John Berger, the radical art critic who taught us all how to look at our representations of the world in the 1970s, wrote in 2006, “Misinformation is developing its techniques.”
The followers of Jesus have been onto this for a while – after all, Paul said that the god of this age had blinded the eyes of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4) – but it seems to have made little impact on our resilience in the face of fake news.
So, American Baptist Brett Younger, observing how so many of his fellow evangelicals opt for the politics of Trump over other possibilities, says, “When faced with the choice of following Christ by caring for the hungry or supporting a politician who promises to make the rich richer, my old church ignores the faith they profess. When given the opportunity to extend hospitality to refugees, my old church chooses bigotry. When responding to a dishonest president, my old church defends.”
The enlightened English might snigger behind their hands at their American cousins, but we are guilty of exactly the same Janus faith. How can people familiar with the Scriptures be prone to such error?
Berger points to an obvious partial answer in an essay musing on the power of song published in 2016. “The media offer trivial immediate distraction to fill the silence which, if left empty, might otherwise prompt people to ask each other questions concerning the unjust world they are living in.”
When our papers were full of lurid headlines about “swarms” of refugees flowing into Europe and British lorry drivers being under constant assault in and around Calais because of the presence of the so-called Jungle on the edge of that city, I decided to go and see for myself what was happening barely an hour and a half from my front door.
Many in my congregation supported the view that the residents of the migrant camp across the [English] Channel spelled trouble for us and should be sent back from whence they came.
However, this began to change as I told stories of what I encountered on my weekly visits.
I was trying to do what Berger had told an audience of eager, mainly young activists in London in 2014.
Asked how Europe should respond to what was even then being called the refugee crisis, he paused for a long moment before saying, “I have been thinking about the storyteller’s responsibility to be hospitable.”
Hearing that, I began to ask myself: How can we do theology of any kind without being hospitable storytellers?
Key to this is to know for oneself what is happening. This is what it means to be a witness – looking, seeing, listening, understanding, welcoming the stories we gather.
It is only then that we can begin to make sense of them, to turn snapshots and half-heard, partial snippets into some kind of coherent narrative. And this is best done with others.
A key feature of Peaceful Borders, the little group of co-conspirators I worked with in Calais, was the almost perpetual telling of stories.
And a question we frequently asked of each other was “Who did you hear this from?” or “Did you see this yourself?”
We were quickly alive to the generation of myth and rumor in the camp; the Jungle was frequently awash with fake news.
Being hospitable storytellers means working as hard as possible to verify our facts – not fall hostage to “alternative facts,” airbrushed narratives in pursuit of some politician’s agenda.
We owed that both to the people whose stories we were telling and to our audiences.
As a community theologian (isn’t that what Baptist ministers are?), I have a responsibility to the truth. But for Christians, the truth has never been so much a set of propositions as a three-way relationship.
We follow one who declared himself to be the “way the truth and the life,” one who said, “You shall know the truth [him] and the truth will set you free,” and whose followers will only grow up healthy as they speak the truth to each other and their neighbors in love.
So, as a leader, I will be learning as much as I will be teaching. Indeed, I will be modeling this so everyone in my orbit gains confidence in seeing and speaking the truth. And that will happen in some decidedly unexpected ways.
In the Jungle, I saw Jesus in devout Muslims and committed Buddhist monks as much as I saw him in Christian brothers and sisters. I was witness to this truth and part of my role was to reflect on how this could be the case.
Mostly, though, I will be encountering the truth of God and his gospel in the Christian community in which I am embedded. This will happen in a variety of ways, formal and informal.
Again, John Berger, not a noted theologian, points the way here. Reflecting on a song sung by a friend in a club in France, he notes, “Songs can express the inner experience of being and becoming at this historic moment – even if they are old songs.”
Most Christians learn what theology they have through what they sing. So, is it any wonder that so few are able to connect their faith to the world of economics and politics given the content of most of what passes for contemporary worship music?
Part of being a hospitable storyteller in these days of fake news is to contribute to the creation of worship songs that reflect the real experience of people in the world and capture the hope of the gospel for that world.
We need more theologian musicians. And above all, we need each other to challenge on one another’s lips the narratives our culture gives us.
We live in days of deeply held dogmas about free markets and the universal good of choice, or in Milton Friedman’s words, days when “each man can vote for the color of tie he wants.”
In days when a U.S. president talks of making America great again and politicians here speak of “taking back control” (with the subtext of putting the ‘great’ back into Great Britain), we need a bigger story, a different dogma (if you like), one of hope for a better world, where real choices exist for all people – wealthy Westerners, fleeing refugees and poor factory workers in Bangladesh alike.
We find such hope in the text of Scripture, truth that shapes the way we live as we hear it and sing it in community. It’s also the hope that inspires our prayers.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We can only pray that prayer if there is a better world than the one we’re in, straining to be born.
There is something profoundly, grubbily, troublingly earthy about our faith; it belongs in a world of fake news, propaganda and deceitful agendas because it is only there that it can be a light and a sign post that points to something better, richer and more rewarding and fulfilling than anything the fake news merchants have to offer us.
Simon Jones is director of ministry formation and training at Spurgeon’s College in London. He served previously as ministry team leader at Bromley Baptist Church in Bromley, a London suburb. A version of this article first appeared in the Issue 3 2017 edition of Mission Catalyst – a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog, A Sideways Glance, and you can follow him on Twitter @bromleyminister.