Searching for Truth in a Soundbite Society

There are a lot of words you could use to describe our current national conversation about politics, religion, and culture. One word that comes to mind is shrill. You could also call our discourse rude, shallow, thoughtless, self- absorbed, and banal. But worse than all this is the fact that few people involved in these discussions seem to care about the truth. Consider the political documentary that won all kinds of acclaim, even after it was shown to have twisted the truth into a pretzel. Or the bestselling novel that presented ancient fabrications about Jesus and Mary Magdalene as unquestionable facts. Then there was the commentator who took money from political candidates, or the one who took it from the government to promote a particular cause. And who could forget the big news story that was rushed to the air, only to fall apart when the documents it was based on turned out to be fakes? As we promote our ideas through Internet forums, movies, talk shows, and more, the goal often seems to be scoring points rather than finding the truth about a given subject. In fact, truth often seems to be the first casualty. The situation is saddening -- but not surprising. As Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs reminds us in his new book Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling, disregard for truth is nothing new. Jacobs shows that throughout history, people like Pontius Pilate have asked, "What is truth?" but were too pragmatic, too afraid, too lazy, or too preoccupied with other concerns to wait for an answer. As for actually trying to tell the truth, Jacobs writes, "Nothing in the world is more difficult, with the signal exception of loving one's neighbor." Jacobs's new collection of essays explores a wide range of subjects -- such a wide range, in fact, that it's a little startling. How many authors would lump together essays on ancient poets, modern movies, children's literature, the flaws of some of our best-known philosophers, and the difficulty of getting a computer operating system to work? But there's a common theme in all of these essays: the search for truth. In each piece, Jacobs either conducts his own search for truth, or examines the attempts of others to find truth. Then he explains why they succeeded or failed. He's willing to ask the questions that others overlook: Why do Christians often ignore one of the greatest Christian poets, and why did he repudiate one of his most famous works -- a work that was widely quoted after September 11? What was the great puzzle of Solzhenitsyn's life, and why did it matter? What does one of the strangest movies of our time have to say about judgment and grace? Jacobs summarizes his own book as follows: "If what I write . . . moves us an inch or so closer to general truthfulness, and thereby towards the justice of the Lord, my work will have been amply rewarded." His determination to ask complicated questions and search for truthful answers sets Jacobs apart from a society of soundbites and shallowness. It's a welcome book in an age when even much of the Church has its doubts about the truth.


Chuck Colson


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