I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler. Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds. Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film. I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching. I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well. Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.
Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”. By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’ He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany. They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible. The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people. So if you think fake news is something new, think again.
Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden. Two things, though, make todays environment more challenging than the past:
Everything is called “Fake” by someone. Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake. Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN. As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way. Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source. As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard. We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time. These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo. They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow. Sound familiar?
Here’s the deal though. Everyone spins their news, at least a little. CNN fact checks their stories. So does FOX. The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources). It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.
Our response primarily blames the source. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this: “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns). The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish. Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy. That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”. Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway?
The Real Need: Discernment
Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies. Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes. Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around. Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.
It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters: YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.
They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed. They’re present as “slants” in the news. Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did. 2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.
These biases shouldn’t surprise us. They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us. In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.
Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free. Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending. Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?
The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News. But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement. It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression. And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?
Disciples of Christ. They don’t hide. The engage. They don’t call for censorship. They call for discernment.
Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom
Such wisdom is needed; now more than ever.