The post-truth pantomime
What does 2016’s ‘word of the year’ mean for youth and children’s ministry? Nigel Pimlott has some ideas...
The annual panto in our village is always great fun and entertainment. There’s a mix of banter, fantasy and miraculous stories played out by outlandish characters. There are goodies, baddies and dubious promises about living happily ever after tugging on our heart strings. Given what has happened across the political landscape in the last few months, you might think that was also pantomime.
Lately, we have heard some truly outlandish statements and counter-claims. Indeed, fantasy and unsubstantiated promises have become such the order of the day that the Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ as their 2016 International Word of the Year. They define post-truth as: “Relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals”.
The dictionaries say ‘post-truth’ is a describing word; what those good at grammar call an adjective. However, I observe the word ‘post-truth’ is often more about a lifestyle choice, a strategy for getting what is desired, a manipulative way of sucking people into a position that propagates a divisive and cruel narrative in order to rule and dominate others. Come to think of it, these are the very behaviours and the essential thinking of the characters in a pantomime.
Our resident panto baddie will bully, threaten and twist things. They’ll be highly selective, cherry-picking facts and manipulating people. They will say whatever it takes to get their own way. They’ll play on the emotions of the vulnerable, unaware and naive. They invoke hysteria and dire consequences if they are disobeyed. They proclaim a populist consensus wrapped up in half-truths, facts taken out of context and fearful predictions. Our post-truth politicians have been found guilty of deploying the same tricks and casting the same spells.
“Oh no it isn’t!”
During the US Presidential election The Washington Post researched how the candidates were being ‘post-truth’. They assessed the accuracy of the statements according to a ‘Pinocchio-rating’. If you remember, Pinocchio was the character whose nose grew when he lied. ‘Four- Pinocchio’s’ was the Washington Post’s worst accuracy rating; they claim that 64 per cent of all the statements Donald Trump made were four-Pinocchio ones: absolute fabrications, falsehoods and deceits.
In the UK, there was controversy over the Brexit battle bus which proudly claimed that if we left the EU, £350 million a week could be saved and invested into the NHS. It was symptomatic of the post-truth debate. It was based on a statistical fact (we spend about that amount on the EU), but it ignored what we got back from the EU (via grants, aid and research investment), what we would have to spend on any Brexit alternatives and assumed the money would be available to invest post-Brexit. It was the perfect post-truth soundbite that appealed to our emotions without being truthful. (I would add that the ‘remainers’ were just as bad with their ‘project-fear’ and apocalyptic forecasts).
Before we get too carried away cursing those on the campaign trail, we need to remember it’s not only politicians that make post-truth statements (statements York-based youth and children’s worker, James Simister amusingly describes as those things, ‘formerly known as lies’!) Many outside the Church accuse Christians of making such claims about, things such purported healings which turn out not to be such, rumours of revival and spiritual renewal being confused with charismatic personalities, and abuses of pulpit power and prophecies which ultimately turn out to be false. We need to have considered responses to such accusations if we are to avoid becoming or affirming post-truth Christians.
Beware the bewitchers
Youth and children’s workers themselves are not immune from the potential bewitchment a post-truth culture casts. It is too easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating things like the number of first-time faith commitments at an event, or bigging-up the impact a project has had. For those who do externally-funded work the pressure to make inflated claims, enhance stories of success and over-state the value of what we do can be overwhelming. Evaluations, reports to church councils, and meetings with line managers can be painted in such a positive light that the truth ends up diminished.
When I listen to some youth and children’s workers you would think that young people are queuing up to find Jesus. You’d believe teenagers were gagging to come to church and that they just can’t wait to get to that early morning prayer meeting. Enthusiasm and encouragement is one thing, but beware post-truth wicked panto villains don’t seduce you into craftiness and deceit (2 Corinthians 4:2). Paul asked the Galatians: “Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1). Perhaps we need to consider who might be bewitching us in our post-truth world. Who or what is seeking to hypnotise us and cast an (evil) spell that distorts, distracts and diverts us from making disciples?
What is truth?
So, what is truth? Is it something that is purely an uncontradictable fact or precise scientific formula? Is it an ecological reality where we know the truth of what happens when something relates to something else in a particular way? Might it be a piece of wisdom from an ancient culture? Or perhaps a piece of scripture, a way of living, or the personhood of Jesus?
Following the election of Donald Trump as US President, I heard a guy on the radio outline what he thought biblical truth and Christian values were. He offered a very particular political and punitive perspective which I couldn’t find in the life and person of Jesus. Nothing he said resonated with me and I didn’t recognise his truth as ‘Christian’. This highlighted to me that in our post-truth culture, even within the Church, one person’s truth does not guarantee it is universally such.
Jesus said: “I - and none besides me [as the Greek emphasises] - am the way, the truth and the life” (John14:6). What did he mean by this? We could make a case for lots of possibilities, truth as in: all knowing and righteousness; revelation; light; not lying; of God; salvation; the correct doctrine; and no doubt many more interpretations. My take on this statement is that Jesus was saying: “Hey folks, you have lived with me walked with me, seen God in me. I am the way to live; the truth is what I am, do and say. If you want a bit of that follow me and walk with me in this way.” This is certainly the message I would want to convey to children and young people and all those who want to be disciples.
Of course we might conclude that in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth world, ‘truth’ is purely a subjective matter and that we each have our own truth; it’s whatever we want it to be. Philosophically, I am not totally at odds with some of the thinking behind such sentiments, but they leave a somewhat troubling stirring in my spirit. They leave me floundering and without a certain hope that there is some overarching sense of what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and the best for us. However, I am very aware that many young people see truth - perhaps sub-consciously - as highly subjective. It is into such a context that we minister.
Youth and children’s workers are not immune from the potential bewitchment a post-truth culture casts
How do we respond?
If we are to combat post-truth politics, then we need politicians with certain values and qualities. I would argue that these qualities are the same ones that young people desire in their youth and children’s workers. If Christian ministry is to prosper in our changing world, we cannot afford to work in post-truth ways. Here are some key principles to stick to:
- Model authenticity and integrity: I do not think we can effectively and authentically exist in a post-truth world with a distorted Jesus. We need to offer young people a radical Jesus, practising what we preach, living out what we believe in ways that are highly authentic and richly integral.
- Promote honesty: The growth in the post-truth business means that the truth has been relegated, disregarded and neglected. The truth needs to be re-embraced, redeemed and valued as something that is life-bringing. I have a couple of youth work friends on social media that ‘tell it how it is’: warts and all; struggles; pain; distressing matters from ministry. I have to admit, some of what they write jars with me. I have become used to only getting the positive edited highlights people present. I think we need to get to a place of honesty if we are to effectively disciple the next generation. I have always found young people respond very positively to both being told ‘how it is’ and honest reality.
- Be vulnerable: Post-truth politicians rarely, if ever, admit weakness, fragility, humility or vulnerability. They rarely apologise. We need to celebrate the gift of vulnerability. Inspirational thinker Brené Brown declares: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
- Challenge injustice and listen to marginalised voices: Post-truth approaches are located around gaining or maintaining power, position and privilege, usually white and wealthy privilege. Truth approaches are about respect, liberation and equality in ways that reflect the kingdom imperative of including and listening to the marginalised. Some of the older Methodist young people I have been working with have recently expressed a desire to undertake acts of mercy and challenge injustice to change current societal narratives. Their commitment will do much to counter post-truth failings.
- Support young people in uncertain times: Post-truth rhetoric focuses on telling us we are under threat, leaching on our emotional insecurities. The world does feel somewhat unsafe and threatening at this time in history and safe spaces might be in short supply. Post-truth language attacks the safety and security of some in order to maintain the privilege of others. Youth and children’s workers need to offer safe spaces for all young people, not just for some at the expense of others.
- Recognise we are all learning and seeking something: We simply don’t know the answer to everything and we should be suspicious of those who claim they do. I would certainly encourage young people to be suspicious! One of the paradoxical traits of the post-truth culture is how it speaks so passionately and with such dogmatic conviction, even though its passions and perspectives are often not founded on anything more than rhetoric and rumour. Both politicians and youth workers alike would do well to occasionally front up and say: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need to think about that’. Even though we might not know all the answers, we can still be assured and confident in God. The truth, in the way Jesus says it in John’s Gospel, speaks of something that is not hidden, not concealed - it is there for those who desire to find it. The youth worker and politician might both benefit from helping people discover ‘truth’, rather than simply telling them what to believe.
Post-truth politicians rarely, if ever, admit weakness, fragility, humility or vulnerability. We need to celebrate the gift of vulnerability
“It’s behind you” (and all around you)
I suspect some post-truth politicians (and Christians for that matter) will be found out. They will come up short and not deliver on what they have said. This will undermine both who they are and what they proclaim. It will also alienate and disillusion those who supported them. Some will probably go on to make even more outlandish claims as they crave power and position. As youth and children’s workers, we must work hard to authentically be who we are and what we say. We must include people rather than alienate them, offering young people hope, not false promises. Our claims should reflect those Jesus made and must be made in humility and with vulnerability.
We can’t afford to get seduced by post-truth approaches. We mustn’t get caught out by them. So, be aware of pantomime-like claims of magic solutions, ‘too good to be true claims’ and also be aware of political rhetoric about ‘them and us’, promised pots of gold at the end of the rainbow and unsubstantiated tales. They are all likely to be examples of our post-truth culture. Remember - it’s behind you!