whom”—the relationship—is key in discerning truth. I once heard a white pastor condemn a group of Black Lives Matter activists that included good friends of mine; my relationships with those people gave me a vastly different perspective on their actions. Climate change deniers who knew the poor of the world who will be (and are already being) impacted the most might change their tune. What I thought was the truth about addiction changed when I fell in love with a recovering addict. Church members of mine who have come to know and love a refugee family have a different outlook on this hot-button issue than people who hear about the refugee crisis on the news. Those who knew Jesus then and know Jesus now, who feel the good news in their bones and experience and see it in their lives—they know whom they have believed.
I don’t quite know where all of this leaves us. My hope for our country and for our church is that we will learn how to listen to one another, to give each other the benefit of the doubt—but still to check our sources whether that is on Facebook or in the news or from the pew. Only in this way can the saving power of the good news be heard above the noise of fake news, bad journalism, and post-truth politics, both in the church and in the world.
* It’s easy to make fun of old people when it comes to technology, but let’s be real—we’ve all done this (or at least, I have…).
** See Matthew 7:15, 24:11, 24:24; Mark 13:22; and Luke 6:26; not to mention Acts 13:6; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1; and Revelation 16:13, 19:20, and 20:10.