To Tell the Truth in Context

When I was young, a TV show I liked to watch was called “To Tell the Truth.” One person with an interesting job or story would be joined with others to talk to a board of celebrity panelists. The goal of the panelists iwas to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. The goal of the contestants is to all talk as if, and answer questions as if, they they are the person being presented. Fooling the panelists would put money in the pockets of the contestants. My understanding is that they have revived this show in the US, but I haven’t seen it since I am now in Asia. Image result for to tell the truth show

The goal in the show, really, is not to lie but to deceive. Fooling the panelists is the aim, regardless of whether one uses lies or truth or half-truths or deceptive language.

Lies are a rather complicated thing. When young we are told that lying is telling something that isn’t true. But most jokes, parables, hypothetical problems, and such are, strictly speaking, not true (not based on reality or fact). We then learn that lying has as much to do with motive as fact. That’s why the key concept is “bearing false witness”— speaking falsehood to circumvent justice or promote corruption.

Then we start learning more subtleties such as saying things that are actually true, but are designed to misinform or deceive. I recall reading a fun article on writing references for former employees— using language that sounds rather positive, but is actually quite negative. For a former employee who would steal office supplies, “With Howard leaving, I definitely feel a great loss in our office.”

LIes and deception get more confusing when filtered through culture. When I was in the Navy, we had a huge amount of evaluation inflation. So if I wrote about one of my men in the division, “He is a very hard worker and deserves a promotion”— that was actually a slam. I wanted him out of my division. If he really WAS a very good worker I would say something like, “This many is top-notch, the best in my division and certainly one of the best in his rate anywhere in the Navy. He should be immediately promoted.” Something like that (I am out of practice). In the first sentence above where I described the person above as a hard worker, I was not lying. That is because meaning is always filtered through culture. BUPERS was able to clearly interpret what I was writing without confusion.  I was using truthful language withing the culture of Naval evaluation language.  I recall getting a bad evaluation in the Navy. It said I was smart, capable, hard-charging officer, and certain in the top 15% of other officers of my rank in the Navy. That was a very negative evaluation— and I knew it because I was very familiar with the language of evaluations. But because the words actually sound nice, it makes the negative message feel better. The evaluation could have said, “Bob is a dirtbag and should be dumped out of the Navy at the first opportunity, ” that the wording in the eval sounds much nicer. Cultures often provide a more pleasant way to say unpleasant things.

It becomes more challenging when people are from different cultures. Living in Asia, many Americans get angry because “Asians lie.” They say one thing, but mean another. However, that is often not true. Often they will say “Yes” when they really mean “No.” However, their tone of voice, and body language, make it very clear that they are really saying “No.” Many times, I have asked something from a friend or co-worker of mine, and they say “Yes,” they can do what I ask. But I can hear and see that the word is not in line with what they mean. So I respond with something like… “Well, maybe some other time, but thanks.” Then I see the tension leave them and they smile as if to say, “I am so glad you understood what I was trying to say.” If they meant “No” why would they say “Yes” but then mix it with verbal and physical cues to point to the opposite? There can be multiple reasons… but mostly it is related to the relationship game. Saying “Yes” to a request for a favor that the person cannot or doesn’t want to grant is like saying, “Your relationship with me is important. Therefore, I will say ‘Yes’ but I hope you understand that I am really saying ‘Yes’ to the relationship, not to the request.”

These subtleties are often lost on Westerners… but, truthfully, everyone does it.

In Osoba O. Otaigbe’s book “Building Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry” there is an interesting help that was given to immigrants or foreign workers who were living in England. The guide was meant to help the people understand what the British mean when they say some things. Here are some of the helps.

When British people say:  “I hear what you say.”

They mean:  “I disagree and do not wish to discuss it any further.”

When British people say:  “With the greatest respect…”

They mean:  “I think you are a fool.”

    <By the way, despite what one sees on some military TV shows, such as NCIS, military personnel do not say things like “With all due respect…” or “Request permission to speak freely.” At least they didn’t when I was in the Navy. That was because bot statements were universally understood to mean, “Captain, you are full of %$@&!”>

When British people say:  “Not bad.”

They mean:  “Good or very good.”

When British people say:  “Quite good.”

They mean:  “A bit disappointing.”

When British people say:  “Oh, by the way, …”

They mean:  “This is the primary purpose of the discussion.”

When British people say:  “That is an original point of view.”

They mean:  “You must be crazy.”

When British people say:  “I am sure it is my fault.”

They mean:  “It is your fault.”

This is not strictly a British thing.

When my dad would say, “Oh… can’t complain.”

He meant:  “I am have most excellent time, thank you.”

When an American says, “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?”

They mean:  Very little beyond “I acknowledge your passing near me.”

When Christans respond to a request with “I will pray about it.”

They mean:  “I don’t plan to be of much help, but I hope things turn out okay.”

When Americans say, “Let’s do lunch sometime.”

They mean:  “I think you are okay of a person, but not okay enough to spend time with.”

When Americans say, “I’m kind of busy.”

They mean, “I don’t plan to reprioritize may schedule to accommodate you.”

It is pretty clear that language is filtered through culture and context. As such, where meaning is accurately transmitted from one person to another in one setting, may very much deceive in another.

In missions, meaning matters. Meaning is found in sentences not words, and in context, not in a “vaccuum.” This is one of the many reasons that effective communication is so difficult on the field.  Unlike the show “To Tell the Truth,”  our goal is not to deceive but to inform and enlighten. But it is easy in the mission field to confuse and deceive by telling the truth while not understanding the context.

The Problem with Prophets… a Missiological Look

Prophet Elijah, Russian Orthodox icon from fir...
The Prophet Elijah  Image via Wikipedia

The term prophet is used in different ways by different people. Technically, a prophet is simply someone who gives the message of God… outside of the local church hierarchy. But it is commonly used by people as someone who “gives new and authoritative revelation to the people.” While I don’t care for this definition (neither do I like the present use of the term “apostle” that has to do more with 3rd century than first century usage) but we have to accept the reality that a word means how it is used by the people.  Humpty Dumpty said (according to Lewis Carroll)  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” But for shared conversation, we have to agree on meaning on some level.

Self-described prophets cause problems in missions. Here is why.  A prophecy is supposed to be the revelation (message) of God. So is the Bible.

Which one takes the place of supremacy? When I was in the military, documents there have a section on supercession. That is, where there is conflict in military documents or regulations, which one is to be followed. Most Christians would say that the Bible is the standard by which prophecies must be judged (there seems adequate Biblical support for this both in the Old and New Testament). But consider what happens in practice.

A message has several components. Among these are:

-Content-

-Source Context-

-Recipient Context-

-Feedback (clarification, interpretation)-

-Transmission (medium)-

Suppose the content of the message in the Bible is radically different from the message of a self-described prophet?

For both, the recipient context is the same (the culture of the hearer) for a given situation. However, the source context is radically different. For the “prophet,” the context is local and contemporary. For the Bible, the  context is distant both in locale/culture and in time.

Likewise, the transmission is radically different. The transmission is short for the “prophet”. It might be as short as from mouth of one to the ear of another. For the Bible, the transmission is through many centuries of copyists. Further, the feedback is greatly different. The “prophet” can provide immediate and authoritative feedback/clarification/interpretation of his own “prophecies”.  The Bible was written millenia ago so clarification and interpretation is through others living today, and no reputable Biblical scholar would describe his own interpretation as absolutely authoritative.

What is the result? In practice, to accept a “prophet” as being authoritative today means to replace the Bible’s authority with that of this “prophet”. When content differs, it can argue that we don’t understand the source context of the Bible. Or one can argue that the transmission of the Bible was flawed. Or one can argue that interpretation of the Bible is in error. On the other hand, since the “prophet” lives in the now, and can provide his own interpretation, he provides his closed loop of authority and reliability.

Of course, one might argue that the advantages that the prophet today has over the Bible should make one question why we rely on the Bible.

Ultimately, it boils down to ultimate authority and reliability. From an authority, standpoint, the Bible is not authoritative because it claims to be the Word of God. Many books make similar claims, and many prophets (of many flavors) claim to serve as God’s voice. I would argue, that it rests on the resurrection of Christ. Jesus made very bold claims about his own authority, and even his divinity (I think even those who would argue about divinity would agree that many of his statements would be so interpreted by the listeners at that time). He was then crucified… arguably an appropriate divine judgment for one who was guilty of false prophecy and blasphemy. However, the resurrection demonstrates that he wasn’t under divine judgment, but in fact had divine approval. So we take Jesus’ message seriously as having divine authority. That would include the Hebrew Bible (that Jesus declared as authoritative), his words in the Gospels, and the words of his immediate followers (in the New Testament). More subjectively, the Holy Bible has been found reliable by millions over 2000 years. Not a bad track record.

The authority and reliability of self-styled prophets is often lacking… often circular at best. I am thinking of one here in Asia. He makes a lot of generally vague open-ended cries of judgment on people unless they repent. When something bad happens that can be loosely linked to one of his statements… it is used to suggest authority and reliability. When even these vague statements cannot be linked to any calamity, it is not seen as questioning authority and reliability, but evidence that the potential victims repented.

Is this a problem in missions?  You bet! Consider some history. If one goes back to the founding prophet of Islam, one sees the same problem. The Bible/Injil is revered, but is not used as an authoritative text. That is because the content of the Bible disagrees on many points with the two authoritative documents of Islam. Mormonism has a similar situation. Its prophets created their own three authoritative texts to add to the Bible. However, these three are placed  over the Bible in authority… once again because of clashing content. Islamic and Mormon scholars study and use the Bible, but for interfaith dialogue and apologetics, not for seeking an authoritative message from God (Allah/Elohim).

Of course, the Quran and Book of Mormon (and more) have aged considerably and are now also prime targets themselves. But “new prophets” are today a great challenge on the mission field. In the Philippines many of these self-styled prophets have arisen. A common theme for many of them here, strangely, is the focus on the New Israel or the New Jerusalem. Perhaps, since the Philippines is described as the only “Christian” nation in Asia (ignoring Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, and Timor L’este as well large regions in Indonesia, India, Myanmar, and South Korea)  the idea of the Philippines either being the New Israel, or being the site of the New Jerusalem, is oddly alluring. A similar belief swept through Great Britain and the US in the past… but its appeal appears to be on the decline.

Is this a big problem or a harmless novelty? In some cases, it is clearly a problem. One of these prophets has set himself up as the new Christ. Another has done the opposite… lowered Christ to his own level. Others have very strange beliefs but time will tell whether they are damaging, harmless, or even helpful in God’s mission. When I arrived in the Philippines, Christian churches were sharing a “prophecy” given by an American “prophet” that spoke as to how the Philippines would be a great nation of Christians spreading His Word throughout the world (I have long since forgotten the wording). Is this prophecy? motivational affirmations? shameless pandering? I don’t know.

Are there prophets today? Sure, there are people that give God’s message to the people. Are there people who give new and authoritative revelations from God to the people today. I have my doubts. And even if there are… I think doubt is a very good thing. A healthy reliance on the Bible and a healthy skepticism of self-described prophets is needed both at home and in the mission field.