Knowing and Communicating Truth

03.20.11 | Cecil Van Houten | Comments[1]

Many years ago the playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  And this was decades before cell phones, the internet or Twitter.  Nothing has changed.  We have trouble saying what we mean.  Not only do we have difficulty in how to express ourselves, we often don’t know what it is we’re trying to say.  We don’t struggle to reach our own conclusions; we rely on the opinions of others.  We use phrases that don’t really mean anything.  Of the roughly half-million words that comprise the English language, the average college-educated American knows between forty and sixty thousand.  But the issue isn’t so much how large our vocabulary is; it’s whether or not we know what we’re talking about and how well we articulate it.

I’m not the grammar police.  I don’t stay up at night worrying about the misuse of irregular English verbs.  But the fact is while we’re immersed in the most technologically-advanced era mankind has ever known our ability to discern truth and communicate it with clarity and conviction is slipping backwards. 

It surrounds us every day.  I saw a billboard recently for an insurance company with the tagline, “Being there is why I’m here.”  What?  You’re where?  Here?  There?  I’m confused.  Unfortunately it’s the company that has all my insurance business.  I just hope if I need them I can find them.

I noticed a sign on the window of a business that read, “We upholster anything.”  Really?  If I bring in the 1,212 pound prize-winning boar from the Iowa State Fair, can you upholster it?  In ultrasuede?

How about the phrase, “So without further delay”?  Thanks for throwing that in; you just delayed me another three seconds.

You find it in the church too.  It’s called Christianese.  Like when you hear someone say, “God is really growing me.”  Usually it means there’s something good happening in your life.  It just hasn’t affected your grammatical skills yet.  But the one that makes me cringe is when I hear someone say, “We were at [fill in the appropriate Christian activity here] and God really showed up”.     

Did He?  Wow.  I’m sorry, I thought God was everywhere.  Already.  As in, before we got there.  It’s as though God was away doing something and we didn’t think he got the invitation but, hey, He did!  He’s here!  Way to go, God!  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems we lose something of God’s majesty and glory and mystery when we say things like, “God showed up.”

God is fully there, even when it seems like He isn’t.  When we pray prayers that aren’t answered the way we hope; when we work hard for justice and peace and don’t see much of it in the world; when we study the Bible and it sometimes leads to more questions than answers.

There’s even a website, godshowedup.org, which apparently was designed to be an online gathering place for people to share their stories about how God showed up in their lives.  Only problem is – the last post was in March, 2009.  It would appear God has been conspicuously absent.

If we don’t know truth, we risk falling into error.  If we don’t live truth, we mock God.  If we don’t speak truth, we bring dishonor and judgment on ourselves.  Which brings me to Rob Bell.  You can’t write a blog these days without some reference to the pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you’re probably aware of the controversy surrounding his new book, “Love Wins”.  I haven’t read the entire book but those who have, with few exceptions, have found Bell’s protestations that he believes in orthodoxy undermined by extremely misleading interpretations of bedrock theological principles, particularly the question of whether a literal heaven and hell exist.

What has surprised me the most in the last week hasn’t been Bell’s evolving beliefs; it’s been his utter inability to explain himself in a spiritually sound or coherent manner.  His television and public appearances have been embarrassingly bad.  I realize Bell is a “communicator”, that he “relates” to people.  He’s not a particularly well-studied theologian (he has a BA from Wheaton and an M. Div. from Fuller).  But if you’re going to write a book (and he says there are more coming in the same vein) that challenges the foundational, non-negotiable truths of the Christian faith, shouldn’t you be better prepared to defend your position?  To watch him waffling and dancing around the questions he was asked (which he seemed unable to answer) was not only uncomfortable, it was annoying.  I expect more.  Even from a heretic.    

When all else is gone, truth remains.  Despite the impassioned arguments of the Christopher Hitchens or the Rob Bells of the world, truth will stand.  But truth must be known.  Pilate asked Jesus, just hours before His crucifixion, “What is truth?”  The Word is truth.  The Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus.  Pilate was looking truth right in the face and didn’t know it.  How many people are still doing that today?

We have an obligation to know, live and speak truth.  We must withstand the pull of well-intentioned concern and emotionalism and maintain our allegiance to truth, even when its consequences are hard.  We must be unambiguous in our communication of truth.  And in an era when many of us have adopted internet shorthand in our everyday interaction with people and a Tweet can only contain 140 characters, we must resist the urge to try and make truth fit into the space we choose to give it.

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on 03.21.11 Bob commented

I wonder if social media plays any part in contributing to our dumbed-down society. I have a hard time believing the founding fathers would have been quite as profound had facebook been around in the 18th century. Just a thought. Great blog Cecil - thanks for having a sensitivity toward this topic. I wish more people of faith did.

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