The Only One
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read! This was my decidedly uncharitable and exasperated reaction to a sentence that I read over my toast and coffee morning. The offending sentence was a wildly enthusiastic recommendation on the cover of Kate Bowler’s new book No Cure for Being Human. The writer of the sentence that so aggravated me was a certain Glennon Doyle who had this to say about the book and its author: “Kate Bowler is the only one we can trust to tell us the truth.” Right. The only one. I tried (and failed) to resist the temptation of saying (audibly), “I guess that means I shouldn’t pay attention to your stupid book recommendation because I can’t trust you to tell me the truth.”
(I was feeling like a fairly lousy Christian by this point, and it wasn’t yet 8:00 am. In my defence—and it isn’t much of one—a night of 100 km/hr winds had deprived me of sleep and left me with a fence to fix.)
To be clear, I like Kate Bowler. She’s a good writer and thinker. Kate has a stimulating podcast filled with interesting guests that I listen to often. I admire the way in which she has used her very difficult story to invite people to ask more honest questions about faith and suffering and prayer and the blessing and will of God. Hers is a wisdom that a culture maniacally chasing after every silly self-help option out there in pursuit of their “best life now” is in desperate need of. But seriously, what on earth would possess someone to write a statement as idiotic as that book recommendation?
(Maybe it’s a uniquely American proclivity toward hyperbole. A quick search of the British website where I usually order my books revealed that British versions of Bowler’s books contain much more sane recommendations on their covers. Yet again, I berated myself for giving in to a moment of weakness and using Amazon. I was feeling like an even worse Christian and it wasn’t yet 8:30 am.)
I suspect most of us know that it’s fairly ridiculous to say something like “_______ is the only person we can trust to tell us the truth.” Who knows, Glennon Doyle might even know this. Maybe she was just being playful. Maybe she just really, really wanted Kate Bowler to like her. But taken literally, this statement leads down all kinds of terrifying dead ends. These are the kinds of things that cult leaders and tyrannical despots and manipulative politicians and spiritually abusive pastors convince their followers of. You can’t trust anyone else out there. I’m the only one who can tell you the truth. Many of the bleakest and most desperate periods of human history have come about, at least in part, because some dude (almost always a dude) convinced enough people that he was the only person who could be trusted to tell the truth.
If I try really, really hard to be a decent Christian and interpret Ms. Doyle’s book recommendation as charitably as I can, I imagine that she means something like, “Kate Bowler is worth listening to because her lived experience—of life, love, suffering, faith, and joy—gives her unique and valuable insights into the human condition.” People who have experienced certain things are worth listening to. Knowing something of Kate Bowler’s story does incline me to trust her in a way that I would never trust Joel Osteen or some other shiny marketer of quasi-religious pop psychology. But even Kate Bowler is a fallible human being. Indeed, having read her books and listened to her podcast, I can quite easily imagine her cringing at Doyle’s recommendation.
The question of who we actually can trust to tell us the truth is, of course, a rather large one at the moment. This pandemic has accelerated a crisis of confidence that was already alive and well. Who can we trust? Big media? Big Pharma? The government? “Science” (as if science ever interprets itself)? My pastor? My politician? This or that NGO or activist organization? Increasingly, the answer for many seems to be, “None of the above, thank you very much.” And not entirely without good reason. Each one of these purported sources of authority and the institutions they represent (or resist) have offered interpretations of reality that seem profoundly self-interested (to put it mildly). It’s hard to fault people for feeling more than a little bewildered and frustrated by this stage of proceedings even if our default solution—to become our own little private sources of authority—is no solution at all.
The Christian answer to the question of who we can trust to tell us the truth is, of course, the Sunday School answer: Jesus. I am the way, the truth, the life, and all that. But this is also a bit too convenient. Jesus has frustratingly entrusted himself and his message to the same fallible human beings that I have just argued we should be wary of trusting uncritically. You may have noticed that people interpret Jesus differently? This is the often-depressing history of the church with its endless denominations and splits and conflicts. Even in my own little church I can look out on any given Sunday morning and see people who would talk about the “truth of Jesus” in very different ways.
And yet, with all due respect to Kate Bowler, I do believe that Jesus is the only person I can trust to tell me the full truth, even if I know that I will sometimes get Jesus wrong (and so will you) or interpret him in self-interested ways (as will you). This doesn’t mean that nobody else has anything true or good or beautiful to say. It just means that for Christians, Jesus is where we start and end when it comes to questions of authority. And it means that we have to try to figure Jesus out and follow him together.
I know many will disagree with the preceding paragraph. That’s fine. But at the very least, our shared epistemological reality should lead all of us to adopt postures of humility and charity more often than we do. And to ask more (and better) questions. And to listen more (and better). And to not shout one another down while bludgeoning each other with our preferred sources of authority (I read it on this website! I saw a study! I trust science. My church says!). This way leads only to chaos, incoherent rage, and the obliteration of trust. We are in desperate need of better ways of living together and talking to one another.
Trust me. I’m the only one who will tell you the truth. 😉