Being Adventist in a post-truth world

"When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal," said Donald Trump's senior advisor. Wow, what a post-truth world we live in . . .

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Post-truth: That word was so popular in 2016 that the Oxford Dictionary announced it as their word of the year. Its usage increased by 2000 per cent over the previous year.

The Oxford Dictionary defines post-truth, an adjective, as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse,” says Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries.

“We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”

Post-truth: scarier than you think?

The Washington Post ran an article entitled, “The post-truth world of Donald Trump is scarier than you think.” It reported that on November 30, 2016, Scottie Nell Hughes—a Donald Trump spokesperson—was asked about a Twitter claim Trump had made, without evidence, that he would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally.

Her response? “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.”

She argued that it isn’t whether his fraud claim is true but who believes it: “Mr Trump’s tweet[s], amongst a certain crowd . . . are truth . . . and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”

Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway responded in this way: “He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behaviour. When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” That is scary.

That’s what can happen in a post-truth world.

Post-truth among Adventists? Surely not

Social media gives anyone a public voice. For most it’s no more than a whisper in the dark—a Facebook note to friends. But Trump on Twitter makes the evening news.

Social media is where you’ll find the best (or worst) examples of post-truth Adventism. Two recent examples come from YouTube: The first proclaims in capped letters: “Breaking news!! Sunday law signs have begun!” A sub-heading warns, “National Sunday law is soon to be declared.” More than 250,000 people have visited this video.

However, it was posted in 2010 causing one recent visitor to comment: “Hahahaha, and just think, this video was uploaded almost six years ago and still nothing. Lol [Laughing out loud].”

The second was a video against the ordination of women as pastors in the Adventist Church. In the first 90 seconds, the speaker says that those who support women’s ordination—“that abominable, satanic, evil teaching”—will receive the Mark of the Beast.

Excuse me? The first is a mix of speculation and conspiracy theories, not truth. The second is biblically unsound and offensive, whether you’re a supporter of women’s ordination or not. Post-truth does these kinds of things as it appeals to emotion and personal belief, not facts.

Both videos are in the public domain and are clearly identified or recognised as Adventist. As an Adventist I find their comments embarrassing.

In a post-truth world, truth still matters.

Truth matters

In a meaningful relationship, truth matters. In successful business relationships, truth matters. In international relationships, truth matters.

For the Christian it matters—a lot. The One we follow, Jesus, was a truth speaker. He often made statements beginning with “amen” to emphasise the truth of His sayings—amen is translated as “verily” (KJV); “truly” (NIV); and “I tell you the truth” (NLT). It appears 49 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John it appears 50 times with a double emphasis: amen, amen.

Jesus tells us to worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). He says the truth will set us free (John 8:32); the Spirit will lead into “all truth” (John 14:17); and He prays that we will be made holy through God’s truth—His word (John 17:17).

We Adventists have long cherished truth—particularly present truth for these end times. Mind you, when I officially became an Adventist after baptism at the age of 15, I felt confident in what could be called the tower of truth I’d found in our Church.

Unfortunately, when you’re in a tower, those who aren’t with you are both “outsiders” and beneath you. Sad to say, that’s how I saw those who weren’t Adventist. I don’t think I was alone.

It took several years before I understood that biblical truth is only really understood in a relationship with Jesus because He is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Truth is more than rules and standards. It’s a living and growing thing in Him.

Witness in a post-truth world

In a post-truth world your religious beliefs and biblical understanding will be seen as merely an opinion—not truth. It often doesn’t matter to others and they tend not to care.

In her essay “Covering politics in a post-truth America”, Susan B Glasser wrote: “The media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter.”

So how can we influence individuals for God who don’t see value in truth? Who don’t see that it matters?

And it’s complicated by another problem. Australian atheist Phillip Adams notes in the 2007 edition of his book, Adams vs. God, that in the 1960s, “the atheist was as lonely a figure as the biblical leper”. In 2007, “all of a sudden atheism is fashionable” (Williams, Post God Nation?, 2015).

In a post-truth world, your religious beliefs and biblical understanding will be seen as merely an opinion—not truth.

Truth is under attack. Atheism is fashionable. Both these things can make the Christian life difficult but for the Church this is actually good news. We’re forced to be serious about our Christianity. Cultural Christianity, cultural Adventism isn’t enough. It never has been, but in many ways you could get away with it when Christianity had respect. Now our faith needs to be real—and living.

This is similar to the first centuries of Christianity when the church had no status in the Roman Empire. And yet it grew dramatically, not by force of argument, but by Christians living their faith. These early Christians were often “silent in the open” because “if they advocated their faith in the forum they could get not only themselves but their congregations into deadly difficulty” (Kreider, The change of conversion and the origin of Christendom, 1999, p13).

They may have been silent but “their behaviour said what they believed; it was an enactment of their message”. In the 250s, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, wrote a note of encouragement to his parishioners that included: “We [Christians] do not speak great things but we live them.” He lived great things when he died a martyr a few years later (Kreider, The patient ferment of the early church, 2016, pp 2,13)

The best argument for their faith was in the way they lived it. Ellen White agrees with this approach but puts it this way: “A loving, loveable Christian is the most powerful argument in favour of the truth” (Letter 11, 1897).

Stubborn facts

“Facts are stubborn things,” said John Adams, so perhaps this post-truth period will pass as truths are revealed and facts demanded. Adams later became the second president of the United States. Now, 43 presidents later, it may take some time before truth makes a comeback.

At any time, and in the meantime, the world needs to see loving and loveable Christians. They’re always the best argument for the One who is the way, the truth and the life.