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Truth, Truthiness, and the Burden of Truthfulness

The mounting controversy over James Frey’s “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, has demonstrated the depth of this culture’s confusion over the most basic questions of truthfulness.

Frey’s book, which hit the best-seller lists and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, turned out to be filled with fabrications and lies. Many of the events Frey “recounted” were later found never to have happened at all, or to have happened very differently from what he claimed. Furthermore, the problems with the book had already been exposed before Oprah chose the book for her famed book club.

The shape of the controversy was most revealing. Frey appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live on January 14 and defended his book, denying that he had lied. “A memoir literally means my story, a memoir is a subjective retelling of events,” Frey said. King responded: “But it is supposed to be factual events. The memoir is a form of biography.”

Frey was unfazed: “Yes. Memoir is within the genre of non-fiction. I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to say I’ve conned anyone. The book is 432 pages long. The total page count of disputed events is 18, which is less than five percent of the total book. You know, that falls comfortably within the realm of what’s appropriate for a memoir.”

Well, that’s redefining “comfortably,” for sure. On the same program, Oprah Winfrey called in to defend Frey. In her comments, Oprah transformed the truth question into a therapy issue. “And I feel about “A Million Little Pieces” that although some of the facts have been questioned — and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book,” she said.

For Oprah, the “underlying message of redemption” made the story authentic, even if it was a fabrication presented as fact.

On January 26, Oprah appeared by video clips again with Frey on Larry Ling Live, This time, her comments came after she received an avalanche of criticism and after she had denounced Frey on her own program. She explained: “I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter and I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe. I called in because I love the message of this book and at the time and every day I was reading e-mail after e-mail from so many people who had been inspired by it. And, I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment. And so, to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth you are absolutely right.”

Frey’s account of the whole picture kept shifting. The New York Times reported February 2 that Frey is now claiming that the fabrications actually improved his book.

The controversy has exposed the deep confusion over truth that now shapes our culture. When fact and fiction are this confused — and when the value of truth-telling is this open to debate — something invaluable has been lost.

All this reminds me of the newly-coined word, “truthiness,” intended to designate something near the truth, or somehow distantly related to the truth, but not the truth.

Christians are to be the people of the truth — the people who care deeply about the truth and are willing to suffer for the truth. This controversy should awaken us to the dangerous subversion of truth in our culture, and serve to embolden us in speaking the truth — even about the importance of truth.

Beyond this, this controversy should also serve as a reminder that we are also accountable to the truth. Just as the author of a memoir presented as truth has no right to lie in order to “improve” his story, Christians have no right to do the same when giving a testimony or using an illustration in a sermon. The last thing we need is for Christians to allow “truthiful” sermons and personal testimonies.

NOTE: The American Dialect Society chose “truthiness” as its 2005 “Word of the Year.”  I am advised that “truthiful” means possessing the quality of “truthiness.” [rev. 2-3-06]