Tag Archives: truth

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

Image result for david brooks second mountain

Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.

We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

A Psalm — for Courage

I wrote a small psalm to share with the main mother in my life and she thought I should share it with you. I have been admiring the film-makers who are the prophets of the unbelieving world, these days. They are no more heeded than God’s own spokespeople. But the call remains.

Lord, save us from the liars
And from our own lies.

The ice cap is still melting,
But we did kill Osama bin Laden.
There were no WMDs in Iraq,
But we do know that Obama is Hawaiian.
The perps of the money melt down still reign,
But we are now friends with Duchess Kate.

Forgive us as we calculate
How much it costs
to tell the truth.
Each keystroke hurts;
Each small look a threat
Of crass resistance.

The iciness is growing,
So we kill our terror with quiet.
New enemies rummage around in us,
So we deftly adapt reality.
The audacious win the power,
So we turn our minds to drivel.

Forgive us as we obfuscate
How much it costs
To live in truth —
Each threat of conflict,
Each painful question
A reason to live a lie.

You have caused yourself endless trouble
Being and telling truth.
You have caused us endless trouble
Following and discerning.
We lack your courage.
Speak it into us.

The Perils of Telling the Truth

I want to add to my stories about good, faithful women, today. 

This is a story about someone I know well, but I am not going to use her name. You don’t need to know to get the point. It is a story that needs to be told in several different ways and for different purposes. For today’s purpose, it is about truth-telling. 

To begin with, Jesus is the truth. Whatever truth we aspire to know is summed up and disseminated by God-with-us, the risen Savior. Therefore, truth cannot be fully known without spiritual discernment. It is not factless, but the facts cannot present the truth unless the truth is related to God and is therefore concerned with love. My friend has had a difficult year trying to teach truth and tell it. She has been attacked by loveless truth purporting to be fact but without discernment. 

She had a hellish year, actually, at the hands of ruthless colleagues and a feckless administration at a university. Years ago, she became a leader when things were falling apart. She not only righted the ship, she created something that was very effective and was regularly told that was so. She became respected and chaired faculty committees. She had a vision for student development and designed a curriculum to reflect Christian principles, coming up with something of a training model that was a unique combination of science and faith. 

Just over a year ago, my friend came home from a trip to a funeral to find that two of her colleagues had engineered a “coup” of sorts, presenting a plan for the reorganization of the curriculum that purportedly conformed to “best practices.” They cut the heart out of the vision and justified lowering the level of training to one they could teach. Their plan amounted to truth without discernment, discernment being the hallmark of my friend’s approach. The coup was hard enough to handle. But what made it worse was that they would not talk about their reasons, their process, or the now-broken trust they caused. They demanded conversation in group under carefully scripted, circumstances. The situation was so bitter that the dean was brought in to mediate and my friend was subjected to a barrage of projection and invective like she had never experienced in her whole life. Obviously, the conflict never went through any personal process like Matthew 18 insists it should; it went directly to character assassination and tribunal. So the supposed truth was accompanied by no love. 

It was worse than loveless, it was abusive. The leadership of the university did not stand with their leader; instead they made promises, fiddled, and left her hung out to dry. They not only wasted the results of her talents and devotion, they diminished all her work in a department that was one of the most successful on campus (and profitable!). At one point the provost brought in a professional mediator, with whom the rebels refused to meet except under choreographed circumstances. The mediator let them dominate the hour and afterwards actually suggested privately that my friend leave the university rather than expect the situation would ever resolve. The mediator later suggested she bring cookies to a future meeting, something like Beaver’s mother solving a sitcom crisis. 

What might have solved my friend’s problem would have been not telling the truth in the first place. She had created a program that was serious about people and demanded serious professors to train students. The professors did not want to do the personal work; they diminished the program down to the little they were willing and able to do and called it “best practices.” Unfortunately, we need people to be trained by a good program; we need Christians who can deal in truth. 

What’s more, my friend could have fought fire with fire. Instead of fighting for her leadership, she resigned in a show of humility. Instead of putting letters of protest in the files of her colleagues, or filing a lawsuit, she tried to make space for reconciliation to happen. Instead of organizing her appalled friends into a league supporters, she relied on the institution to follow its rules and protect its standards. She could (and still could) tell her story and let the truth stand. Instead, she has gone through an excruciating process of figuring out how to speak the truth in love when she has no partners with which to do that. 

I expect Christians, certainly teachers, to do better. It is discouraging when they seem even meaner than the “world.” My friend expected her friends to do better than this — these were people she had housed in her home, travelled with, for whom she had fought for promotions and raises, and had provided for in so many ways. What’s more, we should be able to expect leaders to work for what is best — these were so befuddled and limp that they were afraid to tell the truth about their own stated vision and standards and just left a valuable leader to fend for herself. Granted, my friend was not an experienced or even willing political player; she didn’t want to be an infighter and that got her eliminated through her own audacious trust. But one would hope that there are still shepherds around who know the truth and tell it. Unfortunately it is often like Isaiah 56:10 His watchmen are all blind, they are all ignorant: dumb dogs not able to bark, seeing vain things, sleeping and loving dreams. 

My friend is hurting, but she will be fine. She trusts God. She knows the truth and Jesus knows her. But will the truth be OK? Ruthless people wield pseudo-science around without discernment and ruin our schools. People who do not receive discernment from their spiritual directors or wise leaders are let loose in a so-called democratic atmosphere to steal and destroy. It is a very old story, but these days it is objectified by science and depersonalized by the spirit of self-actualization and tolerance. 

I can’t solve this big mess of a problem by describing it. But I can continue to protest to whoever will listen. We need to do the best we can to tell the truth. If you are a leader you are required to have the courage to tell the truth for Jesus’ sake, as best you can. You’ll need to risk the conflict and not just ride out the problem until it settles at the lowest common denominator. 

All of us, if we have a dream or if we have a problem, need to tell the truth. That means we’ll have to understand where our dreams and problems come from, and understand how we impact others. We’ll need to have a purpose for the common good, not just our own, when we go for what we think is best or try to solve a problem. Our truth will have to include love like the Lord’s. 

Most difficult of all, when I am a victim of bad science and worse leadership like my friend has been, I will have to suffer for telling the truth and still attempt to love my enemies. I can’t remember when I last saw discernment rewarded in public. We’re all consumed by politics of the least relational kind.  It is painful.

But don’t let go. You will probably be accused of grandiosity (and aren’t we all subject to it?), but let’s follow Paul’s exhortation:  Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. (Philippians 2:14-16)