The “Post-Truth” Church
Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Psalm 119:89
This happens every year. (Eccl. 1:9) We’ve arrived at that chronological point of the year in which unfettered amounts of superfluous summarizing digital data will be hurled across any and all media. The summations of authoritative data will be culled from polls, from voting booths, from the P&L statements of Wall Street, from the bureaucratic reporting of countless government agencies. There will be an untold bombardment of lists that will feature the “Top Tens” or the “Most Admired” or the “Best Dressed,” all pointing, presumably, to who “we” were for the year, what “we” liked, and what “we” enshrined as culturally, annually noble.
We just witnessed the annual “Best Dog” awards (Did the miniature dachshund win??) , sure to be followed by ceremonial accolades for “Best Cat.” (Maybe that’s already happened. I don’t know. I’m not a “cat person.” ) Any and every category, though, of temporally-fixated ambitions will find some form of aggregated, annualized expression. Add to these culturally-popular collections of (almost) always subjective lists the innumerable year-end exhortations to generate your own “resolutions” for the upcoming year, usually intensively encouraged by profit-motivated advertisers eager to help you achieve your (and their) all-important new year goals.
The year-end is awash with a ceaseless onslaught of informational matters that, in most cases, really do not matter.
But there is one annual announcement to which Christians ought to pay some cognitive, Biblically-informed heed. Though it is a secular-generated, secular-defining annual summation, it is one that could have been a pithy, accurate, gut shot directly to the church.
That announcement? The word of the year.
First, a bit on the parameters of selecting a single word to summarize the year. The word of the year, selected by Oxford Dictionaries (other groups do it too, such as the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster) is, according to Oxforddictionaries.com, “a word or expression that we can see has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months.”
Every year, candidates for Word of the Year are debated and one is eventually chosen that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. (Source)
This year’s word?
This hyphenated adjective, says Oxford Dictionaries, is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeal to emotion and personal belief.”
(Objective facts … less influential … than appeal to emotion? Hmm. Sounds like the modern church … but we’ll get to that.)
The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics. (Source)
While I’m no linguist – I can violate the English language as furiously as a rat on a Cheeto – the scholars at Oxford, though astutely choosing “post-truth” as the word of the year, have made a gross mistake. The concept of post-truth isn’t merely a decade old, even though its use in defining a particular expression of politics may find it so.
Post-truth has been around since those ancient Edenic days of Genesis in which a fallen creature deceived two other creatures with the first post-truth query in recorded history. “Hath God said?” (Genesis 3:1)
Post-truth is the perpetual philosophical condition which the enemy of God, as the “father of lies,” (John 8:44) seeks to maintain as status-quo in the world. He wants to keep the minds of men in a post-truth mindset. Deception is easier that way. And, as the god of this world, (2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19) he’s done a diabolically impressive job at the task, even though most modern minds (including modern “Christian” minds) will attest to their belief only in his mythological existence, not his literal one.
(Back around 2009, research from a Barna survey revealed that some sixty percent of self-professing Christians “either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that Satan “is not a living being but a symbol of evil.” (Source)
Where “in the beginning” we find an absolute majority of humanity – a full 100% of the population – believing in a literal Satan, that number, through his own intentional efforts, has fallen to about 57%. (48% among the college educated, showing, perhaps that education ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be!)
What was that word again? Oh yes. Post-truth.
While post-truth is certainly an apt selection to poignantly portray the modern culture, it’s one that’s also altogether appropriate in speaking of the condition of the modern church. Had the hyphenated-qualifier been common to the vernacular of his day, Spurgeon might have been hard-pressed not to choose it instead of “downgrade.”
In culture, we see post-truth in its most illustrative, though certainly asinine, glory in, perhaps, those collegiate “safe zones.” Those tiny geographic boundaries on university campuses may be intended to limit free, potentially “offensive,” speech, but what they really do is to restrict truth-boundaried thinking, truth-guided cogitation, and truth-certain intellectual apprehension. “Nothing offensive here, please … we have no absolute truth against which to measure your verbalized offensives. Your spoken truth is hate speech.”
Post-truth in the world doesn’t merely mean complete subjective relativism. It means that minds are so blinded that the capacity to apprehend, to even acknowledge the existence of, absolute truth is being intentionally seared. We don’t know any absolute truth, and neither are we capable of recognizing it. If it exists and if you have it, good for you, but it may not apply to me. Please don’t frustrate my delicate intellectual and emotional stability with your opinions. Affirm me in “my” truth.
(One notable example of how the world’s ability to apprehend truth has been seared is derived from last year’s “Word of The Year,” according to the American Dialect Society. When less than a generation ago a doctor could deliver a baby with the congratulatory “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” we now live in a culture where last year’s word must, to accommodate expectations of tolerance, be employed, “Ccongratulations, it’s a bouncing baby they.”)
Increasingly, though, the church has become a master architect of its own truth-avoiding, offense-free safe zones. It’s why Oxford’s selection of “post-truth” could have been gleaned by its scholarly linguistic maestros from simply church-watching.
Safe zone, post-truth churches are abundant and they grow in proportion to two things, the extent to which they intentionally coddle culture by sacrificing orthodoxy (i.e, “right thinking”) which is, itself, a function of the second, but primary, thing – the departure from its own firm fixation on what the psalmist recognized as “firmly fixed in heaven.” (Psalm 119:89) As the church moves away from the Word, it has only one place to go, and that place is currently described by the word of the year. The farther a church moves from its primary responsibility to feed the sheep the food of God’s Word and towards embracing that culturally-noble trait of tolerance with the world, it has created a safe zone.
In the world, post-truth means diminished thinking, but not diminished knowledge. As a culture never has the world known so much and believed so little. The loss of absolutes in truth within the world points those “condemned already” (John 3:18) to seek solace in one place, and it’s the same place those post-truth safe zones of churches send people. Emotions. How does what I know make me feel?
Since understanding requires absolute truth then knowledge about things may yet abound, but it becomes a meaningless knowledge. Unable to know anything as absolute, we can always know how it makes us feel. What’s right for me is right for me, not because it’s intellectually defensible, but because it makes me feel good, it makes me happy, and it brings me comfort. Therefore, it’s irrelevant if it’s true, so long as it makes me happy.
Ignorance is bliss may be an apt and catchy cliché for the world, with a meaning that is nearly fully captured by “post-truth”, but that blissful state, for whatever temporal pleasures it may produce, represents the ultimate of eternal doom. Ignorance is bliss is a soul killer.
But ignorance is bliss in the church, too. It’s when the truth of the Word isn’t diligently taught and vigorously defended. Churches that incessantly preach “it’s all about you” messages, that work to create engaging, “keep ‘em coming” back, worship “experiences,” and that jettison especially difficult truth, along with the Gospel, are catering to, and creating their own post-truth safe zone. When a church appeals first, or only, to how you feel, rather than what you know – as exclusively informed from God’s Word – it is no longer a church. It’s a post-truth safe zone. (Consider the example of this Baptist church that “punted” Word time for an NFL broadcast.)
Examples of safe zone, post-truth churches are abundant, and those examples are always recently found. Churches that are open and affirming of sin are announcing they are closed and defiant towards Scripture. (Consider the recent story of these Texas churches, affirming a sin-qualified form of faith known as “gay Christian.”) Churches in which known doctrinal error, heresy, and even blasphemy are tolerated – either in the pulpit, in the Sunday School room, or in your own “Christian bookstore” purchase – aren’t churches but safe zones.
If your pursuit to be “spiritual” with such things as contemplative prayer, or mystical spiritual formation disciplines, breath prayers, or circle praying, or “hearing from God” apart from the Word, or any other such spiritualized feel-good nonsense – if these things aren’t vociferously and consistently taught against by your church as illicit, unscriptural, and faith-imperilling, you don’t attend a church. You attend a post-truth safe zone. (And, please, if you’re involved in such things, “examine yourself to see if you are in the faith.” 2 Corinthians 13:5) The world, too, is full of “spiritual, but not religious” sorts. It is not a noble or enviable (or Biblical) place to be, where understanding is absent but warm fuzzies abound.
Safe zone, post-truth churches skip the Word, want you to be happy despite the potentially uncomfortable truths of that Word, and will go to all ends to keep you engaged, entertained, and pew-sitting.
Safe zone, post-truth churches won’t warn you about that Jesus Calling nonsense, or about the faith-threatening charlatans that incessantly attack with error and false teaching. (Yes, think Beth Moore, Anne Graham Lotz, Joyce Meyer, Jen Hatmaker, Priscilla Shirer, etc etc. Notice a particular proclivity of the enemy? Attacking emotions-inclined women with false, but feel good, “truth”? If your church tolerates or promotes such as these, it is not a church. It’s a safe zone and it’s definitely “post-truth.”)
Post-truth churches will promote the works of feel-good teachers who regularly populate the best-seller lists of “Christian” bookstores. These churches will send its youth to “Christianized” rock concerts that are Word-void, but feelings-intense. These churches will laud attendance to conferences where exciting visions are cast but where the revelation of the Word is left dormant. These churches will pluck acceptable entertainment motifs from the world and Christianize them into morally-palatable allegories of divine truth. (Think “The Theology of Star Wars”).
It’s a sad reality that the word chosen as most descriptive of the modern world is also a word which describes much of the modern church. The Bible-focused church, and believer, will know that only we possess the Truth needed by a world that seeks justification by feelings rather than by the apprehension of truth. We know that, in post-truth churches, the pursuit of a “feel good faith” is a Biblically-illicit endeavor. We know that only the Spirit can bring about authentic “spiritual wisdom and understanding” and that He does that by the clearly proclaimed Truth of the Gospel. (Romans 1:!6)
Paul gave a stunning, clarifying view of the Christian life in his opening comments to the Colossians. It’s worth reading again and again, and studying for the depth of divine truth it offers.
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1:9-14
These words are the appropriate response to all those post-truth churches and they should be issued right after the same Gospel-prefatory appeal consistent throughout the New Testament.
Repent and believe in the gospel. Mark 1:15
In fact, obeying that command of Scripture might find us favorably inclined to laud last year’s word of the year … which wasn’t a word. It was an emoticon. A smiling face with tears of joy. And that, friend, can only be had from one source, but He promises to give it.
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)
And those “things I have spoken to you?” Yeah. They were (and are) God’s truth, (the Gospel) intellectually apprehended by those whose eyes have been sovereignly opened. But you get the joy as a result of the Truth because, in the Christian life, as Paul said, feelings always follow fact-based, God-gifted faith. Share it with the next “post-truth-er” you encounter … whether they’re in the church or out there in the world.
[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]