Remember that famous scene from the movie, “A Few Good Men,” where Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson face off in a courtroom?
Cruise is interrogating Nicholson on the witness stand and declares, “I want the truth!”
And then Nicholson shouts back at Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Nicholson’s character then gives a manifesto on why sometimes the truth doesn’t tell the whole story, in his opinion, because what allows people to sleep at night is not knowing the truth. “You can’t handle the truth!”
I was reminded of this scene while watching an episode of the hit TV series, “The Expanse,” where in a particular scene a government official declares, “The truth and the facts are not the same thing.”
Think about that one for a minute.
The same day, I learned that a group of North Texas physicians had formed an unprecedented coalition for the purpose of disseminating factual information about the COVID-19 crisis.
D Magazine explained in its report, “The public conflicts between regional authorities have created confusion, with county judges, mayors and the governor often trading barbs along political lines rather than scientific ones. The coalition hopes to counteract the confusion and aggregate medically sound information for its 11,500 physicians and their patients.”
These doctors are prescribing a dose of truth for us in these troubled times. But as they well know, “truth” has been turned into a define-it-yourself notion these days.
Your truth is “fake news” to me, and my truth is “fake news” to you. As if there is no possible common meaning of what is true.
Or more sadly, even if we acknowledge the same truth, we are moved differently by it. Facts be damned; I’ll be moved only by my desired version of truth.
While playing fast and loose with the definition of truth may have been frustrating before, in these coronavirus days, mislabeling truth has deadly consequences.
Mislabeling truth always has dire spiritual consequences as well. As evidence, consider the way “truth” is used repeatedly in John’s Gospel.
The English word “truth” appears 25 times in this Gospel (more than 40 in its variations).
For example, it is in John’s Gospel that we hear Jesus say, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
In each instance, the Greek word “aletheia” or one of its derivatives is used in John.
Unlike other Scriptures where we may find multiple meanings of the same English word, this is a constant in John’s writing.
The word means what is objectively true, what is true in any matter – a reality, a certainty, a mind free from falsehood or deceit.
The legendary Baptist statesman and pastor of the mid-20th century, Herschel Hobbs, called this word “one of the key words” in John’s Gospel. And indeed, it is a key to understanding John’s message about Jesus from birth to resurrection.
We need to pause and ask why John speaks so frequently of “aletheia.” He returns to this word exponentially more than any of the other three Gospel writers.
Hobbs, again, says that for John, truth is a way of life. It is the way modeled by Jesus and the way to God.
We Christians speak more frequently of “faith” being the key to the kingdom of God, but John would add to that keychain the word “truth.” And what would faith be without truth anyway?
All this leads me to wonder why Christians, of all people, seem sometimes to be immune to truth.
Don’t we all too often find ourselves and our fellow Christians echoing the attitude of Pilate, hearing Jesus declare he is truth only to ask, “What is truth?”
We’re like preschoolers who don’t like the message we’ve been told and so we act like we didn’t hear it.
Amid our coronavirus predicament, I was reminded of one of the several times I have been chastised by church members for words or phrases I have used in public prayers.
One of the harshest criticisms came from a member who didn’t like a particular word I used in the Prayers of the People early in the Dallas Ebola crisis of 2014.
I used this phrase: “We pray that you would calm the anxious hearts of so many in our city. Help the ignorant to understand truth and help all of us to take refuge in you and your word.”
My critic took exception with my use of the word “ignorant.” This critic suspected I was calling him or his friends ignorant as a pejorative slam against their deeply held ideology of caution and suspicion.
Now, I realize the word “ignorant” can feel harsh, but all of us are ignorant about many things. It does not have to be a pejorative word.
Having the humility to admit that we don’t know something – the very definition of ignorance – is a necessary step toward knowing truth. The real truth cannot dock in our brains if that docking station is already occupied by untruth.
And in that sense, it is better to lack knowledge – and to know we lack knowledge – than to assume we have truth because it feels good.
Once upon a time, say 15 or 20 years ago, evangelical Christians acted like they had cornered the market on truth. This was a huge buzzword.
As a religion journalist beginning in 1982, I heard declarations about the need to believe in “absolute truth” thousands of times and included it in reporting, no doubt, hundreds of times.
It is a phrase forever etched in my mind alongside key words like “inerrancy” and “family values.”
Among evangelical Christians, no single person had greater influence on this quest for absolute truth than James Dobson, the psychologist-turned-radio-counselor who for years dominated the Christian airwaves with his “Focus on the Family” broadcast, videos, books and assorted products.
The Christian pollster George Barna was right in line with him on raising “absolute truth” as a standard.
We don’t hear Dobson or his evangelical allies talking much about “absolute truth” these days because it is no longer convenient to their cause.
So, what should the rest of us who want to follow Jesus faithfully think about all this? Should we seek to know truth, to reveal truth, to hold up a standard of truth? Or will we continue to find ourselves like Pilate asking, “What is truth anyway?”
Dobson actually had it right the first time. If there is no for-certain truth about anything, how can we preach the death and resurrection of Jesus? How can we preach that God is Creator of everything or that certain redemption awaits the believer in eternity?
These key doctrines of our faith require some absolute truth – even if we can’t understand the mechanics of how it all works.