As a literature professor, one of the challenges I face is helping students to see that “fiction” and “falsehood” are not interchangeable terms.  Just because something is fictional does not mean that it is, per se, untrue; fiction is imaginative prose that may or may not be journalistically or historically true.

Typically, fiction makes no claim on historicity or journalistic probity, though there certainly are exceptions to this.  Some writers of historical fiction create imaginative characters who function in historically accurate settings (think Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sobering Uncle Tom’s Cabin), even as some fiction writers place actual historical persons into imaginative settings (think Seth Grahame-Smith’s surreal Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).  Some writers arrange historical tidbits into fictional tales that masquerade as factual truth.  Perhaps the most notorious of these writers is Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, who opened that novel with three assertions of fact, the third being that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” (1).

I often tell my students that they have only to shop at a bookstore (brick and mortar stores in particular) and inspect the non-fiction section to see that “non-fiction” emphatically does not mean “true.”  The inverse may be true as well: “fiction” does not mean “untrue.”

Not long ago I gave a lecture on citizen journalism to a course in media and everyone wanted to talk about Mike Daisey’s expose on NPR’s This American Life, which was a scathing indictment of the working conditions of Apple’s factories in China.  Daisey’s episode had, apparently, become the most downloaded in the show’s history.  The students were very interested in how this one man seemed poised to change corporate human rights perceptions among a generation of Westerners who were navigating their own culpability in Apple’s alleged abuses.  Since that lecture, however, Daisey’s report has unraveled and NPR has taken the unusual step of retracting the episode.

Daisey’s defense, however, has been that his report was not journalistically accurate but was “artistic truth.”  He says that the essence of the story, not the facts themselves, create a representation of truth that is, well, true.  Apparently, students in a journalism course at Seton Hall agreed with Daisey, with the instructor saying that for the students, “the idea that there might be different versions of the truth — a larger truth, or an emotional truth — . . . seemed OK.”

Troubling on so many levels.

Here’s my bottom line, though: when we allow truth to be mixed with error, we give quarter to those who would abuse the truth in service to self.  If the police trump up charges to press for a conviction of a man who is guilty of an actual crime, the criminal may escape his due punishment.  Worse, we may commit an atrocity of law that can only be viewed as some sort of karmic justice (see for instance, William Faulkner’s character Popeye in the brutal novel Sanctuary, who is hanged for a crime that he couldn’t have committed because at the time he was committing another capital crime, which he could not use as an alibi in the convicting court).

One of the most frustrating things that I have do deal with in my secular contexts is the ease with which Christians pass along rumors that masquerade as fact.  Yes, we may find a particular party or organization wicked, but we are not, then, entitled to mix truth with error in a vain quest for “ethical truth” or “virtual power.”  In doing this, we succeed not in destroying those who may be guilty of egregious wrong but rather of looking foolish and allowing the (other) wrong-doers to escape the veracity of their actual malfeasance.

When Pontius Pilate asked the iconic question “What is truth?” (John 18:38) he was voicing the overarching question of unbelievers everywhere.  If Christians are not clear in their use of both truth and Truth, we cannot overcome the eye-rolling response that occurs all too often.

Articles by Gene Fant

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