Fake News


2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
You do realise that the earth is flat, don’t you? The so-called “experts” would have us believe that it’s a globe, an “oblate spheroid”. Fake news, lies, disinformation! It’s all a conspiracy, with some nefarious purpose that I can’t quite remember. But you only have to visit Whitley Bay to see that the horizon is completely level! If you want it all explained, just look at the Flat Earth Society website, and you’ll find all the details.
On second thoughts, don’t. I’ve no idea what other bonkers stuff you might find there. The moon landings, perhaps. They are fake news as well, obviously. You watch the footage: that American flag flutters in the breeze as the lunar module “takes off”. How could it do that if, as they allege, there is no lunar atmosphere? Yes. And it doesn’t matter how many times the astronauts who flew the spaceship explain that the lunar module expelled exhaust gases as it lifted off that caused the flag to move: they would say that, wouldn’t they? And so the purveyors of this fake news story continue to peddle their conspiracy theories.
Two thousand years ago, St Paul presciently says that ‘the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears; they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires. They will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths’. What he says proves true today, and not only about religious truth. We believe what we want to believe. I may not subscribe to the folly of a flat earth. But I am much more likely to believe a story that reflects badly on a politician with whose views I disagree, or a celebrity that I don’t like, and disregard a damning report about my favourite actor or actress or the leader of the party for which I vote.
Does it matter? At the level of flat earth and fraudulent moon landings of course, fake news and the ‘real truth’ that only the conspiracy theorists know are pretty harmless. At the level of writing ‘Jedi Knight’ when the National Census asks for your religious affiliation, you can believe whatever you like, because there are no consequences.
But, for instance, the story linking the MMR vaccine to autism was based on research carried out by a certain Andrew Wakefield in the early 1990s. His research findings have been widely and repeatedly discredited, and he was struck off by the General Medical Council. But enough people are persuaded that he was telling the truth to have reduced the uptake of the vaccine, particularly in the United States. As a result, the prevalence of measles is rising. Measles is serious, highly contagious, and it can be deadly. Fake news is not harmless.
But how do we distinguish fake news from the truth? We are bombarded with information all the time. Stories about public figures, instructions about what we should or should not eat and drink, dossiers about who might possess weapons of mass destruction, assessments of what will happen after Brexit.
However, politicians want to be elected, so they want us to hear only what they want us to hear. Newspapers need to maintain their circulation. So they write to make us angry, or scared, or to titivate our curiosity. Researchers have to attract funding for their next piece of research, so they are not always impartial. Ulterior motives abound. How do we know we can trust anything anyone says, or believe any story that we read?
As Jesus stands on trial before him, the cynical Pontius Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’ What indeed? We live at a time of crisis for truth. Once-respected institutions, professions and individuals have all been ‘economical with the truth’, (what a benign-sounding phrase that is!) so that we can no longer automatically trust what they tell us. Populist politicians disparage every unfavourable press report as fake news. And the Russians sought to evade blame for the Salisbury poisonings by saying in effect, yes, they could be lying, but so could our own government. They deliberately reinforce the scepticism which disbelieves and distrusts everything.
Yet if we can’t trust the truth of anything we read or see or hear, we can’t live! We have to trust all the time, unless we detach ourselves from all human contact, and live off-grid in a wilderness somewhere. We have to trust the contents labels on the food we buy, and terms and conditions of the bank that looks after our money, and the petrol pump that charges us for fuel, and a thousand other things every day. If these are all replacing truth with lies, life and relationships become impossible.
And crucially, if we hope for salvation, we have to trust what we read in the Bible. ‘All Scripture is inspired by God’, we read just now. Yet how do we trust that what we read here is any more true than the flat earth fable? Professor Dawkins has just written his book again, dismissing religion, as he always does, as fake news. He is not the only writer who would place the flat earth narrative and the Bible narratives into the same category of falsehood.
The story is told of a young searcher after truth, who seeks out a wise and learned sage. After a long and arduous quest, the sage is found in a high mountain monastery; and the searcher asks him, ‘what is truth?’ The wise and learned sage thinks deeply for what seems like an age, takes his stick in his hand, rises slowly to his feet, and then hits the searcher after truth with the stick. I’m guessing that what he is trying to say with this unprovoked assault is that experience is truth.
Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. Trust me.’ The disciples find their mourning turned to joy and their lives turned upside down as they experience the presence of the risen Lord. So convinced are they that they are ready to die for this good news, and they pass it on to anyone who will listen, saying to each one, ‘Jesus is alive. Trust me’. And people trust them, and trust that the good news is true, and pass on their own rich experience in their turn. So that within fifty years, this tiny seed of truth, that seemed destined never even to germinate, instead spreads and takes root across the whole known world. And some think through all the philosophical implications of this truth, and some see how society can be changed, and peoples’ lives enriched. And despite setback, persecution, ridicule and martyrdom, this seed has flowered now in the lives of countless millions for twenty centuries.
So much fake news thrives on our lack of experience. Not everyone has been up in a space ship to see the earth from outside. So the flat earthers can still query the science and seduce the gullible to their folly. Not all of us are privy to the political machinations that go on in Westminster and Washington. So it’s hard to assess whether a claim of fake news is justified, or whether it’s another attempt to distract us from trusting truth that is uncomfortable for the powerful.
But we do know when we’ve experienced love, and generosity and goodness, and encouragement and gratitude and forgiveness. We trust those who have loved us in all these ways, through God’s good grace. We have found them to be true. We trust those who first told us the truth of the gospel story, and we have found it to be true in our own lives. We do know truth. We do know the Truth.
God, our judge and saviour, teach us to be open to your truth and to trust in your love, that we may live each day with confidence in the salvation which is given through Jesus Christ our Lord.
© Jon Russell 2019