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The Age of Acceptable Lies

Written by Mike Cosper on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Mike Cosper

A few weeks ago, writer/blogger/conference speaker/reality TV star Jen Hatmaker announced her support for gay marriage and LGBT inclusion in the church. Facebook and Twitter exploded with the rejoicing/lamenting fervor one might expect from Christians at such a statement.

Nothing new is happening here, of course. Hatmaker is yet another Christian who has sided with the cultural momentum around LGBT issues. The arguments remain largely unchanged. Those who hold orthodox views on marriage cite the Scriptures and the witness of the church, whose views have held steady for 2,000 years. Those who advocate for gay marriage fall into two categories: those who argue the problem is with Scripture—i.e., the Bible is not divinely inspired and authoritative—and those who argue the problem is “interpretation.”

With the former, the lines are clear. Orthodox Christians and advocates for inclusion simply have different presuppositions, and the debates center around the authority of Scripture and questions of common good, human flourishing, and natural law. That said, making a specifically Christian argument is unlikely to sway those who don’t believe the Bible has any real authority.

But with those who argue the problem is one of interpretation, things get more difficult. For these advocates, the Bible doesn’t say anything disparaging about homosexuality as such. Instead, they argue, the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality has been misinterpreted. In each case where homosexuality is condemned, the Bible is actually decrying something else, like rape or orgies or generally evil people. Matthew Vines’s book God and the Gay Christian argues along these lines, and Hatmaker and many of her followers have made a parallel case.

To believe this latter argument, one must conclude at least two things: Modern thinkers have undone 2,000 years of injustice to homosexuals, and everyone else who’s written and taught on this question throughout church history was wrong.

I’m less interested in debating the specifics of the texts here—others have done that well—and more interested in the cultural background that’s made these arguments suddenly effective. Many conservative Christians interpret these arguments as little more than the triumph of emotion over reason, but I think that’s simplistic. These revisionists have a rational argument. The issue is the truthfulness of their premises and how they are formed. What’s more, I’d argue this problem of truthful premises is much more pervasive than the church’s debate over LGBT issues.

Enter Donald Trump.

Acceptable Lying

Imagine that instead of talking about God’s words, we’re talking about Trump’s words, and instead of talking about homosexuality, we’re talking about, say, Trump’s respect for women.

Unless you’ve lived in a bunker for the last few months—and congratulations if you did—you’re aware that Trump has said a number of vile, demeaning things about women. The plain reading of his words leads to the conclusion, “Trump is a misogynist.”

Yet plenty of people remain willing to believe him when he says, “No one has more respect for women than me.” His words have a plain and simple meaning, yet millions seem unwilling to acknowledge that mening. This is how “grab them by the *****” becomes “locker room talk”—not braggadocio about sexual assault.

Part of what makes this interpretation possible is our cultural background of acceptable lying. In the mostly harmless category, we might point to an Axe Body Spray commercial, where the lie is that the spray makes a man irresistible. In the more harmful category, we might have speeches where election-season politicians make extraordinary promises they can’t possibly keep—like a candidate for the House of Representatives promising to repeal Obamacare and end the war in Afghanistan. At best, the politician can work to these ends; at worst, he or she’s just saying stuff to make people happy. But during an election, promises tend toward the grandiose.

To survive in a culture of acceptable lying, one must constantly pick and choose what to believe, and our choices—which bath soap to buy, which cable news network to watch—are simultaneously driven by and shaping our desires. We mostly believe what we want to believe, and by choosing to believe what we want to believe, we confirm our beliefs.

This puts desire at the center of what we believe about the world. Truth, then, becomes subservient to desire. Rather than the need for true speech, we need speech that corresponds to what we desire—and when it doesn’t, we’re free to dismiss it.

In other words, we don’t want Trump to be a misogynist, since it undermines our ability to vote for him. So his words find new interpretations. Or we don’t want Hillary to have a record of disregard for both the rule of law and policies that protect national security. So we don’t believe her email scandal means anything. Or we don’t want the Bible to say hard things about sexuality. So we don’t believe it does.

When God Is a Cosmic Mirror

Desire has always driven culture. Tim Keller has often observed that if your “god” never disagrees with you, you might be worshiping an idealized version of yourself. We could say the same thing about reality; if it never confronts you with unpleasant truths, your sense of it might be nothing more than narcissistic.  

There’s no doubt these debates around sexuality will rage on. In the meantime, it’s worthwhile for the church to look inward and ask how our culture of lying and our propensity to narcissism informs our own practices.

Look at the shelves of a Christian bookstore; at Thanksgiving dinner, flip through that family member’s coffee-table copy of Jesus Calling; scan the sermon series of neighborhood churches. Do you know what you’ll see? A lot of promises that sound like an Axe Body Spray commercial: health and wealth, a happy marriage and a great sex life, nationalistic calls for revival that echo “Make America Great Again.”

Scattering the Darkness

To be sure, Scripture talks about money, marriage, and national thriving. But its words must be read in the light of everything else it says about life—and the Bible says an awful lot about trouble, loss, suffering, and hardship.

Given how human experience is fraught with trouble, loss, suffering, and hardship, wouldn’t it be strange if the Bible ignored these realities? But it doesn’t, because God doesn’t. We are able to trust him and his promises.

When reality confronts us with unpleasant truths, we can be sure our God is present. When it seems like “darkness is our only friend” (Ps. 88:18), we can be sure we’ve not been abandoned. We serve a God who meets us in darkness, and who promises to one day scatter that darkness forever, even as he gives us no assurance when exactly that final scattering will come.

As the church labors against the pressure of an encroaching narcissism, it becomes all the more urgent for Christians to trust the unfailing promises of God. Though it might not sell as many books or pack as many pews as a “Make Christianity Great Again” series, in the long run these are far better promises.

Mike Cosper is director of The Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Crossway, 2014), Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Crossway, 2013), and co-author (with Daniel Montgomery) of Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey (Crossway, 2012). You can follow him on Twitter.

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