Truth and analogy

Part of the challenge Christians face when sharing the Gospel is distinguishing imagery or analogies from literal truth. While Christians (at least the traditional or conservative sort) say that everything in the Bible is true, we stop short of saying that it is “literally true.” Psalm 91:4 portrays God as spreading his wings and covering us with his feathers. We know that to be an image, comparing God to a mother bird protecting her young. We believe in the truth of God’s loving protection; we do not believe that God literally has wings and feathers.

When it comes to the redemption of sinners, it can be hard to sort literal truth from imagery and analogy. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. He does not represent any truth; he is Truth itself. Historically, he was executed, suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Historically, he rose to life again the same weekend he was killed. Anyone who tries to turn those events into images or analogies is distorting the central truth of the Christian faith.

But the meaning of those events can only be portrayed in analogy. No one image is big enough to cover the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection. Any single image is open to distortion and misunderstanding. Sometimes, when trying to communicate the Gospel, a Christian must set aside one analogy and turn to another to keep from offending the listener (in the Biblical sense of John 6:60-66, not in the shallow worldly sense).

The image of the suffering and death of Jesus as a sacrifice is common among Christians. Animals sacrificed in Old Testament times were pictures of Jesus on the cross. But are we to say that God approves of human sacrifice? Clearly not—one of the charges against the Canaanites was that they sacrificed their own children to their gods. The sacrifice of Jesus is an analogy of his voluntary acceptance of suffering to redeem sinners. When the analogy is pressed too far—when it is said that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son—we are better off seeking a different analogy.

There are several others to choose. Paul liked to use financial analogies, depicting Jesus as paying our debt so we could be free from sin. He also used legal analogies, showing Jesus accepting our punishment so we could be declared not guilty (that is, “justified”). Yet another common analogy is that of warfare, that Jesus on the cross battled the devil and the evil world and all sins and death, winning a victory that he shares with his people and wants to share with the entire world.

Likewise, when we pursue the warfare analogy, it is important to remember which enemies were defeated. Christians are commanded to love our worldly enemies, but Christians also battle spiritual enemies of great power. Without Christ’s victory, we are easily defeated; through Christ’s victory, we are more than conquerors. The Psalms that call for help against our enemies do not apply to Muslim terrorists or to neighbors with noisy leaf-blowers. They apply to the devil, to the sinful world, and to the sin still within each of us. When Psalm 137 calls for the children of Babylon to be killed in a violent way, that does not refer to historic babies in a historic city. It uses the imagery of warfare to describe the crushing of our sins through the victory of Christ so those sins can no longer afflict us.

We are not free to change every verse of Scripture into an analogy or an image. Statements about historical events should be regarded as factual. Commandments not to sin should be taken seriously. But the greatest truths can only be communicated through imagery. Human language alone does not have the power to describe the splendor of our Savior and the wonder of all that he has done for us. J.

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Star Wars, truth, and redemption

When George Lucas first envisioned the movie that became Star Wars IV: A New Hope, he was planning on a single epic movie, not a franchise. As the script developed, the story and characters went through many changes. Lucas came to realize that the story he wanted to tell would not fit within a single movie. In the end, he introduced his characters and then moved them immediately to the big ending he wanted to show: the destruction of the Death Star. When the original Star Wars became wildly successful, Lucas was invited to make more movies with the same characters. He rounded out the trilogy, ending the third movie with another destruction of another Death Star. Along the way, he introduced more ideas about the characters and their setting than had been in the script for the first movie.

As a result, the great Jedi warrior Obi-wan Kenobi is trapped in a pair of blatant lies in the original movie. Handing Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, Obi-wan says, “Your father wanted you to have this.” Shortly thereafter, Obi-wan informs Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. In the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Vader reveals the truth to Luke when he tells him, “No; I am your father.” In Return of the Jedi Luke confronts Obi-wan with his lies, and the warrior feebly twists the family history so that he can tell Luke, “In a way, what I said was true.”

In any other galaxy, Luke Skywalker would have wondered, “How can I believe anything this person tells me?” Honesty ought to be one of the qualities that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Half truths and twisted truths ought to be the tools of evil, not the strategies of good. But in the Star Wars galaxy the bad guys are powerful enough to be open about their plans, while the virtuous rebels must rely on deception to prevail against the Empire.

Philosophers have struggled with the ethics of telling the truth or lying. In a classic puzzle, they ask whether it would be moral to lie to protect a life—such as if an agent of evil is looking for a certain victim, you know where the victim is hiding, and the evil one asks you directly where that person is. Should you tell a lie to keep the potential victim safe, or should you speak the truth, salving your conscience with the thought that the agent of evil would cause the harm; you would be blameless. Most people, I think, would find a lie acceptable, even honorable, under those circumstances. Immanuel Kant (a German philosopher who lived roughly two hundred years ago) disagreed. He insisted that, once you have found one justification for lying, you make all lies acceptable, and no one can trust anyone else anymore. By insisting that no circumstance justifies lying, he upheld what he called the moral imperative of always telling the truth.

Christians know that Jesus Christ is the Truth, and Satan is the father of lies. We would rather speak the truth than tell a lie; we want to avoid the habit of lying. But under a condition where harm would be done by speaking the truth, most Christians would lie. For we have something Kant did not have in his system: we have the forgiveness of our sins. We avoid sin whenever we can; but to save a life we would tell a lie. We would not call the lie justifiable, but we know that we are justified. All our sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He has justified us, redeeming us and bringing us back to his kingdom of pure and perfect truth.

In George Lucas’ universe, even Darth Vader could be rescued by sacrificial love. In his story, the father was saved by the son. In our truth, the Son redeems those who have fallen into evil and makes them acceptable to the Father. In a way, Jesus accomplishes this through a holy deception. He clothes us in his righteousness and takes the blame for our sins. By transferring guilt to his Son and righteousness to sinners, God the Father participates in this deception, and by it we are saved.

Obi-wan’s lies happened only because George Lucas did not know what would be in his second Star Wars movie when he filmed the first one. But God knows everything. When he created the world, he knew about our sins and about the price that would need to be paid to redeem us. God went ahead and created anyhow. He thought we were worth the cost. J.

Lyin’ with the liars

Is it wrong to lie to someone if that person is lying to you?

One day last week I was working at home when the telephone rang. The caller identified himself with a certain electric power company. He told me that technicians were coming to my house within forty-five minutes to shut off the power because we were behind on our payments. I let him know that this confused me since our electricity does not come from the company he had named. (That part is true; we’re part of an electric cooperative.) He verified my name and address and insisted that the power would be shut off unless I called his company at another number, and he demanded that I write down the number.

I did write it down, then I typed it into Google. Not getting any useful information about the number, I typed the name of the company and the word “scam.” I was led to a page that described his call and said that the follow-up call would be demanding that money be wired to keep the power from being cut.

A few minutes later he called a second time, apologized, and said he had given me the wrong number. He gave a different number that was one digit higher than the first number. I said I understood, told him good-bye, and hung up.

Then I thought of the lie I wish I had said. “I need to warn you that this conversation is being recorded,” I wanted to say, “and is being shared with law enforcement officials in your area as we speak.” If scammers want to scare me, why shouldn’t I give them a scare in return?

The next time a live person (not a recording) tries to convince me that the power is going to be cut or that something is wrong with my computer or that my credit card has been compromised, I will let them know that they are being recorded and can expect the police or FBI to be knocking on their door in the next forty-five minutes. I just wish I could see their faces when I tell them that lie. J.

Protecting reputations

God says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way” (or “put the best construction on everything”).

Salvageable adds: Jesus declares himself to be the Truth. He calls the devil the father of lies. Which team do you prefer? In spite of the fact that most people prefer the truth to lies, most people also find occasions when they would rather lie. With questions like, “Did you enjoy the book I gave you for your birthday?” or, “Does this dress make me look fat?” we might consider it both kinder and safer to tell a lie—“a little white lie,” we like to call it.

Little lies are dangerous, though. Once we have found reasons to excuse lying under certain circumstances, we risk entering a growing pattern of dishonesty. We begin to lie for our own protection to hide the fact that we have done something wrong. We gossip about others, telling stories we heard that may not be true but are quite entertaining. Soon we move to lies that cause trouble for other people, robbing them of their good reputations and assigning blame to them that they do not deserve.

Both God’s commandment and Luther’s explanation focus on our neighbor. We are not to tell lies about our neighbor, in court or anywhere else. We are not to betray or slander our neighbor. We are not to hurt our neighbor’s reputation. Instead, we are to defend our neighbor and speak well of him. When more than one explanation fits the facts, we are to choose to believe the one that puts our neighbor in the best light rather than the worst light.

Of course if you see a crime in progress, you should report it to the proper authorities. If you are called into court to describe what you saw, again you are to be honest and thorough. Such actions do not betray a neighbor; instead, they help our other neighbors. But if someone (especially a fellow Christian) has hurt you in a way that is not criminal, you are not entitled to tell everyone else what happened. The first person you should approach is the one who hurt you—not to get even, but to try to reconcile with that person. When that works, no third person needs to know what has happened.

Explaining everything in the kindest way does not mean making ourselves potential victims. When we drive, we should be prepared for other drivers to do crazy and illegal things. When walking down the street and seeing a stranger approaching, we should have a plan to keep ourselves safe. But with family and friends we should not need to be suspicious. We should assume the best of them, not the worst. We should be truthful in all we say about them. When someone else tries to gossip with us, we should turn off the conversation rather than listening to the gossip. When we know a story is untrue, we should speak up and defend the neighbor whose reputation is being stained.

A classic question about the ethics of truth and lying poses this question: Suppose one person has plans to harm another person, and that second person is hiding. You know where that second person is. If the first person comes to you and asks you, should you tell them where the second person is hiding? Would it not be better to lie, to protect that second person from harm?

We live in a confusing, sin-stained world. Sometimes it seems that we must choose between sins, that we have no choice that does not involve a sin. I would tell a lie to protect a person from harm. I would also confess that lie to God as a sin, asking for forgiveness because I could not find a way to keep that person safe without sinning. Perhaps God would not regard such a lie as sinful, but I would rather confess the sin, confident in his forgiveness for all sins, than try to keep it hidden from God.

Jesus is the Truth. Yet he has essentially lied about us to his Father. “Father, forgive them,” he prays for us. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” (Often when we sin, we know exactly what we are doing.) More than that, he says, “Father, accept them. Their sins are gone; their debt has been paid. When you look at them, see me, and treat them as you would treat me.” God’s mercy and grace are not fair. God treats us far better than we deserve. He treated Jesus far worse than Jesus deserved. By that sacrifice, a balance has been established. As the children of God, we seek to be as honest and truthful as we can be in this world, while we wait for a perfect new creation where there will be no falsehood and no lies. J.