Anyone who spends time in the world of teenagers and student ministry knows that their “language” changes over time. Words and phrases come in and out of vogue. New phrases get coined and then quickly fall out of favor. (Can I get an amen from anyone who said a word only to find out it “was so last year?”) For example, will we still be calling things “dumpsterfires” in 2020?
Another term that has popped onto the radar recently is “post-truth.” You may have seen the news that Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as 2016’s Word of the Year. You may also be thinking – what the heck does this word even mean? And while your own kids or students may not be using it, you might want to. “Post” doesn’t mean like the fence, or the old basketball position – it means “after,” like “after the truth mattered or was relevant.”
As Oxford defined it, “post-truth” means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In other words, whether we think or feel or want something to be “true” now matters more than whether it is true … in objective reality. You can easily relate it to the fake news phenomenon, or wishful thinking, or the echo chambers we gravitate toward online.
Now, you might say that’s nothing new. We’ve been “going with our gut” for thousands of years, and spent much of the last fifty skeptical that knowing the truth is even possible. This conversation brings to mind the exchange between Jesus and Pilate in John 18 when Jesus declares, “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate gives the dismissive retort: “What is truth?” For Pilate, truth is what works, what matters, what keeps him in power, what people want to hear (witness his putting the release of Jesus or Barabbas to the crowd in the ultimate polling effort).
Over the summer I read a little book (<100 pages!) called Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth. Written 25 years ago by the great missionary and theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, the book speaks straight to our times (read it now!). Newbigin notes that “Every human being has a responsibility to seek to grasp the truth about the reality” in which we live, move, and have our being every single day. But here the Christian has the advantage: he or she “is sustained by the promise” that one day, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
What is it that we know? The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not my private knowledge or yours, or something I feel to be true for me that I want to be true for you. Newbigin says the gospel is “news about things which have happened.” It’s often quipped that the gospel of Jesus is good news, not good advice. It is news that Jesus has come here in his life, death, and resurrection to make you and all things new. It is not advice on how to get your life together, or a hack for your spiritual life, or a jacket you put on or slip off to dress for the changing cultural weather. It is God’s truth of who you were made to be, redeemed to be, and who you are – right now – in Christ Jesus.
But that means it is also the public truth of the whole world. As people who love teenagers, their parents and siblings, our own families, the church family, and the whole human family, we have to treasure this truth and take it as our starting point. There are not separate worlds or different “truths.” As Newbigin says, the reality of Jesus and how he is spoken of in the Scriptures commits us to believing, living, loving, and continuing to seek this truth.
Two weeks ago I took a little retreat with some guys who are in a Friday morning small group with me. That night we reviewed our goals we had set for the year, and I saw one of mine: “dedicate myself to being a student and creative teacher of the truth of God’s word.” I’m still doing that, I’m more stoked than ever about it, and I hope you’ll join me. Because the world is dying for the truth we have to tell.
A few quick prompts for leaders, parents, or students:
- Does the truth you tell have the ring of “true for all” … or more wishful thinking? How are you helping students rely on the objective work of Jesus rather than the subjective reality of their own believing?
- When you talk about Jesus to students, does it have the urgency of “good news” … or does it feel like you’re just giving good advice?
- Have a look at Peter in Acts 2, Peter and John in Acts 3-4, and Stephen in Acts 6-7 – how would you describe their relationship to the truth?
- Finally, in light of God’s great mercy – how are you living the truth and “telling the story” of Jesus’ marvelous victory in ups and downs of your own life?