I decided recently to reread my book Forged: Writing in the Name of God; How the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (which, in my view, has one too many titles….). It was a surprise: I really didn’t remember a good bit of the opening part. And oh boy, I liked it better than I expected (usually when you read your old stuff you just roll your eyes). One of the theses of the book is that even in the ancient world, people thought that if someone wrote a book claiming to be a famous author (when they were someone else) was seen as a form of lying.
I start the book with my own relation to lying and truth. I’m sure you have your own stories to tell. Here’s part of mine:
On a bright sunny day in June, when I was fourteen years old, my mom told me that she and my dad were going out to play a round of golf. I did a quick calculation in my head. It would take them twenty minutes to get to the country club, about four hours to play eighteen holes, a bit of down time and then a drive home. I had five hours.
I called up my friend Ron down the street to tell him my parents would be gone all afternoon, and that I had snuck a couple of cigars out of my dad’s consistently full stash. Ron liked what I was thinking and said that he had cobbed a few cans of malt liquor and hidden them out in his bushes. The joys of paradise opened before us.
When Ron came over we headed upstairs to my bedroom where we threw open the windows, lit up the cigars, popped the cans of brew, and settled in for an afternoon of something less than intellectual discourse. But after about ten minutes, to my horror, we heard a car pull into the driveway, the back door open, and my mom yell up that they were home. The golf course was crowded and they had decided not to wait forty minutes to tee off.
Ron and I immediately switched into emergency gear. We flushed the cigars and the beer down the toilet and hid the cans in the trash, pulled out two cans of Rightguard deodorant and started spraying the room to try to try to cover up the smoke (which was virtually billowing out the window). Ron snuck out the back door, and I was left alone, in a cold sweat, certain that my life was soon to be over.
I went downstairs and my dad asked me the fated question: “Bart, were you and Ron smoking upstairs?” I did what any self-respecting fourteen-year old would do: I lied to his face: “No dad, not me!” (The smoke was still heavy in the air as I spoke.) His face softened, almost to a smile, and then he said something that stayed with me for a long time – forty years in fact. “Bart, I don’t mind if you sneak a smoke now and then. But don’t lie to me.”
Naturally I assured him, “I won’t, dad!”
A Later Commitment to Truth
Five years later, I was a different human being. Everyone changes in those late teenage years, of course, but I’d say my change was more radical than most. Among other things, in the intervening years I had become a born again Christian, graduated from high school, gone off to a fundamentalist Bible college, Moody Bible Institute, and had two years of serious training in Biblical Studies and Theology under my belt. At Moody we weren’t allowed to smoke (“Your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit,” as the New Testament teaches – and you don’t want to pollute God’s temple!), or drink alcoholic beverages (“Be ye not drunk with wine,” says the Bible; it didn’t occur to me that it might be okay to be drunk with bourbon), or – well to do lots of other things that most normal human beings at that age do: go to movies, dance, or play cards. I didn’t actually agree with the “conduct code” of the school (there was also a dress code and a hair code for men: no long hair or beards), but my view was that if I decided to go there, it meant playing by the rules. If I wanted other rules, I could go somewhere else. But more than that, from being a fourteen-year-old who was sports-minded, a merely better than average student, with little clue about the world or my place in it, and no particular commitments to telling the truth, as a nineteen-year-old I was an extremely zealous, rigorous, pious (OK, self-righteous), studious, committed evangelical Christian with firm notions about right and wrong and truth and error.
We were heavily committed to the truth at Moody Bible Institute. I would argue, even today, that there is no one on the planet more committed to truth than a serious and earnest evangelical Christian. And at Moody, we were nothing if not serious and earnest. Truth to us was as important as life itself. We believed in the Truth, with a capital T. We vowed to tell the truth, we expected the truth, we sought the truth, we studied the truth, we preached the truth, we had faith in the truth. “Thy Word is truth,“ as the Scripture says; and Jesus himself was “the way, the truth, and the life.” No one could “come to the Father” except through him, the true “Word become flesh.” Only unbelievers like Pontius Pilate were confused enough to ask “What is truth?” We as followers of Christ were in a different category altogether. As Jesus himself had said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Along with our commitment to truth we believed in objectivity. Objective truth was all there was. There was no such thing as a “subjective truth.” Something was true or it was false. Personal feelings and opinions had nothing to do with it. Objectivity was real, it was possible, it was attainable, and we had access to it. It was through our objective knowledge of the truth that we knew God and knew what God (and Christ, and the Spirit, and everything else) was.
One of the ironies of modern religion is that the absolute commitment to truth in some forms of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, and the concomitant view that truth is objective and can be verified by any impartial observer, has led many faithful souls to follow the truth wherever it leads, but where it leads is often away from evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. That is to say, if you can, in theory, verify the “objective” truth of religion, and then it turns out that the religion being examined is verifiably wrong, where does that leave you? For many one-time evangelical Christians it leaves them in the wilderness outside the evangelical camp, but with an unrepentant view of truth. Objective truth, to paraphrase the not-so Christian song, has been the ruin of many a poor boy; and God, I know, I’m one.