Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gospel Truth?

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.
truthiness (noun)

1 : "truth that comes from the gut, not books" (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," October 2005)
2 : "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true" (American Dialect Society, January 2006)

I am a public radio junkie.  I listen to public radio all the time, and one of my favorite shows is This American Life, which offers a weekly mixture of storytelling, journalism and first-person accounts that are packaged in a quirky and I would argue revelatory way.  TAL episodes are often hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.  Like many listeners, I was deeply moved to hear a program this past January about a devoted fan of Apple electronics who journeys to China only to discover the horrible working conditions that produce his beloved iPad.  It was a powerful story that calls into question the effects of globalization, our materialistic culture and the responsibilities of consumers towards the people who produce their goods.  The only problem with this moving account was that it was not true.
The TAL episode in question is based upon a one-man show by Mike Daisey.  In his show and on the radio program, Daisey speaks in first person about traveling to China and meeting workers at the factory where iPads and iPhones are assembled.  He relates how he met girls as young as 12 years old who worked in the factory.  Then he tells about meeting workers with severe neurological problems due to use of a particular screen cleaner.  Finally, in a touching account, he tells about an older man with an arm mangled from producing iPads who strokes Daisey’s own iPad with his crushed fingers.  Unfortunately, Daisey did not really meet these people. 
Thanks to the popularity of the radio program, listeners petitioned Apple to review its expectations of Chinese contractors which Apple agreed to do.  Western reporters in China learned of Daisey’s story and thought it was fishy.  They investigated and found witnesses, including Daisey’s Chinese translator, who contradicted Daisey’s account.  When confronted with the evidence, Daisey admitted he used dramatic license to demonstrate the plight of Chinese workers. 
Reporters have revealed that although conditions in the Chinese factories used by Apple are not what American workers would call good, they are not as bad as Daisey described.  Underage workers are rare.  Yes, there were some workers affected by a chemical but as soon as its side effects were discovered its use was discontinued.  According to journalists, the truth of working conditions for Chinese workers who make Apple products is not so bad—nowhere near as bad as Daisey depicts.  Although American workers expect much better, factory work in China is largely preferable to the backbreaking farming done with primitive implements the workers would otherwise be expected to do. 
So, why did Daisey lie?  In another episode of TAL that ran as a retraction of the story, Daisey explains in what may be the most awkward interview I have ever heard, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater, that when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what the truth means.”  Are their different languages for truth?  Although an audience has different expectations in a theatre than when listening to a newscast, in this case critics have observed (rightly, I think) that Daisey was involved in advocacy journalism.  He had a responsibility to his audience to be up front about what really happened to him and what was “inspired by a true story.”
Apparently, Daisey really does care about the conditions of workers in developing countries and his story helped galvanize interest among a public largely uninterested in the costs to people and the environment incurred by their cell phones.  Does that greater good justify a lie?  Similar questions were asked when it was revealed that author James Frey’s bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was fabricated.  Did the fact that millions of people found his story inspiring—including addicts such as he claimed to be—make his lie okay?
As our culture transmits “truth” faster and faster, it becomes harder and harder for us to determine who is telling the truth and maybe even what truth is in a given context.  Can we know truth in such a confusing age?  In John 8, Jesus declares that those who follow his teachings will “know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Yet, Christians in our culture are very good at declaring that they and they alone possess the only truth, and often it is easy to find multiple competing “truths” offered by different groups of Christians.  How do we find truth that provides the freedom Jesus talks about?
Perhaps an answer to such questions comes only a few verses later in that passage from John, when Jesus declares that we are slaves to sin.  If the truths we claim serve our own selfish interests and we must justify the “truths” we tell about ourselves and our God on the grounds that the harm they do in the short run serves a greater purpose, then perhaps we do not possess the truth at all.  Do the truths we live by, the truths we preach and sing about at church, the truths that guide our actions really lead to self-sacrifice and service to others?  Or are they merely means to justify our own selfish lifestyles? 
As we walk this Lenten journey together towards Easter and reflect upon Jesus’ self-giving, may you and I reflect anew about the “truths” we claim to speak in all aspects of our lives.
Grace and Peace,