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Filtering by Tag: Truth

What Communicates

Brad Fruhauff


When my two-year-old wants a drink he says, “Up. Up.” When he needs my help with something, he also says, “Up. Up.” “Gra-gra” can mean motorcycle, cracker, airplane, or Grandma. When he says “Oosh” he may mean he wants juice or that he wants to put on his shoes to go outside. If he goes, “Zha-zha,” he may be talking about his sitter, Andrew, his favorite person, Suzie, or the Frozen soundtrack. He refers to himself as “Unh-unh,” but he may do so to indicate that he wants the same treat his brother just received or that he wants to walk in front of the stroller. About the only things he says that don’t have multiple possible meanings are “Mama,” “Dada,” and the sign for hungry.

The wonder of raising a child is that all these things actually communicate. They don’t always work smoothly or without confusion and false starts, but they usually, ultimately, work—I eventually figure out the proper interpretation of his sounds and my son gets his needs met.

Working at a Christian college, I think a lot about interpretation. Protestant thinkers, in particular, are very concerned with interpretation because it seems to represent a problem of getting at the truth. James Smith, in The Fall of Interpretation, engages some major figures for whom interpretation was not part of the original creation and will not be a part of the restored creation. For these thinkers, we don’t want to interpret; we want to just know. Interpretation doesn’t produce the certainty that we want to base our lives upon.

But Smith argues that interpretation would seem to be part of being a finite creature, and though Heaven may entail the conferral of eternal life, it doesn’t obviously entail the conferral of infinitude. To become infinite would be to become equal, intellectually, to God. It doesn’t sound right when put that way, does it?

Part of the trouble is training our minds to get away from a propositional truth and into something different that still preserves the authority of truth. The medievals thought our propositions about God were at best analogically true, that is, were true enough but unable to express the whole truth, but since the scientific revolution, we have wanted to have a propositional truth that was adequate and complete.

Actual language use teaches us otherwise. In the relatively trivial truth that my son wants popcorn or to ride the swings, what communicates does so not because we have found a precise and complete language but because we have worked out a language game within the context of our relationship. The truth of his needs extends well beyond his ability to express it, but we make up for that through knowing one another.

That word "context" was a big problem in the late-70s/early-80s when Jacques Derrida appeared to suggest that, because context can never be finally pinned down, meaning itself is impossible. Smith patiently explains that Derrida never actually made any such self-contradictory claim, but that he in fact was emphasizing the risk of communication, namely, that it won't communicate. Consider how many of our jokes are about failed communication or miscommunication. Every attempt to speak to another exposes our speech to interpretation, but amazingly it works more often than not.

Comedians make us laugh at miscommunication because it is, at times, a source of anxiety and insecurity. But I'm not sure it has to be a scary idea for Christians, however. Extended to the Bible, it suggests interpretation depends on our relationship with God and with the Christian community rather than the direct communication of the translated words. Don't we already believe that? Maybe the problem is that we feel like God is the two-year old saying, "Oosh," and we're stuck trying to figure Him out. Maybe we should assume we are the ones going, "Gra-gra," and have faith that God is able to interpret our ill-expressed needs.

Truth: The Deeply Rooted Idea

Vic Sizemore

tree sawed This morning an arborist is cutting down a white oak beside our house. The bark of the tree had started rotting off in chunks the size of dinner plates, and it was full of ants underneath as far up as I could see. Surprisingly, the inside of the trunk looked like healthy blond wood. This was also the case with our neighbor’s tree, the one that came crashing down two years ago in what the TV news called a “severe wind event” until some meteorologist introduced them to the cool new term derecho—wind like a tornado, but straight at you instead of swirling. The roots of his tree, it turned out, were weak and had given way.

As the arborist dismembers our tree, his chainsaw growling and roaring outside, I sit at my desk with interweb chatter buzzing in my head—gun violence, same-sex marriage, healthcare reform, wealth inequality, government, religion, science. I have gotten in the habit of following a number of news feeds, and now I get a daily diet of this stuff. Not that the issues aren’t important. They are. However, more and more I fear is that, if I don’t stem the flow, it will, if not ruin, cheapen my creative work.

In his book, On Moral Fiction John Gardner instructs writers—and all artists—to go after truth instead of focusing on “important but passing concerns,” which change as cultures change. Gardner admits that many artists “who disparage the pursuit of truth” do it because they “have merely grown wary of the word’s potential for pretentiousness and moralistic tyranny…” but he maintains nevertheless that only art concerned with truth can be called moral art. How does an artist do that? Gardner writes, “… before we can get to the great idea True, an emotionally charged symbolic construct for which innumerable men and women have died, we must first stare thoughtfully and long at a tree, Old English treow, which gave us the word true (treow), the “deeply rooted” idea.” An artist who neglects the deeply rooted idea “goes not for the profound but for the clever.”

Artists have the job of unearthing the human truth that cannot be found in any other way. For example, Gardner writes, “A brilliantly imagined novel about a rapist or murderer can be more enlightening than a thousand psycho-sociological studies…” This truth is in the deep-rooted place, which requires long and thoughtful staring. How can we go deep if we are spending our days surfing the web, digging yes, but here for a bit and then there for a bit, as if flitting around the yard with a gardener’s trowel?

Contemporary issues are important, but they are not lasting—what’s more, they are not resolved at the surface, where all the heat of argument occurs. Are you obsessing over issues, or are you staring thoughtfully and long at the tree, the deeply rooted idea?

Trusting Dante

Vic Sizemore

Lakeland Terrier x Border Collie Bess scratching herself I grew up in a poor town along the Elk River in West Virginia. Elkview had no leash laws, and flea-infested mongrels ran free. We lived beside a garbage truck garage and a busy stretch of US Route 119. Dogs found the hot reek of trash irresistible, and I saw many of them ripped open by cars and strewn down the road. Hunting was also big in Elkview. It was also a town of hunters. The sight of a boy hiking toward the woods with a gun slung over his shoulder was common—also the sight of gutted deer. Memories of these things come to me every time I return to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I think if those mongrel dogs when I read Dante’s description of souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.” In reading this passage, I can imagine Dante as a boy watching, just as I did, a dog continually scratching and biting at its relentless parasites.

I think of shot and gutted deer when I read his description of one who sowed schism in life, ripped bodily in half, “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.” I know what a physical body looks like when split open and the innards dumped out; I believe our poet knows as well.

Dante intended for his writing to work on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral or didactic, and anagogical. While he saw his art this way, what makes me trust him is the fact that he has so carefully observed the literal. His descriptions are so concrete and physical that, though his characters are in this fantastical hell, they have real flesh.

In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner goes as far as to claim that a writer’s failure to pay close attention to the literal amounts to a moral shortcoming because the writer “is not deeply involved in the characters’ lives.” He maintains that, “what truth the writer might have discovered if he’d carefully followed how things really do happen we will never know.”

In my experience, though you cannot tell immediately what a fiction writer’s worldview is from her fiction, if she has cared enough to pay close attention to concrete reality, you can be sure that, whatever she tells you will contain truth and have value. The same goes for any artist—any human being—who wants to communicate with other human beings. Are you concerned with truth? Look at what is in front of you and describe what you see.

The Study of Contrasts

Scott Robinson


“Well, you know what they say, right?" The portly Christian gentleman leaned back in his chair, nodding confidently at his conversation partner. “The Secret Service trains their agents in detecting counterfeit money by only giving them real money to study. See, if you just focus on the real stuff, the fakes are obvious. That’s how it goes with truth, you know.”

The conversation meandered on, but my eavesdropping screeched to a halt. I was stuck on his analogy, a bold pitch for an easy discernment. It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Just study the truth. Just know what’s right. If you do, any falsehood will be startlingly obvious.

In theory the idea sounds promising, but does it hold up in practice? Let’s say an avid hiker bought a guide to edible berries, and opened it to find zero information on deadly varieties and no identifying factors for underripe or overripe fruit. The guide considered it sufficient to describe only ideal forms of the best berries. It may be somewhat informative, but it would be far from useful in the field. Nature rarely conforms to ideals or best examples, the human psyche less so.

Perhaps this is why Proverbs, the most recognized volume of wisdom literature in history, is a study in contrasts. The cascades of comparisons are relentless: wisdom cries out against folly, the righteous are compared to the wicked, the way of honesty is juxtaposed with the path of deceit. Discernment develops in a marketplace bustling with distortions, growing in its unrelenting contrast of truth with lie.

These contrasts fill and shape all of human activity. In secular arenas we often discover provocative graces, while in religious circles we can find piously-robed falsehoods. I headed to the Secret Service's page for detecting counterfeit money and discovered that the story I had heard about their agents was false. In reality, agents carefully examine fake bills and the methods of their creation, closely comparing them with the originals.

The Secret Service analogy turned out to be a counterfeit itself, an enticing claim with a dangerously false premise. Can discernment thrive where there is presumption without contrast? After all, a tree may appear good for food, a delight to the eyes, a thing to be desired to make one wise…

And the Truth to Speak

Michael Dechane


I was surprised to find a sheriff's deputy on the doorstep when I answered his knocking. I was even more surprised at the language on the subpoena. Under the header it read: "To all and singular the sheriffs of the State of Florida - Greetings" for an opening salutation. It sounded like a good way to start an Epistle, but a strange way to address me about a summons to traffic court.

Things got stranger still in the body of the letter:

"You are commanded to appear before the Honorable ____________, of this court, at the location listed below on this [date] at [time] to testify, and the truth to speak, in a certain matter pending before said court and to wit."

I was jarred at the force of the language.

Lest I doubt his seriousness, the Honorable __________ closed the letter with: "Witness my hand and the seal of the said court this 7th day of March, 2014."

The syntax and the formality in this form letter, (hand-delivered by a man deputized and representing the man whose hand I was supposed to witness behind the printed stamp signature) felt biblical and Shakespearean at the same time.  It was just a shadow, I felt, but one with enough weight to register somewhere in me: Justice is more than an abstraction. I will appear. I will testify. It will be the truth. So says the judge. There are, I believe, images, elements of the natural world and unexpected pockets of language that make parts of a hidden world plain and believable. Which is so much the better, since the hidden is true.

Even in The People's Court or an episode of Judge Judy, we can't escape a feeling or a sense of something real, and something important underneath the campy melodrama. It happens at weddings and funerals, too, even the most non-religious ones.

When I registered my car recently, the clerk, after 15 minutes of asking rapid fire questions and staring at her monitor while she typed, stopped, swiveled her gaze to meet mine, and said more slowly: "Do you solemnly swear, under punishment of perjury, that all the information you've given me today is correct?" Do I swear? Do I do anything solemnly? Is the truth really that important?

I felt the weight of testifying in traffic court and, somehow, that was weightier because it reminded me of an irrevocable, greater summons to every man. One where the truth will indeed be told, and witnessing the hand of the one who commands will shake us, each and every one.

I was surprised, in part, because I don't expect letters anymore. And for all my love of it, I guess I don't expect much from language, from just a word, anymore. Not all this, anyway. What is that? And isn't there something – someone -- at your door and mine, even now, knocking?

The Faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Usually I write to encourage people to give to Relief but today I would like to pay tribute to a great person who fought for Truth. I came across this blog by Eric Metaxas and I wanted to share an excerpt from it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young pastor and a theologian, whose deep faith in God led him to get involved in the plot to kill Hitler. When Hitler learned of Bonhoeffer's involvement he flew into a typically violent rage. As one of his final acts of revenge -- just three weeks before he committed suicide -- Hitler condemned the young pastor to death. Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg Concentration camp.  But by all accounts, Bonhoeffer went to his death with the peace of God, with no regrets. How can that be? He was 39 years old, widely reckoned a theological genius. He had already written two of the classic books of the 20th century, "The Cost of Discipleship" and "Life Together." He was engaged to be married to a wonderful young woman. He had such a terrifically bright future! Bonhoeffer even had an opportunity to escape his fate. In my book I tell the story of how he had fled to America, but then decided to return to Germany, to face the horrors that lay ahead with his people. Why did he return when he didn't have to? And why didn't he have any regrets for doing so, even after he knew he would pay the ultimate price? Just before he died, Bonhoeffer told a fellow prisoner, "This is the end. But for me, the beginning of life." But on that day -- April 20, 1945 (Hitlar’s last birthday mentioned earlier in the original post)-- who was happy and who was at peace, Hitler or Bonhoeffer? For that matter, which of them is happy and at peace today? It's something chilling to think about, the contrast between these two Germans, between these two lives and these two deaths. But at this time of year especially, it's appropriate that perhaps we do think about it. But at this time of year, when Passover and Easter are being celebrated it's especially appropriate that we do think about it. Do those of us who say we believe in God really believe it? Because if we do, it will affect how we behave today, this week, this month... If we believe in the word of God, as Bonhoeffer did, it will give us the courage do the right thing wherever we are. Like Bonhoeffer, we will do the right thing and trust God with the consequences. Faith and courage go together. Bonhoeffer's faith gave him the courage to stand against the greatest evil of the 20th century. And today we celebrate him and revile the inhuman tyrant he stood against. So this Easter season, dare to think about what you really believe. What you believe about your faith will affect how you behave today and how people regard you years from today. That's a fact. Let the life of Bonhoeffer, lived in faith and without fear, be a source of encouragement to you, so that your life in turn may be a source of encouragement to others in years to come.

I agree with Metaxas call to think about what you believe.  Do you really believe in the truth and power of scripture? What would your life look like if you did? What do your actions show that you believe in – yourself or the Truth of God? I think that Easter is a time that we should reflect on our faith since it is the time when the curtain separating the Holy of Holies was torn in two giving us the opportunity to approach the throne of God with confidence and covered by his grace.

Bonnie Ponce is the Director of Support Raising for Relief and lives in Huntsville, Texas with her husband and betta fish. She has a BA in English from Sam Houston State University. After work she enjoys relaxing with a good book or working on her novel.