3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Tag: truth

How to preach, how not to tell the truth

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has had to make a judgment against that scholar, statesman and all-round paragon of civic virtue, Boris Johnson. In a column for the Daily Telegraph (for which he receives £275,000 a year) Johnson referred to polling which indicated that a no-deal Brexit was increasingly and overwhelmingly becoming the favoured option of the British public. A statistician from Reading, obviously someone wholly and embarrassingly caught up in old-fashioned “reality-based” models of discourse, complained, saying that there was no evidence of such polling or shift in the public’s opinion at all.

Benjamin Disraeli, who knew something about the nature of statistics,
and Boris Johnson, who doesn’t care

The newspaper defended their columnist, completely justifiably, saying that:

…the article was clearly an opinion piece, and readers would understand that the statement was not invoking specific polling – no specific dates or polls were referenced. …the writer was entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions… it was clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters.


Michael Stirling, the statistician, unreasonably told The Guardian: “a potential prime minister shouldn’t be able to make things up in a weekly column”.

You see, that’s where Mr Stirling is wrong. A potential prime minister should be able to make things up in a weekly column, in fact the British public expect him to make things up in a weekly column, and I have here numerous opinion polls which, satisfyingly, concur with my opinion. Opinion becomes fact, through the magical medium of wishful thinking.

Which makes me think about preaching. How often does preaching manifest itself as an opinion piece, with no connection to specific learning, chock full of sweeping generalisations based on sincerely but wishfully held opinions, and in no way confusable with “a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”? All we can hope for, infrequently, is that it might be “clearly comically polemical”, and by that I don’t mean a weak jokey story at the beginning, three paragraphs all beginning with the same letter in the middle, and a pun at the end.

How many times do we preach, as if our sermons have absolutely nothing to do with the truth?

(an unfashionable idea, I know, and certainly one that will never catch on).

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and “polemical opinion pieces.”

Preaching the Christian Gospel must never fall into any one of those categories.

Speaking “truth to power”

It was once a powerful expression. It once said something new, and exciting, and dangerous, and true. Now it is hackneyed.

How many times have you heard the exhortation to “speak truth to power”? In how many inappropriate situations have you heard applied the exhortation “speaking truth to power”.

It once meant standing up to those people and institutions who could directly and physically harm you. Think of Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965; Nelson Mandela in Rivonia in 1963; Mohandas Gandhi on the Salt March in 1930.

Now it merely means saying something irritating and self-righteous to those with whom you disagree. It is an expression of the ‘victim-culture’ of our day: Monty Python pinned it neatly with the “don’t you oppress me” sequence in The Life of Brian.

Every time you claim to speak truth to power you make a claim about your own powerlessness.

At the same time, you assert that your powerlessness actually adds to the truthfulness of what it is you say: I am truthful because I am powerless.

And very often, the people who are making these claims are Western, middle-class, university-educated, and wealthy beyond the dreams of 90% of the rest of humanity.

Let’s leave “speaking truth to power” to one side for a time, and think about our own complicity in the structural injustices of the world. It’s harder work than student posturing, but it is more grown up.