Stories and Truth

September 2008

Ajith Fernando

I had the privilege of doing the Bible expositions at the Youth for Christ International General Assembly in South Africa this year (2008). I believe the Lord blessed the messages. However, one thing left me a little uneasy. My talks were loaded with stories from my life and from our ministry. My YFC colleagues from other countries were able to identify with that and seem to have found it a blessing. Repeatedly it was the stories that figured in the thanks that I received from the delegates. I began to hope that not only the stories but also the truths behind the stories had affected the audience. I think that did indeed happen. However, I remained uneasy about the fact that it was about the stories, and not the truth behind them, that people talked most.

THE VALUE OF STORIES IN COMMUNICATING TRUTH

We know from the example of Jesus that stories are helpful and important in communicating truth. This is a standard way of teaching in our Asian cultures. Stories help (i) to explain, (ii) to illustrate and (iii) to apply the truth. Stories also can serve an apologetic purpose in two ways. First, they help (iv) to argue for the truth. The usual method of apologetics is to contend for the truth using logical arguments. Stories argue for the truth in a different way. Through stories, people sense the truth, relevance, or appeal of the facts presented. By sensing its authenticity they become more open to accepting it. Something in them says, “This is true,” or “This needs to be looked into,” or “I must follow this way,” or “I must accept this message.”

This apologetic function of stories (in this case stories that are experienced) has resulted in some theological liberals, who do not accept supernatural things in the Bible, experiencing the miraculous power of God and becoming open to accepting things in the Bible that they had earlier viewed as non-historical myths. This happened to German New Testament Professor Etta Linneman, who did not think it was necessary to take the events recorded in the Bible as historical. She was struck by seeing God’s miraculous power in a charismatic community in East Asia and ended up giving up her liberal ideas about the accuracy of the Bible. She has since written books that vigorously argue for the truth of the Bible.1

Earlier we were taught the factfaithfeelings sequence as the norm for Christian experience. That is, we are confronted by facts upon which we put our faith, which, in turn, opens the door to experience or feelings. However, that is not the only way in which growth takes place. Sometimes it starts with some feelings or experiences, which open the door to believing in the facts of Christianity. In the Gospels the miracles of Jesus were called “signs” because they pointed to Jesus and attested his claims. Hebrews 2:4 says they were God’s witness to the gospel. What is important is that, whatever the sequence may be, the facts or the truth is the basis of our faith.

The second apologetic function of stories is that (v) they can help orient people to accepting the importance and validity of objective truth itself. We live in an age when the worth of objective truth, as something to place ones trust in, has been greatly devalued. Though Christ said that the truth makes us free (John 8:32) much postmodern thinking views objective truth as something which enslaves humans and deprives them of an authentic existence. Some even view objective truth as a hindrance to authentic experience.

So today we need evangelists not only for the gospel but also for what lies behind the idea of a gospel—truth. We need to demonstrate that truth is an important reality, which people need to incorporate into their lives. Postmoderns are much friendlier to stories, which are more subjective or experiential in nature. There is a classic evangelistic strategy of starting with a point of contact—something the other party agrees with or finds attractive—and from there leading on to pressing home the new and unknown truth of the gospel. Paul used this method in Athens when he started with the religiousness of the people as expressed in their temples to many gods, especially “the unknown God,” and from there led on to describing the God of the Bible.

People who may not listen to an exposition of truth may listen to a story and accept its worth. When they realise that the story was illustrating a truth, they accept the truth behind the story and through that they may be led to accepting that truth is indeed something worth being committed to it. People today reject truth because they thin k it confines them and deprives them of what they think is authentic experience. When they see truth so closely connected to their understanding of authenticity (authentic experience), they could conclude that truth itself is authentic.

WHEN THE MEANS BECOMES THE END

Stories, then, are servants of truth; they are means to achieving truth-related ends. However, there is the danger of the means becoming an end—of stories being used simply because they are attractive and entertaining to the hearers. Sadly, many of today’s churches and organisations adopt a consumer-oriented strategy of ministry. Here the main aim of programmes is to provide people with things that they want so that they will keep coming to church or supporting the organisation. I have often come out of a worship service with the sense that the programme entertained me rather than brought me face to face with God and his Word. It was more like a concert than a worship service. The musicians became performers and the sermon was like a pep talk or an after dinner speech. But people enjoyed the programme, so they will keep coming to this church.

In this environment, stories can become more important than the truth they are supposed to be illustrating. We could use stories primarily to entertain people rather than to communicate truth. The means becomes an end. The medium becomes the message. This is very dangerous because truth is the means God uses to change (sanctify) people (John 17:17).

EXAMPLES OF THE DEVALUING OF TRUTH

Let us look at some other examples of how an experiential story-focus is resulting in truth being devalued.

  • In the recent (extremely serious) attacks on churches and Christians in India some sensational stories of persecution were circulated which were later found to be untrue. I think people fall into the trap of spreading such stories without checking about their truthfulness because people like to hear spiritually and emotionally moving (or should I say, entertaining?) stories which buttress the things they believe.

  • Today we find stories circulating on the internet which are untrue but which appeal to the convictions of Christians. Recently a famous company was accused of using satanic imagery and devout Christians join to oppose the company, only to find later on that the accusation was false. However, we usually do not reprimand those who spread the false stories, despite the biblical prohibition of false witness. “After all, they were fighting for the right cause,” we say. The most urgent cause Christians are engaged in is the cause of truth. All other battles are subsumed under this grand theme. If we use untruth as a weapon in our battle for truth we discredit truth.

  • We often exaggerate a story or increase its “spiciness” so that it will be attractive to the hearers. While this is acceptable when using parables that we may create, we cannot do it when using stories about things that really happened. Yet, I sometimes find myself doing this! The moment I realise this I correct myself and apologise to the audience. The audience usually laughs when I apologise, and that is humiliating. I have come to feel that this humiliation is less harmful than allowing the devaluing of truth through my preaching. Being a herald of God’s truth is an awesome responsibility. Truth is the great foundation of Christianity. When heralds of God’s truth devalue truth in their proclamation, they do great damage to the cause of God.

  • Recently we have heard of stories, which inspired thousands of sincere Christians, being found to be totally untrue. I remember a famous case where after a popular autobiography was exposed as being loaded with lies. The original publisher (Moody Press) recalled the book, at considerable cost to itself. Sometime later, another publisher reissued the book describing it as something like a fictional biography. Moving people’s hearts seems to have become more important than truth, so that a fraudulent document was circulated by classifying it under a new category. Of course, as God created our emotions, it is not wrong for a communicator to move people’s hearts. However, in Christianity authentic emotional experience is based on the truth of God’s Word. Emotions and experience must be compatible with God’s revealed truth.

  • Sincere Christians are attracted to and accept specific predictions regarding the end times, which dogmatically assert the way things are going to turn out in cosmic history. This is after, in the recent and distant past, so many similar “assured predictions” were never fulfilled as predicted. In the Bible there are many clear warnings to be cautious about predicting details regarding the future. How is it then that people still proclaim these things with the same urgency and assurance as they do when proclaiming basic gospel truth? People find these predictions to be emotionally and spiritually uplifting. Speculations about how the present scenario in the world fits in with end time prophecy provides great entertainment to Christians. Because they achieve that desired result, they are accepted and proclaimed without much discernment. The popularity of non-fiction books and novels relating to the end times continues unabated. The Bible says that false prophets whose predictions do not come to pass should be stoned to death (Deut. 18:20). However, today several people, whose predictions—made with prophetic certainty—never came to pass, go on predicting and proclaiming their message to thousands of enthusiastic Christians.

  • I have heard Christians say that even if what a certain person believes is wrong, it is good that he is certain about what he believes. Our commitment ultimately is not to belief. It is to truth. If, using the measure of Scripture, we remain uncertain about the truthfulness of a given idea, we should admit to being uncertain. Young people are often disappointed at my agnosticism about questions they ask about the end times. But that agnosticism comes out of a reverence for truth that makes me scared to teach anything that may not be in harmony with God’s word. This does not mean that we present an uncertain gospel to the world. There is no doubt about the glorious good news of what God has done for the world in Christ. That and the rest of the Scriptures we can always expound with joyous urgency and assurance.

  • We continue to use in prominent ministries people trapped in serious sins like adultery or gambling addiction or alcohol abuse. This is especially true about people with spectacular gifts that demonstrate the power of God. Their colleagues seem to fear that, if they discipline these people and prohibit them from doing public ministry, their ministry would suffer huge losses. “People come to hear this preacher (or because of his gift of healing). How can we take him off the air (or stop him conducting healing meetings)?” “He raises all the funds for our work. We cannot stop him now.” They fear that if they discipline the prominent and gifted leader, their programme will crash. Therefore, they ignore the sins of this leader. Experiences of power have been given a higher place than truth. The Bible, however, says that those who represent God to the world should be those who practice the truth (see, for example, 1 Tim. 3). James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1). This is because a key aspect of the truthfulness of Christian truth is its ability to make people practice it. Those who proclaim it must demonstrate this fact.

A COMING DARK AGE?

I believe the problem presented above is a very serious one. I fear that if we do not bring back the primacy and the integrity of truth to the church, we could be opening the door for a dark age of nominalism in the church. People will conclude that the truths of Christianity are non-essential and do not need to be practiced. The door is open for the emergence from within evangelicalism of a new liberalism that rejects the trustworthiness of the Bible.

The vibrancy of Christianity has generally been preserved in history through those who accept the truth of the Word fully and let that influence their life and mission. Today we call such people evangelicals, and, within that classification, we include those called charismatics. If this evangelical family is full of people who understand Christianity as being based on a few experiences and not upon what God has revealed in the Scriptures, the Christianity we see in the world will be very different to what is taught in the Bible. I am thinking of a situation where we have large numbers of Christians, even leaders, who do not practice the principles of Christianity; where the majority of Christians are unaware of the basic tenets of Christianity; and where those who call themselves Christians do not know how to go to the Bible for guidance for life. Then people would not think of holiness as being a necessary quality of Christianity. Then people would not understand what Paul meant when he said that the heart of Christianity is the Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). They would instead associate their special experience with the heart of Christianity.

Biblical Christianity is the only truly holistic system in the world. That is to be expected, for it is based the word of the creator God. When creating humans as holistic beings, he was actually creating them in his image. Let’s embrace this holism of the word of God that alone fulfils the needs of human nature. Let’s nurture a generation of people who believe in the truth that is in Jesus and experiences the abundant life that he gives. We are talking about the emergence of a generation of Christians who have warm hearts and sound minds.

September 2008

1 Etta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology, translated by Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990).