Have you heard the news? Oxford Dictionaries has selected post-truth as its 2016 Word of the Year. What does this compound word mean?
Definition: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Though coined in the early 1990’s, usage apparently skyrocketed in 2016.
After a riotous year of political strife, terrorist violence, and cultural distrust characterized more by base emotivism than careful reflection, this choice of words seems apropos. Post-truth captures cultural conditions in the West very well: a general suspicion of truth claims and the triumph of ideological sentiment. As Abdu Murray blogged at RZIM, “It’s hard to think of a word more suited than post-truth to describe the Spirit of the Age.”
These days, it’s feelings over facts. And perhaps we’re all a little guilty.
Post-truth is a natural corollary with a more familiar word, postmodern — the broad philosophical movement dominating our culture that rejects modernity and its certainty that an objective, scientific description of reality is possible. This is not a bad critique of modernity, and it allows for a fresh reconsideration of relationships between things like fact/faith.
But the post-truth philosophy of postmodernism goes to its own extremes and requires critique too. We are increasingly aware of how susceptible the realm of personal subjectivity is to the loss of truth and truthfulness itself, with social deterioration following. There’s no truth but “my truth.” There’s no meaning but “the meaning I make.” It’s impossible for the center to hold in an atomistic world of self-selecting and competing interests and “truths.”
But as well as post-truth describes the times we’re living in, Christians have the resources to put this condition of autonomous self-definition, with all its social consequences, in a larger perspective. Fact is, we’ve been living post-truth since Adam and Eve bought into the serpent’s original, if delicate, lie: “You shall not surely die.”
Right there, truth was twisted inside out, and there’s no way out or back from this maze of error by our selves. There is only continuous spinning. As G. K. Chesterton argued, “Truth can understand error, but error cannot understand truth.” Once in its insidious grip, we are blind captives to error.
Remarkably, Apostle Paul speaks of this universal condition and sums it up as, basically, a post-truth problem. Though God’s creatures, we “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” from the start. Despite knowing God, we have “exchanged the truth of God for the lie . . . and served the creature rather than the Creator . . .” (Romans 1:18, 25). The post-truth problem is not our tendency but the all-inclusive tragedy of humanity: “For all have sinned . . .” (3:23).
When I read of Oxford Dictionaries’ choice for Word of the Year, my thoughts led me to one of the Bible’s first, and most interesting, discussions of truth, its loss, and its recovery. The story in Genesis 42-45 finds a desperate Jacob sending his ten eldest sons to Egypt to buy food to survive a famine. His two youngest, Joseph and Benjamin, are not among the ten. Dear Benjamin must stay with his aging and grieving father; he’s already lost his beloved Joseph to wild animals. Or so he believes the truth to be.
But the truth about Joseph is more complicated than that: The brothers have been living a lie. They are a post-truth family. When the ten arrive in Egypt, they end up face to face with none other than their lost brother, Joseph, once sold into slavery by jealous brothers but now governor of Egypt. Identifying his big brothers who do not recognize him, Joseph tests them to see if they have learned the truth about themselves before he reveals the truth about his own identity to them.
With his brothers bowed before him, seeking food, Joseph withholds the truth to get at the truth they have hidden. Playing the stranger, he questions them roughly, accusing them of being spies. Each of their earnest defenses against this unexpected assault is true on the surface: They have come from Canaan to buy food, and they are sons of one man. But something lurks below. Joseph presses more, and they sincerely appeal:
“We are honest men; your servants are not spies” (42:11).
Joseph presses the brothers further. Surely they are spies, but their counter appeals draw them still closer to the long concealed lie that’s destroyed their family:
“Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and in fact, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (v. 13).
Who is this one who “is no more”? Perhaps incited by this reference to himself, Joseph drives harder, demanding to hold them in prison until their youngest brother, Benjamin, is fetched as proof “that your words may be tested to see whether there is any truth in you” (v. 16).
There’s the key word explicitly: Is there any “truth” in them? They are post-truth brothers; living the lie seems to have come to its final destructive end. But there is a way back for them, if not one of their own making. Right now an interesting turn transpires as a result of Joseph’s questioning. They begin to question themselves, in their own tongue, not knowing that this governor — their little brother — can understand them.
“We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us” (v. 21).
The brothers’ “truth” is their guilt. And so their terrible lie begins to unravel, and the truth that will set them free, in time, bubbles to the surface. Joseph overhears their unintended confession — properly spoken, but if only among them as yet. Joseph is overwhelmed by the words. He turns away and weeps.
Jacob’s broken family will be repaired with confession and forgiveness.
Perhaps it’s good news that our culture has put a name to this condition. Paul would tell us that now, as then, the answer to the post-truth tragedy for the sons of Jacob is the same for us: rescue by the power of God in the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:17, 18). This rescue is underway by the Holy Spirit, and it finds first expression as we confess the truth of our guilt. Reconciliation that eluded under the lie now heals the discord and division in the light of truth.
Much is at stake for this post-truth world. Condemnation awaits those who “did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved . . . who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 12). It is the Christian calling to not only believe the truth but to love the truth. This is especially true in a world that has not only forgotten truth but also disdains it. It’s our calling to speak the truth to a world trapped in error.
When The Independent recently tweeted, “We’ve entered a post-truth world and there’s no going back,” they were not entirely right. We’ve been here all along, and Jesus — the Way, the Truth, and the Life — offered us a way back, or better, a way forward, long ages ago: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’” (John 8:31, 32).
The reality that is present truth in Christ is not something that can be laid over an entire culture by executive pen, but rather transmitted and assimilated one person at a time through the truthful witness of followers and friends of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us be among these faithful witnesses.
Tell your post-truth neighbor about the “present truth” of Christ today.