The press love it when politicians and preachers are caught lying, because it fits the clichê: bankers are greedy, students are lazy, and preachers and politicians are hypocrites.
Now the great thing about being a Christian is that the news that I’m a hypocrite isn’t actually news. As Russell Moore said recently, I confess far worse than that each Sunday, in public.
But several times recently I’ve seen Christians caught out by video clips on the web – nothing sleazy, but saying things which were, with hindsight, not what they should really have said. There’s a scale, of course, from something which was unfortunate to something which was downright deceptive, but the common element was speaking while the cameras were running.
How can we minimise the risk of this happening to us? Here are four questions:-
First, and obvious – is what you’re saying true? I mean real true, deep true, before-the-face-of-God true? The old questions still serve us well; ‘Is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?’ Is there a little bit of the story you’ve trimmed out to make yourself look better? Or is there a little idea you’ve nicked from someone else which has found its way into your story, because it sounds better than what actually happened?
And I know the problems. Tell a story a few times, and it has contours in your mind, grooves it runs down; and if that is even partially untrue, that groove gets fixed as you tell and re-tell. There’s a French phrase for it: ‘L’esprit de l’escalier’ – an idea that occurs to you later which captures perfectly what you wish you’d said. It’s obviously a familiar fault. So go back to those familiar stories you tell, and check them again.
Obviously, obviously, don’t lift a story that happened to someone else and pretend it happened to you. Don’t buff up your CV. Don’t put your name on the cover of a book unless you write it. Just don’t.
Second, is it loving? If we are speakers and writers, we will have quick wits and a good skill with words. We know how to tell a good story, get a laugh, leave a pause – and make someone look stupid.
Be very aware of the danger of describing straw men, fake debaters, stupid atheists. If you’re describing a debate, make scrupulously sure that you are describing the other person’s position with fairness. And be aware of the authority you have, true and illusory, that comes from being the person speaking from the stage
Third, is it wise? I mean, it might be 100% truthful, and even intended to be loving, but if you get the timing or the context wrong then something which you intended to be private goes public – and you’re left trying to scoop up gallons of spilt milk.
You see, when something is on the web, you can’t say you’re taken out of context. Because there is no context but the web. I don’t know if you were speaking to 25 people or 2,500, to motivate or rebuke, to friends or strangers – when I press that little triangle on Youtube it’s just you and me. That’s the only context I know.
Fourth, is it humble? There’s a great danger in being given a microphone in front of a crowd, which is that’s so easy to go off-script and say something you don’t intend, or which, given time and care, you could nuance. But with an audience, we exaggerate for effect.
Which always makes us look good in our own eyes. Which is never a good thing.
Back in the day, that wouldn’t matter as much, and we could patch it up later. But these days, unless we’re careful, that stuff is recorded and replayed over and again.
Confession: some people like to be controversialists, mocking, with a serrated edge. I don’t like that, and I have a hard time defending it as a Christian mode of debate. If you do it, I take it you ask all four of those questions, and where other Christians have them as a hedge, you have them as an electric fence.
It doesn’t matter how funny your joke is – if it fails one of those questions, drop it. As we used to say when planning skits on summer camp, ‘If in doubt, don’t.’
We need three sets of filters.
One is technical. If we’re tempted by the glitter of fame, we need the self-awareness of that danger, and ensure that what goes out has been edited down to what is true, loving, wise and humble.
Second, we need people around us who can challenge us and take us down a peg or six. It might be an editor, or an elder – but it needs to be someone in authority over us and who can tell us to cut it out. When I’ve seen things go horribly wrong – and I’ve been so close to one it hurt – it was because someone developed a ‘star’ status, and no-one else felt they were clever enough or authoritative enough to challenge him. Rot.
And third, most deeply, we need to be aware that every word we say or write is written in the presence of God, who will expose the secrets of our hearts, judge every foolish word, and humble every proud pastor who has taken sheep for himself.
That’s my answer to those who suggest that what I recommend is too high a level of self-censorship, and that I don’t understand the pressures that come from the microphone being always on. I do. The recording mic that matters is on 24/7. And the Lord knows the context, including the context of our hearts.
Despite those dangers, we need increasing numbers of Christian writers, thinkers, debaters, preachers, lecturers, apologists, podcasters – but God’s work must be done in his way.
And finally, if you need to apologise, do it fully, graciously, humbly, publicly, and fast. That’s a big piece of humble pie to eat, but you’ll get our respect when you do.