Thursday, May 09, 2019

Getting to the Truth

“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
— English Common Law
Oath of Testimony

The fight outside a club was broken up by police; but a man was stabbed. Inspector Thomas has been assigned to find the assailant.

When the perp fled, the crowd scattered, but four witnesses remain: a bouncer, the girlfriend, the bar manager and a local cabbie. Inspector Thomas knows procedure; that each must be interviewed separately in order to get a complete picture.

The Complete Picture

He begins with the girlfriend. Tearfully, she says the following: “It all happened so fast. One minute, my boyfriend was beside me, and in the next he was on the ground, writhing in a growing pool of his own blood, and I heard myself screaming like a banshee. Then the police arrived.”

Next is the bouncer. He says, “Well, it all really happened fast. I was just minding my own business, and the next thing I knew, the guy was down, writhing in a growing pool of his own blood, and his girlfriend was yelling like a banshee. Then y’all got there.”

Okay, so then Thomas brings in the manager. “I can’t tell you much,” he says. “It’s just a blur. There was one man there, and his girlfriend. Then he went down hard, and there was a pool of blood under him. Meanwhile, his girl is screaming like some kind of crazy banshee.”

Finally, the cabbie. “I got there at the end,” he says. “It all must have happened quickly, because one minute the guy was up, and then he was down. There was a pool of blood spreading on the sidewalk beneath him, and his companion was screaming — like she was an air-raid siren … or a banshee.”

Detecting 101

From these four testimonies, what should Inspector Thomas conclude?

At first you might think, Well, he’s got not a lot of information, but he’s at least got really strong confirmation for the truth of the event. Everybody saw the same things.

Yeah? Maybe. But if you’re paying attention, you’re also going to worry about some things.

Why does no witness seem to have seen anything, and why do they all say that it was the speed of the event that explains it? More tellingly, why do they all include the same details? And why do they even use the same language — “pool of blood”, and especially the very odd and culturally-specific metaphor of the banshee?

As an astute investigator, Inspector Thomas should actually be invited to two conclusions: firstly, that it is likely that the witnesses have been intimidated, and secondly, that for some reason they have already spoken to each other, and have so coordinated their testimonies that they all have relied on the same exact language. In other words, rather than accepting the testimonies as confirmations of each other, he ought to recognize them as evidence of the hiding and falsification of events.

A Better Hypothesis

A better hypothesis might be something like this: after the stabbing, and before the police arrived, the perpetrator threatened the witnesses in a significant way, and they were all told (or they conspired) to tell the same limited story, and no more.

And as a shrewd investigator, Thomas should start looking right away for an Irish person, who is likely to be the source of the falsification: because “banshee” is a fixture of Irish mythical lore.

What should we expect if all four witnesses were reliable? We would, of course, expect a high degree of detail, along with a high degree of agreement among the descriptions of what happened. But this is not all. We ought also to expect that both the wording the witnesses use, and the particular aspects of the scene they choose to describe would be their own — authentic to their own perspective, and fresh in view of their own personalities. If they couldn’t tell us their own experience in their own words, then the logical conclusion would be that either they did not have the experience at all, or that they have been coerced and propagandized to the point where they are no longer able to speak authentically.

Detecting Falsehood

What’s the Christian application here?

Only this: that like the Irish, Christians have a culture. This culture contains a great variety of rather unusual expressions that, like “banshee”, refer to things that only they understand well. We call these “theological expressions”. They are technical words, or biblical phrases, or metaphorical clichés that have proved their usefulness within the Christian community. These have often acted for us as a kind of shorthand, or way of saying quickly something about a specific kind of spiritual experience or truth.

This language is not in itself evil. It’s actually very useful in speaking to other Christians, so we can say a lot in a little space, and so we can remind one another quickly of experiences and understandings we have shared. That’s its good function. But it can be abused. When it is abused, it can become a set of stock expressions to which we resort when we don’t want to think things through. It becomes a lingo of Christian appearances, but not necessarily of the realities behind those appearances, if they are there.

And like Inspector Thomas, non-Christians who listen to us use such expressions have every right to suspect there’s a problem. It may be that we are talking our own special Christian dialect, and thus are simply missing the language we need to use to communicate with people who don’t share that Christian subculture. Maybe.

Digging Out the Truth

But it may be much worse. We could be using the language of a cult. Perhaps we’ve been brainwashed, and can no longer think in our own words; or perhaps we’ve conspired to employ the same techniques and language in order to bamboozle people into buying what we’re “selling”.

Or just as bad, perhaps we’re speaking of stock experiences because we’ve actually had no such experiences of our own — we’re pretending to have had spiritual awakenings that we have not had. Perhaps we’re deluded, or liars, or imposters, or propagandists — but perhaps, even more simply, we’re just insincere.

If any of those conclusions follow, then we ought to be very careful not to summon up clichés from theological language or the Christian-subculture dialect, especially when we speak to people unfamiliar with it. But beyond that, we ought to have serious doubts about what it means when we find we are unable to describe our own testimonies in words that are not clichés and prefabricated expressions. It’s possible that that indicates even to our own selves that we have lapsed carelessly into agreement with a set of claims we actually have no right to own. We are speaking a testimony that is not ours, and talking about things of which we have no personal understanding. And if that’s the case, that’s very worrying on multiple levels.

So let me challenge you with this: why not sit down and try to describe your personal spiritual experience in normal language. See if you can tell yourself how and why you accepted Christ, and what he has come to mean to you, and why. And while you do this, fight every tendency you may have to lapse into conventional Christian lingo or theological clichés, and replace each one with a simple, honest expression that says what you actually know, and no more.

Then see what you’ve got.

Biblical Testimony

A good example of this is found in John 9. A man has been blind since birth. He is sitting by the road, probably begging. Jesus comes by; and without the man even asking, Jesus cures his blindness by sending him to wash in a pool of water.

The man suddenly sees. He knows that some person named “Jesus” has done it, and he’s done it with mud and water. He has no idea what Jesus even looks like, and no idea how to find him.

So the Pharisees, who hated Jesus, ask the man what he knows. And wonderfully, he doesn’t say more than he has actually experienced, or use any words that hint at any inauthenticity or pre-arrangement in his testimony. He just says, “He is a prophet.”

The Pharisees say, “Rubbish! We know this man’s a sinner. So tell the truth … what do you know?” And he responds with complete frankness: “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” He also knows that if Jesus were not acting on behalf of God, he could not have experienced what he had personally experienced. But he knows, and admits he knows no more than a little. He admits he does not know what to say about the Pharisees’ accusation; but he knows what he is personally committed to be: the Lord’s disciple.


Let me suggest that that sort of modest and honest truth-telling is a great model for how we ought to share our own faith with others: not in the language of high theology or of subcultural-specific clichés, but rather in the simple and limited language of our own real-world experience. We should say truthfully what we know, and no more than what we know.

And that should also drive us to investigate more carefully what we do authentically know, and to figure out how to frame our testimony in authentic words; words that are our own, and words that ordinary people can understand.

The benefit will not just be improvement in our witnessing, but a deepening of our own understanding of our experience, and a reassurance of the realities in light of which we too have become disciples of Christ. We will speak better, and we will be more compelling to others; but we will also be more genuine within ourselves.

And after all, what’s a “testimony” if not to speak clearly, and to say just what one has personally experienced?

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So help us, God.

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