Seeking Truth in an Age of Narratives and Optics

Seeking Truth in an Age of Narratives and Optics

A world of sound bites

It is no news that we live in a distracted world. At any point in our daily life, we are torn between different activities at the same time. While you are focused on completing a report, there are new emails from one self-development guru you subscribed to his newsletter. At the same time, you are receiving notifications from Facebook, participating in an interesting discussion on Twitter, or checking up some messages on Whatsapp.

In this distracted environment where we are always multitasking, it can become very hard to do any deep thinking on some particularly deep issues of life. Some issues require deep and concentrated thinking; but our attention-deficit media age makes it difficult.

Consequently, instead of digging deep to get a good grasp of such issues or to seek to know the truth, we prefer to rake and depend on soundbites or some 160-character tweet from a self-professed expert. Our attention-deficit minds cannot bear any long and sustained thinking, reflection, and interaction (the kind that is essential to truth); we want a one-minute video or 160-character tweet to summarize it all.

Nothing at stake

In this kind of intellectual environment, we hardly commit to anything. The kind of convictions that lead people to dedicate their lives to a cause does not come from soundbites.

Conviction determines commitment. There is a direct relationship between our level of conviction and our level of commitment. In this world of soundbites and summaries, our commitments are trifling and transitory.

Today, John is an advocate for renewable energy because of a viral video about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. Tomorrow, he is an advocate for Marxism because of a clip from Bernie Sander’s campaign. The next day he is on to something else. The problem? He knows nothing about fossil fuels or Marxism. He cannot explain Marxism to a kid beyond what Sanders is saying. He knows nothing about fossil fuels or renewable energy except what he saw in that viral video.

He has neither the depth of understanding nor the strength of conviction to be a Marxist or environmentalist when the push comes to shove. He only needs one unplanned confrontation or a situation where there is a cost to being a Marxist or environmentalist before he budges. A week later, he has joined the feminist train. The cycle continues.

We believe things and join causes as long as there is no confrontation or personal cost. In this new world, we develop (if we can even use that word) convictions like we shop in the grocery store – pick and choose.

Flowing with the prevailing narrative

Our inability to process things at a deeper level and look beyond the superficial means we flow with the prevailing narrative. We do not have the capacity to lift the veil, do some deep dive, and ask some questions.

If our favourite celebrity agrees, it is probably the truth. If the professors affirm it, it is probably true. If it went viral, it might be the truth after all. If everyone around is saying it, retweeting it, and believing it; it probably is the truth.

Because we are an attention-deficit bunch and do not have the desire or concentration to think, ask questions, and explore contrary ideas, we go with the flow (narrative) – no questions asked.

Virtue Signaling and the Mob’s passion

You would think that people who come to their beliefs from such a warped process (flowing with the narrative) would be reserved in the way they act and react, as the case may be. Well, you are wrong.

We live in a world where people’s perception of us is more important than who we are. Said another way, we prioritize reputation over character. Everyone wants to look good, trendy, in vogue, and informed. Because our new world is one where validation from people (especially people you do not know) is so crucial, we do everything possible to posit a positive image.

Gone are the days when your main desire was to please your parents and represent your family’s values. Today, you have to please the ten thousand followers on Facebook, the twenty thousand followers on Twitter, and the five hundred who view your Whatsapp status. We have a wider circle of people that we try to please. Our primary aim is not necessarily to be good but to look good (you can call it posing for the camera).

Therefore, when an idea or a narrative spreads and everyone is hanging on to it, we quickly jump in. We do not want to miss the opportunity to be dubbed an ‘activist’ or a ‘progressive.’ We hop on the train all because we know the other passengers and we saw a two-minute video that looks nice and good. Who cares about the destination?

Immediately the social currency from this particular event dies down, our enthusiasm dies with it and we wait for the next big opportunity to be trendy and add to our social currency.

One thing we cannot do in such situations is ask questions, consider an alternative or even listen to those who do. Dare to ask a question or make a comment different from the trending narrative and the mob will come for you. They will cancel you, slander you, and despise you. Guess what the mob never does? Engage with your ideas. We do not do that here. We stick to the narrative.

The intolerant and destructive mob

The mob is always intolerant. There is too much at stake to engage with those who disagree. Mobs do not want to reason or be reasoned with. For the mobs, what is at stake is beyond which idea is right or wrong, good or bad, their reputation, glory, image, social currency is also at stake. The mobs will tolerate you stealing their cars but not their social currency and their image. You cannot ask them any question or point to their inconsistencies. For the mobs, the facts do not matter – the narrative is the fact.

Because the mob is intolerant and adamant, they are destructive. Nothing breeds destructiveness as much as intolerance.

Also, the mob cannot wait for due process. Mobs do not care about due process; they have a narrative and they want to bring it to its logical conclusion immediately. Everyone thinks he is a thief burn him down. Mobs cannot wait for two or three witnesses. They do not want to make a case; they want to be seen as activists and lovers of the good and progressive. The mob destroys everything it touches.

The truth shall set you free

 For those of us who are Christians, we cannot live like this.

We are followers of the one who described himself as ‘the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). The law came through Moses in the old covenant, but through this man, “grace and truth” have come to us (John 1:17). This man (read God-man) came to the world to give witness to what is true. (John 18:37). John, in the apocalypse called him the true witness (Revelation 1:5).  In his epistle, he described him as “the one who is true” (1 John 5:20)

Contrarily, the devil, the great opponent of Christ is the “father of lies” (John 8:44). There is no truth in the devil. He was the one who put it in the heart of Ananias and Shappira to be false to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). His deception of Eve is just one trick among many others (2 Corinthians 11:3)

Therefore, Christians are the last people who should pander to narratives and care less about the truth.

Did Jesus not tell us that it is by knowing the truth that we will be free (John 8:32)? Are we not the ones of whom John insisted that the anointing on us teaches us the truth (1 John 2:20ff)? Is the spirit that lives in us not the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13)?

Believers must not flow with the narrative; we must search for the truth. We should care less about what the favourite celebrity, university professor, or politician says. Our concern should not be the popular narrative. We should be the last people to follow the multitude. Didn’t our God warn us not to follow the multitude to do evil (Exodus 23:2)? Did our bible not teach us that man is sinful and fallen? Have we forgotten that God sent a global flood because the thoughts and imaginations of man was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5)?

None of this to say that the majority cannot be right. Rather, it is to say that we must not assume it. The popular narrative may be true, but we must not assume it.

We must be ready to ask the questions, look beyond the narrative to the facts, and hear from the other side.

Ditching the mob mentality

Christians cannot have a mob mentality. God told Israel that they must decide every case upon the testimony of two to three witnesses. They cannot follow the narrative and start burning the victim. Because they are God’s people who find their sense of identity and value in God’s redemption, they cannot care about worldly applause or adulation. No! They care about true justice and righteousness. God is just and righteous and his people must reflect it. The foundation of true justice and righteousness is truth. Therefore, Israel’s judges must seek to know the truth. Those who love the truth can wait to unravel it; their concern for truth trumps their desire for immediate gratification.

Similarly, Christians cannot be those who are intolerant of the ideas and views of others (irrespective of how much it differs from the narrative). Those who care about the truth want all the facts. Their desire to know the truth is more than their love for social currency. They are already known and loved in Christ; therefore, they can tell the truth and stand by it irrespective of popular opinions or accepted narratives. For believers, the virality of an idea or narrative is not the measurement of its truthfulness. Lies can be popular and truth can be obscure, vice versa. We do not try to make assumptions; we want to know the truth.

Also, we do not judge issues by our feelings. We know too well that our feelings are not true judge of truth. We stick with the facts irrespective of how they make us feel. Likewise, we ditch the false irrespective of how they make us feel.

The path to uncovering or discovering the truth can be messy and long but we are the children of him who took the messy and long road to save us from our sins (including the sin of falsehood).

Conviction and commitment

We should pursue the truth and stand by it. We cannot live as if the truth does not matter. Also, we must not treat the truth as something we hop in to and hop out from according to the present circumstances. Our convictions must lead to firm commitments. Our fathers and mothers in the faith died for what they believed because truth (not narratives and optics) matters.

Our aim must not be popularity, trendiness, and praise. We have already received the highest praise in the world when God looked at us in Christ and declared us not guilty. We must live to please this God not to acquire social currency or please some Facebook friends.

Our responsibility is to God – our creator, redeemer, and judge.

May we say like Paul, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”