Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Father of Lies

The subtitle of this Blog is “A site for reflection on contemporary theological issues, biblical studies and the present state of the "Anglican Communion" .
Readers of essays I have published in the last year or two will know that political issues are not thereby excluded. Indeed, it could well be argued that what is most needed at the present time is some penetrating theological analyses and criticism of the contemporary political situation.

Sad Reflections on Elections

Many would, I think, agree that this has been the most lie-laden political season within memory; a much longer historical perspective would modify that judgment as anyone who has read the political broadsheets of 18th century British politics will know. I will come to the lie that I think is most pervasive and frequently told by politicians later, but, at the moment, I want to turn our attention to the New Testament, with a glance at the O.T. background.

Light & Truth in John’s Gospel

One of the main threads of the Fourth Gospel is the contrast between light and darkness, truth and lies. At the very beginning of his book, John (it is too cumbersome to write “the author” every time, and perhaps he was called John) writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. (Jn. 1.5). As the narrative proceeds, John weaves this theme in an amazing way; darkness is the state of pre-creation chaos, the abyss from which emerge the beasts of falsehood and evil in The Apocalypse of John the Divine, that is, ‘Theologian’; this is the final book of the N.T. Canon, a book that reflects many Johannine ideas, but clearly is not by the same author as the Fourth Gospel.

Falsehood as Idolatry

A glance at the Old Testament shows that the predominant understanding of lying (Heb. kazab & sheqer) is in the worship of something other than the One God, Yahweh, summed up in the word idolatry, (cf. Isa.44.20, Jer. 10.14 and a myriad other references). It is not without significance, surely, that Adam’s first actual ‘conversation’ with God is based on a downright lie. In the course of the J narrative of the creation, God has spoken directly to man, Adam, (vv. 15 & 18), but it is only at 3.8 that a dialogue begins. What Adam says in v. 12 is “factually” true, but the whole tenor of his reply is a tissue of lies: perhaps a pattern for many political commercials. In summary, the O.T. writers proclaim the need for putting God first in all things; not to do that is to be out of touch with the reality of the human situation. St. Paul picks this up at the beginning of his letter to Rome, “[T]hey exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”. (1.25)

A Pivotal Passage in John

Of all the passages in the New Testament one might consider, John 8.39-45 is possibly the best to illustrate the general point. It is part of the working out of the general theme I have mentioned. . It is a pivotal point of John’s theology that Jesus is the “way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn.14.6), and the contrary is that Satan is “the father of lies”. Moreover, the devil “was a murderer from the beginning”, almost certainly a reference back to the early narratives of Genesis (where the lies poured out by the serpent-devil lead to the introduction of death within the created order); this is a point that is underlined by the next step: the murder of Abel by Cain. Indeed, it is the position of all New Testament writers that lying is the root of all other human disobedience and sin, murder, greed, lust for power and on through the sorry list.
John sees the death of Jesus as a final assault of falsehood against the truth of God: “[Y]ou look for an opportunity to kill me” (Jn. 8.37) is the way John introduces this whole discourse on the power of darkness and falsehood: murder is abominable, but it springs from something even worse, the human propensity to lie.

The Hater of Truth; The Fate of Liars - The Apocalypse

Appropriately, I will conclude this brief biblical excursus by considering how this same theme is dramatically displayed in the Apocalypse of John the Divine. In the Fourth Gospel, the theme uses much Old Testament material in a quasi-philosophical way characteristic of John’s style.
By contrast, in the Apocalypse we are given a full-blown dose of myth and apocalypticism. Evil appears embodied in beasts from the abyss; the struggle between light and darkness is played out in scenes of war, famine and ruin on the earth and the casting of Satan from heaven, followed by the blood of martyrs flowing over the altar and heavenly choruses singing Hagios, Hagios, Hagios.
The climax of this great myth of catastrophic battles of the powers of good and evil is the establishing of the New Jerusalem. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…and I heard a voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people… and death shall be no more’” (Apoc. 21.1-5). It is tempting to spend much more time on this passage, exposing the many layers of the Seer’s imagery and countless allusions to earlier texts both Jewish and Christian, but I will resist and move to verse 8 of this chapter.

Blind to Truth

There we are given one of the typical “sin lists” that appear in the Epistles (Rom. 1.29ff.;Gal. 5.19ff.; Col. 3.5ff; I Cor.6 9f.); it is quite possible that they originate in the classical stoic tradition, but they are given, as we have seen, a new underpinning in the New Testament. The Seer places liars (psuedes) at the end of the list for emphasis. Psuedos is a much stronger word than ‘liar’, which suggests someone who twists the facts or makes up his own. In the Johannine context it means someone who is not capable of recognizing the truth, who in fact hates it; (perhaps this is the result of inhabiting by choice a fact-free zone over a long period). In any case, the result is that such a state is to be out of touch with reality, out of tune with the heavenly harmony. This, surely is the way we should read Mark 3.28, which follows the pericope where Jesus speaks of the opposition he has aroused; his opponents are ultimately unable to tell truth from falsehood: what is patently good and from God, that is, healings done “by the finger of God” (Luke’s addition), from the work of the demons of evil. The cost of such a level of lies is to be cut off from reality, in effect, to ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, which is, above all, the spirit of truth.

The Contemporary Scene

Such a biblical perspective, must inevitably give us a gloomy view of contemporary politics, for it suggests that lie-laden political campaigns are not really about preserving “this great nation of ours”, or a concern to rescue and perpetuate “the American dream”, but an almost demonic drive to gain (or retain) power at any cost. This, in turn, points to a deeply embedded blindness of the kind that has again and again led to the downfall of empires.

Turning (did I hear someone sigh, “finally”?) to the mundane issue of lying politicians, I will reveal what I think is the most egregious lie proclaimed frequently by politicians of every possible hue.
It is like an antiphon that is chanted before every canticle, every political speech, and like an antiphon it is “doubled” on all special occasions. It is
“The American people are not stupid”.

Without doubt that is true of the majority, but many claims and incidents in the last six months must force any rational person to ask how big is the minority that does not seem wise?

• Last summer we witnessed the frenzied activities of constituents, meeting with members of the Congress, convinced of the establishment of ‘death panels’, the removal of all right to choose a doctor, and what was called (screamed?) a ‘government take-over’ of all health care; frequently, many senior citizens were the most vociferous in this last delusion, apparently completely unaware of the immense benefits they received from Medicare.

• We have seen more than enough pictures of rallies where placards have proclaimed the President to be a Fascist, and a Communist, totally unaware, apparently that the two positions are mutually exclusive.

• I am not able to give documentation, but more than once I heard news reports of someone in a mid-Western State making an angry protest because Michelle Bachmann’s name was not on the voting list.

• At the same time, our intelligence has been assaulted by the ‘Birthers’, and those who fervently believe that the President is a Moslem.

The following excerpt of an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 18, 2010) makes somber reading.

Poll: Growing number in U.S. say Obama a Muslim; more Republicans say he's Muslim than Christian

It's not true, but that doesn't stop a lot — and we mean a lot — of Americans from believing it.
A new poll released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that 18 percent of American adults believe that their president is an adherent of the Muslim faith — up from 11 percent last year. Meanwhile, just 34 percent of Americans say that Barack Obama is a Christian, down from 48 percent a year ago. Obama is a Christian Protestant.

The misperception about the president is strongest among Republicans. More GOP adherents insist that Obama is a Muslim than believe he is a Christian. Thirty-one percent say he is a Muslim, while 27 percent say he is a Christian and 39 percent say they're not sure. That's a massive turnaround in the minds of American Republicans. A year ago, by 47 percent to 17 percent, Republicans acknowledged that Obama is a Christian.

Ignorance not Stupidity

As the author says, “it’s not true”. Just a little reading and some competence in scrutinizing an argument and just a normal amount of critical thinking would have revealed the depths of these lies.
It is important to look carefully at what is actually being said in the “they are not stupid” chant. The bald statement is, without a doubt, true: clearly the majority of us cope with the complexities of a highly technological society; we make reasonable decisions about family responsibilities, about finances (on the whole!), and show common sense (mostly) in the complications of life.

So what has made over 30% believe that Barack Obama is not a Christian? I have to resort to the over-quoted remark of Samuel Johnson when one of his Dictionary definitions was questioned, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance”. Far too many are so ill-educated that they have never learnt to engage in analytical thinking; even the better levels of education in our schools encourage fact collection and regurgitation, and not critical thinking. It is not that thirty to forty percent of the
American electorate is ‘stupid’. It is that they have been deprived of a good education.
If this conclusion be accurate, I suggest the following anatomy of the political slogan which I have called the ‘most egregious lie’ of the politicians.

Anatomy of a Big Lie

What is the function of this frequent claim? I suggest it is two-fold.

• Firstly it is used as an anesthetic to a populist audience. The speaker is saying “I (and my Party) know that you are not stupid; we understand your needs and will meet them.
• But secondly, it is a stealth attack on the Opposition. In effect (though carefully hidden) it says: “It is our demonic opponents who assume you are stupid. They assume that you are so stupid that you will accept the misinformation and made-up ‘facts’ we have been pouring out. They think you are so stupid that you will not notice that in the health reform they have hidden a diabolical plan to set up Nazi-type death camps: they think that while they blame the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression on the previous Administration you are so stupid that you will not notice that it is they who are really to blame.”

• There is no need to add to the almost endless list of examples, but this dissection lays bare, rather like an anatomy class, the inner workings of this great lie. It is a lie of biblical proportions straight from the Abyss.


In a factual sense it is more or less true, but its use perverts the truth to a degree that blurs the distinction between truth and falsehood. There are no hidden death camps; the economic situation has been years in the making; the President is an American citizen.
In fact the slogan is saying, “the American People are not stupid (sotto voce they are ignorant)”. And why is there so much ignorance? The fact is that the party that uses this lie to the greatest effect are themselves often to blame for that lamentable state of ignorance though this also is deeply hidden.

But consider their priorities in spending: we must make the richest richer; we must increase the spending on the military, in spite of the fact that our military spending hovers around 44% of the world’s total arms bill. Yet when we are called to tighten belts, it is education, social services and care for the poor that has been starved.

John’s contrast between light and darkness, truth and lies could hardly be better exemplified than in this morass of distortion, manipulation and naked self-interest.

When a passion for truth flies out of the window, we are left in great peril. “The truth will make you free”, writes John (8.32), and if it is supplanted by carefully camouflaged lies wrapped in populist flattery, we are swallowing a bitter pill in a sugar coating that will destroy that freedom.

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