On Truth and Truthiness

To the creation of new words there is no end.

Every year, our dictionaries grow incrementally. In 2005, comedian and occasional theologian Stephen Colbert concocted the term “truthiness,” which later earned the distinction of being named Word of the Year.

“Truthiness,” according to Colbert, is “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” Truthiness is something that feels true, no matter its relationship to reality. Truth is proven by facts and figures. Truthiness is evoked by exclamation and passion. Truth is the realm of the sober scientist. Truthiness is the medium of the exuberant loudmouth.

The word will linger in our cultural lexicon because it exposes so well a pernicious modern problem. Colbert’s satirical neologism demonstrates the ambivalence our culture feels toward truth claims. As a culture, we are deeply skeptical or at least suspicious about assertions made by authority figures and institutions. We trust neither the claim nor the one making the claim.

Distrust reigns in politics. Scandalous behavior around money and sex litter the front pages of newspapers and the opening segments of the evening news. Distrust reigns in sports. When an athlete excels on the filed, the public shares in a collective assumption of guilt in the steroids era. Distrust reigns in the church. Churches and we its leaders have too often broken our people’s trust.

We look at authority and its claims with a dubious eye, but our skepticism is not just cynical. Behind this distrust, we also lament that truth is so ephemeral, so difficult to find. We mourn the loss of institutions that once nurtured us as well as leaders that once inspired us. We lament and we mourn because truth telling is at the core of trust, and trust is at the core of relationship. A culture of half-truths and spin has resulted in fractures between and among us.

Of course, a return to our previous naivety (if it ever really existed) is simply impossible and undesirable. For better and for worse, these are the new rules.

How then do we proclaim the good news when authority has been discredited and truth claims elicit a collective shrug of the shoulders? How can preachers of God’s word help heal this rift in our communities and relationship?

My students are teaching me much about these emerging realities. For example, they have helped me see how powerful changes in technology and communication have reoriented our notions of truth.

For many of them, the encyclopedia is as arcane as the cassette tape or, dare I say it, the CD! This change is not just a preference for the convenience of the internet over that of a twelve volume set of books. This change is not just a preference for the convenience of having all of your music in a pocket-sized player over fast-forwarding to your favorite song on a cassette player. The changes are far more fundamental than that.

Why turn to an encyclopedia when it cannot be searched or carried with you easily? Why turn to an encyclopedia when it becomes nearly obsolescent the moment it is printed? Why turn to a static authority when the internet invites the vibrant organization and implementation of all the latest data and knowledge the world has to offer?

And here emerges the critical problem. While new technologies offer all the latest data and knowledge, they cannot teach us wisdom. Technology cannot interpret competing claims for us or help us discern whom to trust. Technology cannot tell us the difference between truth and truthiness.

The preaching task today may therefore require the cultivation of wisdom as much as the attainment of knowledge. We may have to prioritize teaching believers how to read and discern as much as we teach them the contents of Scripture. We may have to help convene communities of theological deliberation that help make sense of the Spirit’s moving in our midst as much as we preachers try to interpret it ourselves.

Seemingly today, all the world’s knowledge and data at our fingertips and yet wisdom and truth telling are no easier to discover. Too often, truth and truthiness look just alike. Passion and bombast are everywhere. Wisdom and deep reflection are too rare. Perhaps, the pulpit and the preacher can help draw us away from the siren song of truthiness to the difficult but indispensable truths that God has been sharing with us all along.