Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Culture of "Truthiness"

In a moment that should be forever enshrined in television history, Stephen Colbert coined "truthiness" on the premiere episode of The Colbert Report. In a single, albeit semantically ridiculous word, Colbert encapsulated the epistemological ethos of our time. Whether in politics, popular culture, or religion, opinions--no matter how baseless or otiose--rule supreme. Truth is utterly negotiable and fundamentally a matter of personal choice. In many ways, we have become a culture of delusion, in which perception feigns as reality.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Political spin is now the parlance of governmental authorities with our current vice-president the primary offender, but epistemological fantasies are most acute in reality television. Contestants on Deal or No Deal who have just opened one case too many console themselves with a shared mantra: "That's okay, that's okay." Really? Your dreams of riches have just been crushed in front of a national audience suffering with you on the surface but truly relishing your loss. But "that's okay!" American Idol contestants whose pride surpasses talent dismiss critical assessments of their abilities as "just your opinion."

I am in no way a fundamentalist nor do I have much use for "Absolute Truth" (capitalized, of course). To be sure, I would argue that humans play an active role in the construction of truth, that we ultimately have to take full responsibility for those truths upon which we stake our lives. But a facile relativism that simply views all perspectives as matters of opinion and each as equally valid is just as dangerous as a rigid absolutism that claims to know the very mind of God in all matters.

The negotiated nature of truth is not an invitation for self-delusion but a vital avenue for honesty and critique. If truth is not absolute, then we must be honest about our own perspectives and biases and not simply hide behind the veil of objectivity. Yet, equally important, is that such truth requires constant critique. Absolute truth rebuffs attempts to be corrected; relative truth begs for the corrective of critical dialogue.

Though in a culture seemingly enamored with "truthiness," I would hope that we would not settle for the facile logic of opinion and delusion and yearn for the difficult task of crafting truth in our midst.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Family Plot?

A great deal of media and scholarly attention has recently focused on the purported discovery of the family burial plot of, among others, Jesus, his wife, and their child. The details of the evidence are easily found via media sites and blogs but still slowly emerging. The key arguments include the interpretation of the inscriptions on the ossuaries found within the cave and statistical analysis of the probability that this collection of names is anything but a coincidence.

Like any finding that too easily solves a pernicious problem or too quickly refutes a long-standing consensus, I am skeptical. This all seems just a bit too tidy. However, I am more concerned with the wider implications of this announcement and its reception amongst scholars and the media.

Curiously, some who regaled the James ossuary as evidence of Jesus' historicity are skeptical of the documentary. I wonder if the faithful are far too anxious to find historical validation for their beliefs, the cynic too keen to unearth damning evidence. In my mind, this is where serious critical scholarship can play a vital role. With the scope of centuries of scholarship in mind, such sensational findings are viewed within a broader perspective.

Ultimately, this case can lead to a critical question. Does "public scholarship" have to play by the rules of modern media? Do new academic findings incorporate some spectacular or provocative edge to gain a hearing in the noisy din of 24 hour news cycles? Is the fray of cable news, blogs, and talk radio the proper venue for academic dialogue? Scholarship done well proceeds with caution and caveats, for higher education is a continuing reminder that many thinkers have preceeded us, that we stand in the wake of many scholars who have both prophetically incisive, disastrously flawed, and everything in between.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Ethics of Conversation: A Critical Self-Assessment

No cultural activity may be more fundamental to our humanity than conversation. Conversation is far more than the simple exchange of words. That is, conversation is far more than the sounds created by our mouths which then cause our ear drums to vibrate. Instead, conversation is the encounter of human thoughts and experiences; without conversation, can we even call ourselves human?

Nevertheless, the nature of conversation necessarily makes it a dangerous activity. Words can too easily become verbal daggers. Even if conversation remains productive and positive, conversation still poses a threat, for true conversation makes both sides uniquely vulnerable. Words are alluring, seductive. Words can convince us to turn from the error of our ways. Words can cause us to question everything we know. Truly, conversation is dangerous, for it ultimately puts a mirror before us and asks, “Why?” Why do you believe? How do you know?

In light of the spiritual and personal jeopardy that we face in earnest conversation, what are our responsibilities to one another? How can we care for someone who has exposed her mind and heart to us? I have become convinced that our sacred duty in conversation is a humble, truthful and open disposition. If we enter into conversation unwilling to be changed, we are practitioners of intellectual and theological arrogance, not the productive and potentially sacred encounter of humans. If we enter into conversation willing simply to agree with our partner in dialogue or unwilling to share our views will full conviction, we deprive her of our own sincerity and practice a cheap relativism. If we enter into conversation as a battle of wits, we deprive one another a chance to know another person deeply and thus practice a sophistry that values rhetorical victory over human contact.

Conversation can humanize and dehumanize, uplift us and drag us to the cultural dregs. My prayer is that we choose the former for the sake of God’s kingdom and reject the latter as an outmoded remnant of a sinful perspective that treasures being correct over being fully human.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Prelims continue

I am right in the midst of my second comprehensive exam. I have one week to write a full exegetical treatment on Paul's speech at the Areopagus in Acts.

Looks like fun, doesn't it?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Forgiveness, grace, mercy

For too many of us, the Amish are an exotic specimen on the American landscape, a curious group of people in period costumes with antiquated practices and an irrational fear of modernity. The recent shootings in Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania and the reactions of the Amish community there ought to bring an end to such caricatures.

School shootings in the 90s were a staple of the 24-hour news networks. They provided unending fodder for pundits and so-called cultural commentators to lament the end of western civilization. They inspired see-through backpacks, the commercial lionizing of victims in books and movies, the condemnation of various social ills without a concomitant concern for the deeper causes behind such unspeakable violence. It was video games or Marilyn Manson or the lack of prayer in schools. The various school shootings this country experienced in the 90s led us to be afraid, to point accusatory fingers. More than anything, though, those school shootings did not force us to look within ourselves and our own culture--a culture of violence and fear populated with guns both real and digital, a culture too concerned with possession and too little concerned with belonging.

Contrast these sundry reactions to that of the Amish community in Nickle Mines. They buried their dead children in simplicity and silence. They tore down the now tarnished schoolhouse so as to create a living pasture as a memorial of those girls' lives. They accepted the aid of their neighbors for to reject the outside world would be to reject God's own grace.

Most shocking to us, even those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, they reached out to the perpetrator of this crime and his grieving family. Their public forgiveness was pure, lacking even a subtle, periphrastic condemnation of such a seeming monster. Recently, the man's family thanked the Amish community for their "forgiveness, grace, and mercy."

To a Christian, no other words from our neighbors should be as sweet. Not "successful." Not "nice." Not "enlightened." Not "dogmatic." Not "moral." Not even "Christian." In the end, "forgiveness, grace, and mercy" are the marks of Christ himself, the marks towards which we ourselves should strive.

The faithfulness and piety of the Amish should put us to shame. May I suggest that instead of a roadside oddity, this Amish community is a faithful remnant of true believers within a country in which most of us have forgotten the path Christ led.