I first encountered the calculated promulgation of “fake news”—or “propaganda,” to borrow an older term—as a governing strategy during a year of studying theology in the former East Germany. The Eastern Bloc nation tightly controlled the information available to the public with equal parts censorship and propaganda. Newspapers featured glowing headlines about the superiority of the Marxist-Leninist system, as evidenced by record-setting harvests, the unwavering patriotism of the socialist masses, and the supposed prospect of imminent downfall for the decadent West. Meanwhile, they conveniently kept mum about the pollution-choked streams and lakes, the protest of dissidents, and the corruption of inner circles of government.
But the people who lived in East Germany knew better. They took their news with a heavy dose of skepticism. They resisted attempts to control information by questioning the accuracy of everything they were fed and by seeking out alternative data sources. They eagerly discussed world events, lowering their voices when offering opinions that differed from official accounts. My seminary friends eagerly tuned into Western television when they could get it, pointing their antennas toward illicit evening news, glimpses of Western life, and episodes of “Dallas.”
Now—almost thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—the United States is moving forward on building our own wall along the border with Mexico, and charges of “fake news” are everywhere. But those charges can be difficult to decipher and pin down, in part because what constitutes “fake news” is something of a moving target.
Sometimes, attempts to define “fake news” focus upon the credibility (or supposed lack thereof) of information presented in the press. Thus, the 2016 presidential race saw a campaign that moved away from the time-tested tactic of having political operatives spin the news in their candidate’s favor and toward the much less labor-intensive practice of having those same operatives simply dismiss as “fake” any news stories with which they disagreed.
Other times, “fake news” looks a lot more like the kind of propaganda I saw in former Soviet East Germany; it takes the shape of offering wholesale falsehoods meant to misinform and misdirect the public. This approach—which was buoyed by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s coining of the astonishing phrase “”—has invited bewilderment, dismay and no end of jokes.
Sure, Saturday Night Live and late-night comedic send-ups of the situation have been funny. But it’s a lot less fun to have to consider the possibility that the strategic manufacturing of “fake news” as propaganda—and also the practice of hurling accusations of “fake news” in efforts to undermine the news media—may not only have helped swing an election, but continue to serve as an ongoing tactics in the current Administration.
In recent New York Times op-ed, “Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying,” conservative commentator Charles J. Sykes examined the new “post-factual political culture” by taking responsibility for his own part in its creation. Sykes acknowledged that when pundits like him worked to form ever-more-shrewd conservative thinkers by disparaging other news sources, they inadvertently ended up creating a public that has become so skeptical that it completely disregards facts. Thus, schisms over what is really true have polarized our nation and ruined the holidays of many well-meaning men and women. Many of us find dialog within our different-thinking families nearly impossible.
Unfortunately, the debate extends well beyond news shows, workplaces, and family dinners. It enters church communities, as well. What do we do as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, in a time when we can no longer agree on what the facts are, let alone what Truth might be?
Well, here’s a true fact: “fake news” of both kinds has been an issue since before the Church was the Church. In Luke’s gospel, for instance, the women who returned from the empty tomb bearing news that Christ had risen encountered skepticism from male disciples, who dismissed their words as an “idle tale.” In Mark and Matthew, it is Mary Magdalene’s report that is initially dismissed. “We’re not interested in hearing your fake news, ladies,” we can almost hear the apostles sneering. And it didn’t end there. Roundly rejected as “fake news” by the religious authorities of the day, the gospels eventually were deemed dangerous news by the Roman Empire, and Christians who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods were thrown to the lions.
Surrounded by suspicion and persecution, the Christian movement persisted in part because the good news of the gospels was rooted in something more than mere statements of facts and fiction. Rather, it was found in proclamations of truth about God and humankind. We thus are often still vexed by Pilate’s haunting question, “What is truth?” In response to Pilate’s factual question—“So you are a king?”—Jesus had proffered an unexpected answer that caused Pilate to question the nature of truth itself.
Ultimately, Jesus’ truths are not a matter of verifying simple facts—such as whether he was a king—but are the stuff of deeper, enduring, incarnate Truth. Instead of a formula, a philosophy, or an ideology, Jesus offers himself, his life, his teaching, his willingness to take on suffering, and his refusal to stay dead.
The true fact is that Jesus is a path, not a destination. He is, as he assures doubting Thomas, “the way, the truth and the life.” And his trajectory is the movement of God towards humankind, undeterred by our suffering and pain, abandonment or alienation. The truth he offers is a relationship that breathes love—in the forms of forgiveness, hope, and resurrection—into the deepest hurts and locked-down places of our lives. The truth of Jesus is a relationship that has the power to not only transform us (by infusing our hearts with the same love he embodies), but also help us focus that love outwards, toward our neighbors and our world.
Plenty of good guides have sprung up to help us distinguish fake news from facts. And there are check lists to discourage us from passing along those oh-so-tempting, but false, viral articles that have such catchy titles. But what can we do out of our faith? I’ve been wondering about the spiritual gifts I need for this era of disinformation, and about how I can fortify myself for encounters with brothers and sisters whose version of truth differ from mine.
As a first step, we might add curiosity to the list of the fruit of the Spirit, which also includes kindness, patience, and self-control. Curiosity is more than inquisitiveness. It comes from a root that means “full of care” or “concerned.” Jesus was deeply curious, asking people he encountered about themselves, their realities, and their desires to be whole.
For me, curiosity is a discipline that takes energy and intentionality. But it comes naturally to my young daughter, who is always ready to dawdle on a walk in order to examine bugs, pick up rocks or listen to bird calls. As a spiritual practice, curiosity runs counter to the temptations of apathy or disengagement from the world; it embraces the sense of awe that rises up when we encounter the presence of the Holy and conditions us to be all the more alert to it. Holy curiosity is a practice that activates an attentive spirit, a yearning to understand deeply through the kind of caring attentiveness that Jesus embodied.
The act of exercising more caring curiosity about our world, the headlines, and the lives of our neighbors offers a way out of our comfort zones. It draws us more deeply into transformational relationships. What if my evening prayers move away from being a laundry list of problems and a thank-you note to God? What if they begin to include the lifting up of things I encounter that amaze or perplex me? What if I pray my desire to be awake and aware of the unanswered questions—the curiosities I’ve encountered and will continue to explore?
Now what, exactly, does holy curiosity practiced in community look like? Personally, I still cling to the conviction that Church can be a place where people from across the political spectrum gather despite their differences, united by trust in the news that matters most: The Good News. I hear stories of hope from religious leaders around the country who are gamely finding ways to bring people together, to talk across partisan divides. Most feel woefully under-equipped to navigate the deep passions and different takes on reality that exist in their communities. But they plunge in anyway, rooting discussions of life’s most meaningful questions in scripture and prayer and igniting holy curiosity that might—just might—build some bridges, in part because so much is at stake for people of faith and our country.
In East Germany, the church served as an open space for truth telling. In a society closed to debate, where deviation from the party line could be dangerous, it offered space for discussion, dissent, and support for Christians and non-Christians alike. In those spaces, spiritual communities were nurtured, along with relationships that became the foundation of a resistance movement that eventually took to the streets and peacefully toppled the government.
Fake news, together with the accompanying divisions and distractions it creates, look like they are here to stay. But we have plenty of freedom to stand up and speak out. This new climate is challenging for many of us, but it includes the opportunity to witness to the love of Christ, which prioritizes deep and enduring incarnational truths over divisive and cynical “fake news.” It calls for curiosity as an act of faith and as a commitment to want to know the truth about our neighbors, our community, and our world. In a song to God, the Psalmist implores “Lead me in your truth and teach me.” But we need not be passive vessels of divine instruction. The gift of holy curiosity, it seems to me, leads us away from all manner of fake news toward the Truth that is always present to us—especially when we open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts.