Culture At Large

Mike Daisey, This American Life and the truest story ever told

Karen Swallow Prior

My dogs know most things through their noses. You might say that smelling is their epistemology. Their sense of smell has always been keener than their eyesight or hearing and is even more so now that those senses are diminishing with age.

The human race is a little less constant, epistemologically speaking. In ancient days, divine revelation was the greatest authority for human knowledge, whether that revelation came in the form of myth, superstition or the inspired Word of God.

But then came the Enlightenment and with it a shift that gave revelation second place, until kicking it out of the game altogether. In Enlightenment thinking, the most reliable source of knowledge is the human mind or the human senses; in other words, empirical evidence or logical reasoning. Such an approach to knowledge is delightfully satirized by Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, in the character of the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Decades after Dickens, the great shift came:  “If the facts don’t fit the theory,” said Albert Einstein, discoverer of the theory of relativity, “change the facts.” The end of modern epistemology came with the realization that truth contains facts, but facts cannot contain the fullness of human experience or universal truth.   

While this complicates things for Christians (not to mention journalists, NPR and Oprah), it’s not the end of the world.

So, just as revealed truth was replaced by empirical truth, empirical truth has, in the postmodern age, been replaced by narrative truth - the truth of story. Truth is now the embodiment of facts. It is facts fleshed out.

Naturally, as with all things of the flesh, this makes matters of truth a bit messier.

Take the recent controversy at NPR’s “This American Life,” which recently aired a segment with Mike Daisey, an entertainer who had supposedly uncovered abuses in Chinese factories where Apple computer products are manufactured. When NPR discovered that Daisey had lied about important details of his investigation, it retracted the story. Daisey has now admitted to violating his own artistic standards and has apologized, saying that “story should always be subordinate to the truth.” For Daisey, a dramatist not a journalist, the trouble lay in blurring the boundaries between facts and fiction.  But boundary blurring didn’t begin with Daisey.

A similar case from a few years ago caught Oprah Winfrey unaware when her book club selection, James Frey’s alleged autobiography A Million Little Pieces, was found to have been largely made up. Some readers who’d been inspired and moved by Frey’s self-help tale were outraged; others felt the book’s transformative power didn’t depend on whether or not the story was true.

But art, in order to be good, must, like good journalism, be honest to its form. Indeed, Daisey has admitted that his lapse in truth resulted in “worse art.”

Nevertheless, faith in facts alone is clearly dead.

While this complicates things for Christians (not to mention journalists, NPR and Oprah), it’s not the end of the world.

For one thing, the fact that playing loose with the facts resulted in a national controversy, a retraction and an apology indicates that the line between truth and lies is still important to most of us.

Furthermore, an Enlightenment mindset that emphasizes facts alone is least likely to accept the doctrines of Christianity, grounded as they are in mystery and miracles. The incalculable way that facts play out in our lives - the incarnation of those facts - is more important than the modernists led us to believe. This truth is at the heart of the Gospel (which, of course, means “good story”) and the entire Biblical narrative, the truest story ever told.

Ultimately, I suspect human knowledge - our myths, our facts, our categories and systems, and even our stories – is, in comparison to the omniscience of God, but a trifle more than what my dog knows through her nose.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Philosophy, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, North America