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Fake News versus Good News

The best way to start this article is probably with an astonishing claim somehow related to political figures currently popular with the media – perhaps a new Russian edition of The Apprentice involving selling off former Soviet military, hosted by a Trump lookalike … But we’re all used to fake news and clickbait, and we actually need something better.

In a world with climate change, homelessness, disaster, politics, and the seemingly endless deaths of celebrities – and normal people – many are looking for good news. Some will go to the internet looking for it, and most will then, eventually, discover that a lot of the ‘news’ available is fake.

Followers of Jesus claim that he offers good news. But the internet, and the world around us, offer a multitude of claims, and many are false. Perhaps the majority of claims on the internet are false, or at least misleading. Living in an information age, we need a good filter to find the reliable information, and we either learn to be sceptical quickly or start believing a lot of nonsense. The central claims of the Christian faith are bits of information in a huge biosphere of alternatives. How to find the golden thread of truth amidst the blonde toupees of falsehood?

Two key steps in practice, I think, are to find sources we can generally trust, and set aside sources that are not trustworthy. So, tackling the challenge head on, what kind of news can we not trust? The main thing here is perhaps to try to weed out sources that are heavily motivated by something other than truth. They might still be true, but sources not typically directed towards the truth undercut the rational basis for holding what they say to be true. Fake news has a motivation of some kind, in our era often to do with money or political control. Sources that are never self-critical or open about their flaws are also suspect. Sources that limit the important claims to things that can’t be checked also raise questions. But, doesn’t everyone have selfish motives in some sense? Who can we trust? The scientific community, CNN, and the New York Times, are popular sources for many of the educated and thoughtful in our society. The feeling is that they’re rational, progressive, and open to new ideas, while also solid and reliable. Whatever you think of these particular sources, these organisations have huge communication power because they are trusted by hundreds of millions.

How does the Christian claim to be offering good news stand up in light of the two key steps? Christian claims are centrally claims about Jesus, a historical figure, so to make sense of it we need to zoom back to the early Church. I’ll leave you to do the research, you can check out many of the facts on this site. I believe that the early Christians were not motivated by money or power, as they gained neither, and exchanged what they had, including secure conservative religious beliefs (they weren’t motivated by, say,  fear of death), for risk and discomfort. They also make claims open to public examination, and the accounts are down to earth and honest about suffering and human failure. The central claims, unlike most worldviews, are about public reality, not private inner experience or an idealised future state. Jesus lived a human life, died a shockingly human death, and rose from the dead publicly. The claims lack features which fake news tends to have. Christian faith is also open to new information – the Spirit is still active, and, while it’s 500 years since the remarkable Protestant Reformation ‘officially’ began, the community of Jesus followers should be always reforming. Christianity, unlike ethically arid secular worldviews, provides a moral imperative for social progress, but the desire is grounded in an unchanging reality and a realism about human wilful brokenness and fallibility.

We’ve touched on two key steps, but there’s a third that probably should be added too. This is what I’ll grandly call the wisdom criterion. It goes something like this: “how important is this topic, anyway?” Most of the news swirling around crying out for attention can safely be set aside because it simply doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. Time is limited, and the opportunities in life are great for those who will take them. Jesus, as recounted by the redeemed formerly broken tax collector Matthew told a confronting story about ‘talents’, silver coins, left behind by their owner to be invested. We’ve all been given some.

New information will pop up on your Facebook feed or homepage any minute now. Is it important? Is it well-motivated? Is it up for public scrutiny or an implausible claim to secret knowledge? No matter how cynical, I think we’re all looking for good news – Jesus offers it, reliably.

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