How Can A Christian Writer Tell the Truth?

tell the truthEveryone who feels called to write as a servant of Christ Jesus knows that one standard prevails for every Christian writer: truth. It sounds very simple at first, yet sometimes truth is not so easily discerned. Cultural and political issues and truths often intertwine in knots that are not readily untangled.

Nevertheless, truth is important.

Writers discover early that there are “truths” that are activist positions, “truths” that are theological interpretations, and “truths” that are old wive’s tales that have somehow become “truths” that “everybody knows.” A writer who tackles a ticklish subject is likely to find himself in Pilate’s place asking

“What is truth?”

I ran across a small novel recently that explores the meaning of truth. The author skillfully cloaks that question in historical and cultural trappings, but underneath it all is the question of what truth is and why it matters. It is not a Christian novel, but it does ask interesting questions. More than halfway through the book, the author reveals his real subject.

Read, and then ask yourself what his real subject is.

As a scientist and amateur historian my only concern is the truth. I don’t care if Mickey Mouse discovered America first and everybody on the planet denied it. If I discovered proof to the contrary, and I truly believed that this fact was important to man’s often illusory understanding of his own nature, I would find some way to disseminate it regardless of the consequences, because we ultimately suffer greater pains from ignorance than from the truth, even if our first exposure to the truth hurts our pride, our sense of privilege, or our quaint faith in priestly prestidigitation. Cultural envy or political jealousy should have no place in science, any more than religion plays a viable part in international commerce. If we have the least hint of the truth, it is our obligation to explore it until we can arrive at a provable resolution.”

(Spoken by the character Luke in the novel In the Shadow of the Cypress by Thomas Steinbeck, © 2010 by Thomas Steinbeck, Simon & Schuster NY, NY, p. 171)

The speaker, the voice of the author, reveals that his perception of truth is grounded in things he would call facts. Facts are things that everybody can see and agree to. The problem with facts is that every fact involves observation.

Perhaps measurement.

Every fact is inevitably observed from a point of view. The author talks about viewpoints, but disallows the notion that science has a viewpoint. He implies that a cultural perspective, a political objective, or a spiritual discernment has no place in the observation of facts. He disallows a place for religious values in commerce. He implies that spiritual elements in our lives are to be cut away when we search for truth.

Lest you despair of this writer altogether, you should know that the novel actually questions all those assertions. It does not exactly answer its own questions, and that is fine, because it does make the reader think. (Happily, the novel also tells a captivating story, and Christians will not feel under assault by the moral content. It is sadly necessary to make this statement, given the current culture’s extremely liberal view of appropriate content even for children.)

This novel represents not only a writing style that is one way to talk about truth, but it also clearly reveals its author’s biases on the subject. What would be different about this speech if the speaker were expressing a Christian view of truth?

What exactly is a Christian view of truth?

The Ten Commandments seem like a good starting point. One of God’s Top Ten rules for life is this: Tell the truth. Exodus 20:16 Yet even this simple command is a source of controversy. It turns out that the command is not so simple after all.

The Law is subject to legal interpretation, and the arguments over the meaning of this seemingly simple command remind me of an episode in James Michener’s great novel about Israel, The Source. Michener describes an ancient school for rabbis. On one day, the teacher, an elderly, revered rabbi, told all the students that their homework was to come up with 100 reasons that a Jew should never eat a lizard. They all worked very hard, and felt good about the work, because a lizard is clearly outside the realm of kosher food. They returned to class, argued their points and then waited breathlessly to see who had impressed the great rabbi the most.

The old rabbi simply announced that the next homework assignment was for them to come up with 100 reasons that a Jew should always eat a lizard.

The lesson of the story is that truth is whatever you can make it as long as you use the right legal words. The various translations of God’s rule about speaking truth and volumes of commentary on the subject make it plain that a skilled wordsmith can parse his way out of legal truth without sweating too much.

The consummate teaching about truth is Christ himself. Christ is the living Word of God, as John so beautifully explains in the first chapter of his gospel.

At the final supper with the Twelve, Jesus amplified that message. He told the disciples he was going away, and they got upset, because they did not want him to go away despite all his prior warnings. Jesus said,

“You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:4)

You can readily imagine all the chatter such a statement would have provoked. Over the noise, Thomas said,

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5)

When you read his statement, you see that they had closed their minds to everything Jesus ever said about his fate, and they were not ready to open them yet. Jesus then said,

“I am the way.” (John 14:6)

They had to look at him to see the way to get to his destination and be with him. In fact, he said,

“I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

He was pointing out something that they would never absorb till Pentecost. Until the Holy Spirit came to them on Pentecost, they simply could not process the fact that Christ is Truth. Christ, God in the flesh, is the ultimate Truth for all time.

Nobody can parse his way out of that revelation.

To say that Christ is Truth does not make a Christian writer’s life any easier. Many readers are no more ready for real truth than the disciples were.

Just as Jesus had to dribble out truth in small bites and large analogies, Christian writers must do the same. That is the beauty of Christian fiction.

Someone would surely hoot at the notion of calling Christian novels parables, and in a literal sense, the word does not fit. However, Christian writers who are trying to speak truth in bite-size nuggets that readers can process more readily than theosophical essays are engaged in teaching just as Jesus modeled in the parables. That is why it is so very important for Christian writers to hold up Truth, Christ himself, as their standard, the core of all that they do.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, Christian writers are doing the work of “teaching [people] to observe all that [Christ has] commanded.” Matt 28:20

Christian writers of fiction want to tell captivating stories, and they certainly want to speak truth. Some writers tie off all the loose ends and answer all the questions. Others choose to pose questions and leave the reader to think his way to the answer.

QUESTION: What is the best way for a Christian writer to assure that Truth is central in his work? Is there a best way to tell the truth?

 Photo Credit: Sam Ilić via Compfight cc

  • I believe that truth lies in our lived experiences – we should tell our own stories. Well-told, these are more powerful than any other kind of teaching. Jesus did the same – His life and His words are truth.

  • Katherine Harms

    You make a good point, that we know our own stories and might be assumed to tell the truth when we tell them. Yet how many times have we been reminded that others often see us very differently than we see ourselves. Do you think that it might be possible to tell the truth about our view of ourselves without telling truths other people see in us? Have you read an autobiography, for example Dreams of my Father, only to ask if you have really read the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

  • Tom Siebert

    I have heard my fellow Christians say that President George H.W. Bush was the anti-Christ, the Clintons were murderers, and President Obama was a Muslim–among many other lies. No one will believe them when they tell them about Jesus of Nazareth after they’ve told them about “Obama of Kenya.”