catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 19 :: 2010.10.22 — 2010.11.04


Fact vs. truth

As a child I was so dogmatic I spent church services poring over Old Testament laws rather than listening to sermons.  I was confused and concerned that we paid no heed to the strange and numerous regulations coded there — we ate meat with blood and from the wrong animals, we charged interest, we didn’t let the land rest after six years, and no one seemed even remotely worried that the Bible forbade it.  The Bible was God’s true, eternal Word, and I didn’t understand how we could pick and choose what to obey and what to ignore.

When I asked about it, the thoughtful responses referenced ages and cultures gone by with differing social codes, but most simply claimed that Christ had dismissed the old rules.  Christ comes and with the Sword of Righteousness slices the Good Book in half.  Or cultural shifts erode the eternal Word of God.  Neither explanation made any sense to me.

My desperation to please God was the root of my concern and that dangling carrot that was the Dutch Protestant perfectionist work ethic spurred me to master yet another rule, to attain the next level of goodness, to ensure my salvation.  At school I had immense sympathy for the Pentecostal girls who wore skirts, secretly thinking I should do the same, because the Bible decreed that women should dress like women and men like men.  Even makeup and jewelry are forbidden — rightfully I should have thrown out all my necklaces and eye shadow palettes to please God.  Forget about the moderate feminism that was taking root unbidden in my mind — Paul was adamant on that topic. 

A crisis of faith early in high school triggered a manic frenzy of evidence-gathering.  I piled up as much information as I could to convince myself one way or another who Jesus was, whether what he said was true.  All the rules in the world didn’t matter if I couldn’t believe all the right things, too.  I felt my lack of belief barred me from communion, so instead I consumed every book I could that argued for Jesus’ existence, for the Bible’s truth, hoping the next one would transform me, make me right again.  If I didn’t, I would die in a car crash and then shoot straight to hell forever.  Each fact, each argument was a brick that would help me build my tower to heaven — if I couldn’t ascend, I’d climb.  I didn’t realize I was closing myself inside.

It was writing that finally released me.  In crafting stories and especially adapting them from one form to another, I began to understand the profound difference between fact and truth, how fluid and adaptable the latter is, to the point where the former is just baggage, accessory, the means to the end.  The messenger is useful but the message is meaningful.  Slowly, brick by brick, I stopped building and let the tower come down.

Humans have an overestimated relationship with hard facts.  We don’t see but perceive, we don’t hear but interpret, we don’t speak but persuade.  Even our languages carry with them centuries of social norms and biases that we pass along every time we open our mouths.  The second our brains take in a new object or event, it passes through metaphor after metaphor of already-coded meaning to be understood.  We are creatures of story and fiction, not fact. 

Biblical texts have been translated and translated and translated again, each time passing through human minds and languages to take on a myriad of different meanings.  Moreover, most of these texts were and still are ultimately stories — messengers of deeply important truths, but still just messengers.  And that’s okay, because the facts don’t ever save or redeem us.  The facts aren’t ever the point.  This is what Jesus meant when he dismissed the rules; he wasn’t banishing the old texts and laws with some new religious magic.  Instead he was simply putting them in perspective.  Building the tower will never get us to heaven.  It is the truth beneath the facts that instead gives us flight.

When people ask for a statement faith, I find it hard to answer, because I know most are asking about the facts I have evaluated and cataloged and finally included in my theology, and I have given up on that.  My opinions are important, but they aren’t my salvation.  What abides in my heart, instead, is Christ’s story, and the truth within it that at once describes and resolves, so simply, the human plight, that tells us who we are and shows us who to be.  Accept the grace that is freely, lovingly given.  Give of yourself and you will be blessed.  Open to forgiveness and in turn forgive and forgive and forgive.  Allow unlimited love to flow through you, transforming you and all others in its path.

This is the truth, and this I know.

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