Why So Sensitive? Ministry in a Post-Truth Culture
It’s fairly well-established that our culture in the West can be called “post-truth.” By this formulation people commonly mean that life in a “postmodern” age means that we steer clear of absolutes in our thinking and our speech. We don’t speak of what is true for all peoples at all places in all times; we speak of what is true for me. Truth is relative, not absolute (until someone disagrees with us or fails to affirm us, and then watch out, boys). This view has immense ramifications for Christianity and Christian ministry. To embrace a “post-truth” perspective means that one has effectively evacuated the Word and the gospel of any timeless, once-for-all authority.
A good number of folks can spot this counterfeit in abstract terms. I am more interested in this particular article in identifying how, even if we are post-post-truth, we may still suffer the influence of a relativistic age. How might this happen, even for defenders of the truth? Let me suggest six ways a secularistic post-truth mindset might filter into our lives and ministries.
First, we excessively qualify even basic statements. This is really the age of the antagonist, isn’t it? A post-truth culture supports the rise of the perpetual naysayer, the endless nuance-proclaimer, the inveterate bone-picker. Many of us have experienced this phenomenon on Twitter, where even basic statements are picked over like bone-in filets dropped into piranha tanks. This tendency has bled over into contemporary conversation. We excessively qualify ourselves in our discussions, our brains churning like those of $400-per-hour lawyers as we try to stay a step ahead of our interlocutors, furiously trying to recognize loopholes and weaknesses in our verbiage.
In one sense, such carefulness is good to cultivate. We all must explain ourselves. But at a certain level, if our qualifications pile up, we end up almost inarticulate. When you say one declarative sentence—“The Bible is true”—but then feel the need to say eleven consecutive sentences about what your first sentence does not mean, you are a post-truth communicator. You may not know it, and you certainly may not intend to be, but the point stands: a post-truth culture is influencing your speech (and thinking) in a major way. Young pastor, look back at the transcripts of your sermons. If the qualifications are longer than the principle you’re trying to establish, you’re preaching like a post-truther.
Second, we downplay actions and emphasize feelings. A second mark of a post-truth culture is the prioritization of feelings over truth. As Edwards argued, God gave us affections, deep and coursing passions, so that we would “feel” after him. He is not neutral about our emotional life; he wants it—as with all things—oriented around him. Redemption in part means the straightening out of our emotions and affections. People who were once unruly in spirit, our passions firing in all directions, are calmed, controlled, and comforted by the Spirit (Romans 8:9; John 14:16). This has major implications for the way we disciple and counsel people, for we all must battle sinful passions and emotions from within.
A post-truth culture allows emotions to override the truth. In terms of teaching ministry, here’s one way this plays out: we care more about how a given doctrine makes us feel than about whether it is right. Such an impulse is profoundly post-truth. If allowed to bloom in our lives, this instinct will ensure that we never learn anything uncomfortable. Our theology will mirror our innate preferences. Instead of believing the whole counsel of God, including the parts of it that offer serious challenge to our finite minds, we will believe the whole opinions of man. We will mute passages of Scripture that we do not like; we will reject teachings that rub us the wrong way. Most damningly, the God we worship will end up looking a great deal like us.
Third, we move away from apologies, clouding them with qualifiers. This element of a post-truth culture is more spiritual than doctrinal. As those who have repented of our sin and confessed it to God, we are called to be an apologizing people. By this I mean that Christians should be those who own their sin and make no attempt to excuse it on a daily basis. We who are God-centered should be those who are apology-ready.
But if we come to the time when we should apologize—when we have definitely done something wrong—and we only explain our tortured backstory, we are acting in a post-truth way. We are letting the truth be clouded over by our experience. The people whom we have wronged will justly feel shortchanged. A healthy apology culture means that when an offense occurs, the terms of justice are met through confession of sin and resulting forgiveness. Biblical justice is not vague; it is not cloudy; it is sharp, clear, defined, and enacted through repentance and forgiveness. But all this process depends on Spirit-filled Christians who do not explain away their sin, but own it. A post-truth culture, by contrast, forsakes apologies for lengthy “explanations.” There thus can be no true forgiveness, and that means there can be no true situational justice.
Fourth, we negotiate instead of drawing clear lines. We are all anti-authoritarians now. At least, we are all tempted to play this role. Nowhere is this trend more apparent to me than when I watch sports. In some cases, I find athletic contests almost unwatchable due to the lack of respect for authority. Yes, refs blow some calls, but our post-truth culture is in such a bad place, barely a judgment is made without an athlete jumping up and down like a spoiled toddler, gesticulating wildly, yelling abuse at the officials. The officials, shockingly, do not usually bring the player to heel; they usually continue the conversation with the player, thus further undermining their authority and ensuring that they will be taken advantage of over and over again.
This failing has reference to the work of fathers and mothers as well. If you are regularly negotiating with your children rather than directing them to obey you, you have already lost a crucial part of your authority. If your children throw fits weekly, then they are already on the verge of controlling the home. If children do not respond to parental direction and commands immediately and obediently, then they are already being prepared for spiritual rebellion against God. The stakes are high on these points. We must reason with those we would shape, and persuade them, and express love in great measure, but we must never lose authority. This is difficult work, and every father and mother is imperfect. But we cannot give up our role. Authority is ultimately invested in God the Father and flows from there. Authority is theological, in other words.
Fifth, we lead only with great hesitancy and fearfulness. You know you’re in a post-truth setting (even unintentionally so) when those charged to lead fail to do so. We’ve all been in these settings: they are poorly run, poorly managed, poorly scheduled, and inadequately set up. Every leader is a work in progress, young pastors very much included. But we can tell when we’ve fallen prey to endemic post-truthiness when we consistently fail to lead in even the most basic ways. We hold events, but there’s no structure; people don’t show up on time; expectations are not communicated; feedback is issued passive-aggressively rather than directly (being passive-aggressive is post-truth for sure); no one seems to know what they are doing. If you have been in a situation like this, you know the confusion and listlessness it breeds.
The reverse of such a sorry setting is not red-faced totalitarianism. It is scriptural pastoral leadership: clear, calm, composed, sure-handed, gracious, firm in principle, unafraid to step up, willing to hear correction, headed in a certain direction (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7). Those who love the truth will love this kind of guidance; those who are influenced by a post-truth culture will buck against it, snicker at it, undermine it, crack jokes about it, and generally act like a too-cool-for-school kid in the back of class, daring the teacher to tell him to not tip back in his chair. This posture is widespread today, even in Christian environments. It is grounded in arrogance and childishness, not humility and maturity.
Sixth, we see doubt as true and truth as doubtful. A post-truth culture bucks against the clear statement of the truth. The average evangelical is not an intellectual revolutionary, but they are used to a shockingly low dosage of ringing proclamation. A good number of people have been fed a continual diet of soft words and soft instruction and emotionalized faith and psychologized spirituality. They have learned in some cases that doubt is good and moral (and theological) absolutes are bad. Younger evangelicals in particular have learned less a system of doubt (for doubt cannot in any way construct a system or form a worldview) than a posture of doubt. Doubt unwittingly displaces the truth as the lodestar of Christianity.
This shift is as silly as it is nonsensical. The mark of vibrant Christian life is not the capacity to distrust God; that’s what unbelief looks like. The mark of vibrant Christianity is the capacity to trust God by his grace, and cling to God despite attacks on one’s faith. We are not justified by doubt; we are justified by faith, God-given faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). What is the victory that overcomes the world? It is ἡ Πίστις ἡμῶν—“our faith” (1 John 5:4). Our movement has done a great deal to study justification by faith in recent years, but seems surprisingly confused about the role of faith regarding doubt in the Christian life.
The church of Jesus Christ needs pastors to step up and lead according to the truth of God. Some will say to this call, “I do! I affirm the truth.” Yet many of us are unaware of some of the subtler forms of post-truth faith and practice. We might forswear the emergent church, yet act and speak in such a way that people hear little confidence and authority in our preaching and shepherding.
Let the world be post-truth. The church of Christ must know, love, live by, proclaim, and lead according to the truth. This truth—God’s own truth—is not conditioned by any prefix; it is firmly fixed in the heavens, and stands forever according to the counsel of God.