Lesson 9: Truth and Christian Half Truths

God said itMy initial plan was to offer a brief response to what modern election campaigns have done to our understandings of truth and falsehood. That all went up in smoke when fake news and alternative facts became tactics for governing. Just last week, Time magazine’s feature article examined the effects of a president who openly acknowledges he relies on his instincts rather than facts and regards truthful hyperbole as a praiseworthy strategy. He defines truthful hyperbole as exaggerating what is going on in order to get what he wants and claims those who know how life operates understand the necessity for using this to make deals.

As I read the article, I heard echoes of the thoughts expressed by Adam Hamilton in his book Half Truths. Hamilton examined the defects of five phrases many people associate with basic Christian teachings. Although they all express some semblance of truth and can be supported by a few random biblical verses taken out of context, they in no way convey the depth of Jesus’s teachings. In fact, they are usually used to oppose his genuine thought.

An awful lot of the public debate taking place all around us has substituted half-truths for reasonable thought. It throws out pithy slogans and bumper sticker phrases to cut off any profound consideration of complicated issues. Taking a look at how Hamilton thinks this works in religion might help us understand what is happening in politics. Here are his five religious half truths:

1. “Everything happens for a reason.” People usually use this one to convince others and maybe even themselves that they have faith in God’s will. Faith is here defined as believing God is behind everything. It is not so much trust in the loving promises of the living Father of Jesus Christ as submission to fate. This half-truth can be used to justify the most evil of actions as somehow having an unknown divine purpose. And if we can believe God has something up his sleeve, we do not have to confront human sin, especially our own. The Christian promise is not that God determines everything, but rather that he can bring good from the evil that we find all around us.

2. “God helps those who help themselves.” Some polls report the majority of Christians think this is one of the Ten Commandments and use it to support their unwillingness to care for the poor. This group also uses it to imply being wealthy is evidence that God is blessing what you are doing. This kind of thinking completely ignores the basic Christian story that is based on the unconditional love of God who forgives sinners and cares for the helpless. Of course, it also dismisses the command found throughout the scriptures that we are to care for the weak. In fact, I can imagine Jesus responding with something like “Those who help themselves have no need for God.”

3. ”God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This one is used to counsel keeping your chin up no matter what happens. Again it fosters a passive attitude that avoids tackling the root causes of what we or others do to cause pain. Consequently, it ignores all the passages talking about repentance and transformation.

4. ”Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This one sounds good as it seems to support Jesus command not to judge other people. However, it is too often used to excuse confronting those who are harming others.

5. ”God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Those who insert this in a religious discussion clearly cut off any further creative thought. They usually are affirming one of the other half-truths while making clear they do not want to embark on any real study of the scriptures.

All of these half-truths sound good. Each has an element of truth. However, none really gets to the heart of the matter. After a close examination, it becomes pretty evident they have no need for God or the scriptures at all. They are simply devices for getting what the speaker wants. So, too, truthful hyperbole has no need for facts. It simply uses slogans to manipulate people to your advantage. Success has nothing to do with presenting reality but rather simply getting your way. Both avoid personal responsibility by placing blame for our troubles on others. Sadly, in religion the scapegoat is usually God.

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  1. John Myers says:

    Our church (Grace Lutheran in Westminster) did an adult SS course on Hamilton’s book. It was the most well-attended in recent memory. We all got a lot from the book and his insights, including me. Highly recommended and very worthwhile. Part of our discussion in this group was centered in what Fritz describes – application of what we learned in the context of today’s events.

    I agree and would add we have become lazy thinkers. We are much too willing to accept a version of events that supports our presumptions. I think we even seek out these alternative versions to support some inner need for validation. Adding further is our sense of competition, which then demands we win conversations by shouting down others, regardless of any objective facts that may be present. I have found myself disgustingly guilty of these things in the past.

    I find it incredibly stupid that we live in a world and a time when facts are easier than ever to obtain, yet have never been more ignored. Half-truths walk right into that equation to provide justification. We use many of those listed above to justify apathy, inaction, and to explain events in a way that we can accept. These half-truths and crutches become part of out self-identity, many times without our realizing it.

    If we are going to change hearts and minds, spread the Light of Christ, and do this in a time of devastating decline in religious influence in America, then this is our enemy. I have spent a lot of time reading Bonhoeffer’s words, and I must say I find our times today to be too close for comfort, but his life can be our inspiration in terms of where we go from here.

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