More than Truth


“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.
Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” – Proverbs 14:20-21
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” – Mark 1:1

In May, I heard a sports update on the radio that eight members of the New York Yankees baseball organization, including players and staff, had tested positive for Covid-19.  Then the radio host raised his voice in alarm and added: “and all of them were fully vaccinated!”  The next day, I read a different report online about the Yankees that said all who tested positive were asymptomatic.  The first report didn’t mention that they were asymptomatic, and the second report didn’t mention that they were vaccinated.  Both reports were factual, but both reports were misleading.  One sounds like good news, and the other bad, but it’s the same story.  I can’t judge the intent of either source, but the point is that there is more to discernment than telling the difference between truth and lies.

While there is absolute truth, not all truth is the way, and not every way leads to life.  In the last post, I introduced a “Moral GPS”, our internal chatterbox of voices that influence our decisions.  In choosing between these, I wrote “Facts matter, but any voice can have facts.”  You can choose the wrong direction even if the signs pointing that way were “true”. A key input to that system is the media.

During the pandemic, many became increasingly frustrated with the idea of “truth”, and this has at least in part been intentionally engineered.  Bogeymen were everywhere, and you or your neighbor might be one!  Frustration is good for politicians and journalists, which is nothing new – consider these quotes and their dates:

“The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles, or television.  It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety” – Eric Sevareid, CBS journalist, in 1974

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H. L. Mencken, in 1923

Feeding this frenzy is the fiction that if journalists and others are telling the truth, they are “objective” or “unbiased”, and therefore “ethical”.  This claim of objectivity is not only light years from the truth, but also theoretically impossible for anyone but God Himself.  I studied journalism at what is considered a top school in the United States, and although they didn’t outright teach bias, they taught us to think about what goes into making the following decisions and others:

  • What stories do you publish “above the fold” of the newspaper, where people are most likely to see it?
  • Which quotes do you place early in an article (people usually don’t read the entire article, but please keep reading this one), and which do you place later?
  • Which sources do you work harder to get a quote from, and which do you give up on after leaving one voice mail?  The ones that support your view, or the ones that contradict?
  • Which statistics do you cite, or not cite (to save space and make deadline)?
  • What term do you use to describe a person or idea?  The term used by advocates, or by adversaries?

There is no “lying” going on behind many of these decisions, just “editorial discretion”.  There were, of course, manipulated polls and other things I learned about, but very few outright lies.  In the more modern media age, though, these things are elementary.  Now technology even allows companies to make these decisions for other people’s content!

Of course, not all journalists are unethical, which is just like any profession, but the industry trend seems to be downhill, and those who get the most attention are often the worst examples.  It’s an industry in need of a revival.

Frustration is also good for some economically.  “Big tech” businesses made a ton of money during the pandemic, partly by feeding your anxiety.  Algorithms and clickbait aren’t interested in informing you, only manipulating your emotions to draw you to advertising.  They analyze in labs how the chemical reward system of the human brain reacts to different things so that you will return for that “high” repeatedly.  They’re making you emotional on purpose.  Bad news sells.  Thoughtful news, not as much.  Again, the intent and the business model are nothing new, but technology has made it ruthlessly efficient, and a pandemic-panicked population created a captive audience with so many “normal” activities unavailable.  One of my best moments of 2020 was getting to a movie theater in November.  It was a needed distraction and a healthy sense of normalcy[1].

Consider also this quote:

“One of the most tragic events of our time is that we know more than ever before about the pains and sufferings of the world and yet are less and less able to respond to them…There appears to be a general assumption that it is good for people to be exposed to the pain and suffering of the world…If we let the full content of newscasts enter into our innermost selves, we would become so overwhelmed by the absurdities of existence that we would become paralyzed” (emphasis mine)

This comes from a book I just read titled “Compassion”[2], written in 1982.  Before the internet and smart phones.  Let that sink in.  The suffering of the world is not a yoke you want to carry, but it’s in the interest of many journalists, politicians, and computer programmers to make you feel it.

Truth + Perspective
So, how do we start to filter all of this?  Proverbs 14:20-21 quoted above provides one example of how the Bible deals with and presents truth.  Both verses are “true”, but each has its own perspective.  Verse 20 describes the world as it is: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends”.  No matter the economic and political system you live under, you recognize this as generally “true”.  Ancient Israel had the same “truth” as the modern world.  But what do you do with this information?  Your self-determined Moral GPS might tell you to pursue riches, because it is “good” to be liked and have friends.  Who wants to be disliked?  If this is “just the way it is”, why go against the grain?  Greed is good.  More on this later.

This isn’t the only Proverb that states things as they are, with no value judgment attached.  Another example would be Proverbs 17:8 – “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.”  This doesn’t mean one should give bribes, but it’s “true” and helpful to know how bribes function, even if your goal is to avoid them.

Fortunately, verse 21 adds perspective in God’s value judgment on the truth of verse 20: “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”  If you fear God, your course of action is not to reinforce the truth of verse 20, but to seek to correct the situation with righteousness and justice.  A Christian must be concerned about what to do, in addition to what is true.

The Illusion of Pax Romana
Also, at a higher level, there’s “Gospel Truth”, a sort of master narrative that adolescent truths and narratives want to be when they grow up.  In “Evil and the Justice of God” by N.T. Wright, he says, “the word gospel itself…was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as ‘good news’, ‘gospel’”.  Before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “gospel” was an existing genre of literature, or more accurately propaganda, exalting successive Caesars as bringing in and sustaining the Pax Romana[3], or “Roman Peace” which lasted roughly the first two centuries A.D.  Wikipedia describes it “as a period and golden age of increased as well as sustained Roman imperialism, order, prosperous stability, hegemonial power and expansion”.  These gospels sometimes assigned miraculous powers to Caesar and ordered that he be revered as a god.

The Christian gospels are not “biography” by genre, but “gospel”, a narrative to challenge the existing narrative.  Jesus operated in the environment of the world’s greatest empire, which would endure no rival, no other gospel.  From this perspective, His ministry looks different.  All He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire and He was promoting a different narrative.  Mark’s gospel says those who saw Jesus “were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”[4]  Actual miracles showing that He could solve every problem He encountered, while He promised a world where all problems are solved for those who believe in Him.

However, those who were happy with the empire didn’t go quietly.  Proverbs 14:20 truth was just fine with them since they were the rich ones enforcing the rules.  “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”[5]  Preservation of the “Pax” often led these leaders to clash with, and ultimately crucify, Jesus.  John 11:48 records the panic of religious leaders about Jesus’ activities: “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, they protested because it was “against the rules”, which they needed people to follow, otherwise the Romans would have to step in, re-establish order, and probably put in new leadership.  Their fear of Caesar was so strong that they determined to kill someone who was able to raise the dead. Make sense to you?

Early Christians faced similar problems.  Much of the persecution of the early church was because “The exclusive sovereignty of Christ clashed with Caesar’s claims to his own exclusive sovereignty,” according to historian Earle Cairns[6]

Conform Wisely
Back to the original topic of this post: journalism.  Part of the genius of the founding fathers of the United States was that, by granting freedom of the press, they were putting government and journalism in opposition to each other (at least in theory) and opening the way for multiple perspectives to get a hearing.  They knew that limiting distribution of “truth” to those in power was dangerous.  The powerful would be satisfied with Proverbs 14:20 truth.  In the world of Pax Romana, Caesar is god and loyalty is required for the prospering of the kingdom.  There can be only one narrative.

If you live in a country with press freedom, be thankful.  Diverse information is needed to rightly understand the broad situation of our world and immediate surroundings, but too much of that knowledge can be soul-crushing, draining us of compassion needed for the problems right in front of us.  The wrong truth can make us despise our neighbor, or to support the wrong gospel.

The Bible commands: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” – Romans 12:2

How do we do this?  Maybe God could tell us the “right” network to watch, the “right” amount to watch, and the “right” solution.  However, nobody but God is the Answer.  Therefore, each person must practice discernment as the Spirit guides and give grace to others.  Each must learn to fear God and let Him overrule the other voices in our Moral GPS.  If we pay attention, we know the Bible is not silent.  Proverbs alone contains a lot of relevant wisdom on the subject:

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (13:20)
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)
“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (18:17)
“Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” (20:10)
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (22:24-25)

Find news that suits God’s purpose for you and helps you glorify Him.  The world needs Proverbs 14:21 truth, and God requires it.  Like Jesus did wandering the streets of His day, look in your circles – family, church, neighborhood, workplace, state – and have compassion for those who need good news that isn’t in the news.  For some of these people, the institutions of your particular “Pax Romana” failed them – family, community, the courts, the government, even the church.  Perhaps a judge declared against them wrongly?  Perhaps they were a victim of abuse nobody knows about?  Maybe there is some other secret struggle or sin?  A disability, either permanent or temporary?  Perhaps they just don’t fit in with the clique of your neighborhood?  Maybe their employer made a “business decision” that cost them their job?  Some might have been hurt by the pandemic in less-obvious ways: they lost their life savings when their small business went under, they struggle with mental health, they saw their college dreams fall away, and any other number of things.

You won’t hear about many of these people on the news, and often politicians aren’t interested in their problems, especially if it makes their narrative look bad.  Anyway, these lost sheep don’t want publicity.  They just want compassion first, then perhaps help and a way forward.  Or perhaps just compassion and hope.

Individual people can be understood and shown compassion; narratives and statistics can overwhelm us and shut us down.  In the book “Compassion” quoted earlier, the authors write: “When information about human suffering comes to us through a person who can be embraced, it is humanized”.  They also write that the expression “to be moved with compassion” occurs 12 times in the New Testament, always in relation to Jesus or God the Father.  The original Greek behind it suggests not just a passing feeling or sentiment, but something you feel in your guts.  When Jesus found hurting people everywhere He went, His compassion compelled Him to help them.  In feeding people, healing people, and spending time with outcasts, Jesus made it clear that the Pax Romana wasn’t “good news” for everyone.  He wasn’t necessarily trying to pick a fight, but He couldn’t help it.  God is love after all.

You may upset the “Pax Romana” of your time and place, but every “Pax Romana” is illusory and temporary.  Break some rules.  Be creative.  Don’t let anyone recruit you into a cause that isn’t yours and that isn’t God’s.  Don’t let them lay heavy burdens on your shoulders that are impossible for you to bear.  The weight of the world was on the cross, but not your cross.

I’m horrible at compassion but working to do better.  I hope that a lot of us can do better as we emerge from the pandemic more aware of the impact of only seeing the world through windows.

If you are one of the hurting people, reach out for help.  There are likely more people who care, and more resources available, than you know.  You’re not a statistic.

Thank you for reading.

Coda
If you can spare a few more minutes, check out the song, “Never Take It” by twenty øne piløts.  It’s an upbeat sounding, yet defiant, take on how media tries to “weaponize you and I”.  The lyrics are fantastic.
Lyric video
Lyric page

[1] One of the worst things about 2020 was that I knew there were people who hated me for going to a movie theater and “putting lives in danger”
[2] McNeill, Donald P.; Morrison, Douglas A.; Nouwen, Henri J. M.  Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1982).  I bought this book in 1993 but never read it until re-discovering it recently while looking for another book someone texted me about during a nap.  I decided to read it since compassion is so needed given the societal damage done by the pandemic and related trends.  Glad I did.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana.  Yes, Wikipedia is a lousy source, but this is a blog.
[4] Mark 7:37
[5] Matthew 23:4
[6] Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (1996).

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