Fake news is everywhere, and some of it surfaced about the Russian ban: ‘Church members of Russia have united! They have launched massive protests against the government in behalf of the Witnesses! President Trump rebuked Russia and invited its entire Witness population to the United States! He visited a Kingdom Hall to worship with them!’ All of it is fake news. It didn’t happen.1
Is “the news” another one of those biblical hills that melt in the last days? Is it now a thing that people of bygone days could depend upon but now need to call in Sherlock Holmes to decipher whether or not it is genuine? Is ‘reading the news’ now the information equivalent of playing Russian Roulette?
Given this apparent new normal, I will take the Trump story, fake news though it is. No, he did not speak out in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the story plants the clear notion that he should have. Most fake news about Jehovah’s Witnesses is derogatory. It is the ‘every kind of evil’ falsely said against them. It’s about time something went our way. Now it is only a matter of time before some poor body of elders must deal with NBC or somebody attempting to set up shop in their foyer so that they can broadcast “Live from the Kingdom Hall.”
The derogatory fake news against Jehovah’s Witnesses today calls to mind the derogatory fake news against early Christians. The skeptic Caecilius of the 2nd century C.E. hurls the charge that they were “a people skulking and shunning the light, silent in public, but garrulous in corners,” who “despise honours and purple robes.” They “love one another almost before they know one another… and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters.”2
“Assuredly, this confederation ought to be rooted out and execrated,” Caecilius asserts. In the meantime, they were best advised to, if they had “any wisdom or modesty, cease from prying into the regions of the sky, and the destinies and secrets of the world: it is sufficient to look before your feet, especially for untaught, uncultivated, boorish, rustic people: they who have no capacity for understanding civil matters, are much more denied the ability to discuss divine.”3 Then, as now, explaining God was reserved for professionals. Amateurs had no business in the house of God.
The term was unheard of just two years ago. Now the expression “fake news” is as familiar as the Lord’s prayer. Outlets pledge to search for and destroy fake news so that others are not misled. Unfortunately, fake news can be in the eye of the beholder. Real news is but another manifestation of ‘History is written by the victors.’ It is written by the interests that have outmaneuvered the competition. There is often no way to tell if its real or not. A certain one online tweets: “Right now, everyone believes news which doesn’t fit their preconceived agenda is fake,” a situation he describes as “mental.” Would anyone like to challenge him that it is, in reality, ‘right as rain?’
From the advent of filmmaking, countless dramatic movies have ended with the whistleblower testifying before important people, and the mighty press finally publishing The Truth! The villains have been raising mayhem throughout the film trying to prevent that outcome, but at movie’s climactic end, they are thwarted! The people come to know! All of the people come to know! It is one of the most predictable plotlines of entertainment. Yet, all those movies are ridiculously dated and must be rewritten to reflect current realities. It shouldn’t be hard. It requires just an addendum that can be attached to all films. The morning after, whoever has been fingered says: “It is Fake News! People, can we just move on?” No harm done.
It will only get worse. The New York Times writes about an app that makes it “relatively easy to create realistic face swaps and leave few traces of manipulation….It’s not hard to imagine this technology’s being used to smear politicians, create counterfeit revenge porn or frame people for crimes. Lawmakers have already begun to worry about how ‘deepfakes’ could be used for political sabotage and propaganda.” The anonymous developer cheerfully helps the Times reporter try his own hand at it. “I’ve given it a lot of thought,” he [says], “and ultimately I’ve decided I don’t think it’s right to condemn the technology itself.”4 Of course not! They never do. It’s on to the next advance of science! Let the ethicists figure out what he has just dumped in their laps, something “which can of course be used for many purposes, good and bad.” It’s their problem, not his. Surely we can rely upon them to form and implement responsible policy. What’s that? We can’t? Oh, well.
Already, news sources show an eagerness to rely upon unidentified sources, who frequently turn out to be wrong. Will they handle this new advance responsibly? Not only can we expect ‘proven by video’ character assassination to become routine, but the more lasting consequence of this new technological advance will be that even genuine video evidence will be readily dismissed as fake news. It is Isaiah envisioned: “Ah! Those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness to light, and light into darkness, who change bitter to sweet, and sweet into bitter!”5 The guileless one so slandered will explode in moral indignation, and thus look guilty as hell. The professional liar will shrug it off with the feigned saddened dismay that his enemies could sink so low. It may be that “the wrath of the Lord blazes against [this] people,” but not before they have enjoyed their substantial day in the sun.
Sometimes the news is so new and unanticipated that you are hard-pressed to know whether it is fake or not. From Moscow, RT.com reporter Robert Bridge lists 10 things you probably never heard of 10 years ago. They include public statues dedicated to Satan, the accepted notion that one might have been assigned the wrong gender, widespread opioid addiction, sex with robots, college campuses where students are protected from debate, legalized marijuana, taking a knee during the national anthem, pink vagina hats, Internet appliances that spy on people, and cryptocurrencies. Dastardly space invaders from outer space will conclude there must be something in the air that they don’t dare risk catching and will hightail it back to wherever planet they came from. One is reminded of the ‘Dr. Seuss’ author’s widow, lamenting another desecration that she never thought she would live to see (the commercialization of her husband’s work): “If Ted could see this, he’d say ‘I’m glad I’m dead.’”
Really, is it not all fake news? Is it not an absurd drama? The Bible portrays it all as an act, an unreality, not the true life at all. Consistently, the Scriptures employ the imagery of a stage play. “For the world in its present form is passing away,” says NABRE, the ‘house’ translation for this work.6 Other translations read similarly: “Because this world in its present form is passing away.” (CEB) “For the present form of this world is passing away.” (ESV) “For the mode of this world passes away.” (HNV) “For the fashion of this world passeth away.” (KJV) “For this world in its present form is passing away.” (NIV)
“The image is drawn from a shifting scene in a play represented on the stage,” says the reference work Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Thus, the New World Translation’s rendering, “the scene of this world is changing,” is the best rendering of all, even if it is extremist.
The world is an act and the scenes are ever changing. Christians are the central actors of the play. Nearly all translations employ the word ‘spectacle,’ as in: “we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike.”7 (NABRE) The New International Reader’s Version dispenses with “spectacle” but still manages to nail the point with “We have been made a show for the whole creation to see.” The New World Translation better defines ‘spectacle’ as ‘theatrical spectacle.’ Angels and people are watching Christians. They are to become a theatrical spectacle to the world? Very well. If that is to be their role, let them give the world some theater.
The world is stage to a play featuring heroes and villains. They are all actors. After 80 years, the curtain falls on the individual actor and it is off to the grave for him or her, to be succeeded by a fresh young face. This explains why Watchtower publications seldom name names. There is no reason to shame or honor the individual actors because it is not about them. It is about the play they are starring in. Take an actor out, and another one immediately steps into his shoes. Their names are not important. It can even be a distraction to know the names. Name a villain and you create the impression that removing that villain will solve matters. Instead, another villain assumes the role without fuss. It is the play we must follow, not the villains in it, or even the heroes.
The villains are even described in terms that make clear it is a play. The etymology of ‘hypocrite’ is that of an actor who wears a mask, just as they would do in the ancient plays. The technique served to amplify voice, hide true identity, and thereby facilitate a new role.8 Similarly, the villains in Jesus’ time routinely hid what they were. When they delivered Jesus to Pilate, they feigned concern that the government might be defrauded: “They brought charges against him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king.’” They knew Pilate didn’t care about the first or the third charge, so they threw in the second to make him sit up and take notice. Opponents today of the Christian work employ similar methods.9
If the New World translators particularly identify with the image of actors on a stage, might it be because they have acted on many a stage? They are by no means Christians comfortably ensconced in academia. Every householder’s front porch is a stage, and they have starred upon countless ones. They have seen rave reviews. They have seen dismal reviews. At times, the reviewers have been so unkind as to chase them right off the stage. So, yes, they know a thing or two about being a theatrical spectacle to the world. They have seen a thing or two.
Why strut around on the stage we will leave so soon, and perhaps without dignity? If people do strut nonetheless—for humans are proud actors—should they not be read the verse: “Can you then fear mortals who die, human beings who are just grass?”10 In his day, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was arguably the most important human alive. Ten years later with Alzheimer’s, he didn’t know who he was.
As mentioned previously, the American newsman Charlie Rose interviewed Putin in 2015.11 “You have a popularity rating in Russia that would make every politician in the world envious. Why are you so popular?” Rose asked. “There is something that I have in common with every citizen of Russia, the love for our motherland,” Putin replied. Afterwards, Charlie and his team were invited to stay and have tea. “And tea turned into dinner. And the food kept coming in,” Rose said later. It was just like the state dinner of 200 years ago thrown by the czar for the fictional Horatio Hornblower and his British naval officers. It is a fine career, that of an interviewer. In an instant it was over, when Charlie was accused of sexual abuse, one of a long line of prominent men that went down in 2017. But even if it had it not ended that way, is there not an overall sad component to it? He once stated he had enjoyed a wonderful career by reason of knowing so many newsmakers. Are they really worth knowing? All they do is squabble with one another and collectively make the world a chaotic mess. I’ll take the brothers and sisters in my circuit any day.
In 2015, the Irish comedian Stephen Fry abruptly became quite serious on TV. He charged: “Why should I respect a mean-spirited, capricious, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” His words did not sit well with a certain person who reported him to the police. Fry discovered that he had run afoul of a blasphemy law that he had not even known existed. It was as though he was an extremist himself, nabbed for embarrassing the church people. The Irish Defamation Act would penalize any person who publishes or utters blasphemous material, and Fry was therefore investigated.12
What would Fry say to God face-to-face if he had the chance? a show host asked him on television. He answered: “I’d say ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?’ How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil … Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”
Perhaps the Russian Orthodox Church can answer his complaint. Jehovah’s Witnesses can in a heartbeat. It is even a chapter of their basic study book, What Can the Bible Teach Us, entitled Why So Much Suffering? an exploration of verses that effectively reason upon and answer the question. Through their unparalleled public ministry, Jehovah’s Witnesses make every effort to answer Fry’s grievance using the Bible, for surely it has that answer. Dominant churches jealous of their own turf try to run the Witnesses off the road so that they can answer it their way: with defamation laws when ‘God works in mysterious ways’ fails to satisfy. It is well that Russian tort lawyers, if they exist, do not understand scripture, for surely it is religious malpractice to interfere with the quest for the answers as to why there is suffering.
Nonetheless, the learned men have not figured it out, is the gist of ‘Octavius’, so what chance is there that an idiot will? ‘You see,’ Caecilius explains from the 2nd century, but he might just as well be speaking today, “all things in human affairs are doubtful, uncertain, and unsettled.” So it is to be understood that if “some, from the weariness of thoroughly investigating truth, should rashly succumb to any sort of opinion rather than persevere in exploring it with persistent diligence.” He represents those who have done “persistent diligence.” His uneducated Christian opponents do not.13 He later speaks with admiration of a certain philosopher who, “the longer his research continued, the obscurer the truth became to him.” That being so, “in my opinion also, things which are uncertain ought to be left as they are. Nor, while so many and so great men are deliberating, should we rashly and boldly give an opinion in another direction, lest either a childish superstition should be introduced.”14
The reason the great men cannot figure it out is that their wisdom has led them to make a priori assumptions that serve to screen out the true answer when it is presented to them. The ones unindoctrinated need not grapple with these red herrings—frequently they are unaware of them. It really is true that the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s eyes and that he therefore simply ignores it, giving very clear answers only to whomever is willing to extricate themselves from that quagmire.15
This explains why Witnesses of Jehovah can barely contain themselves. Fry cries out the question of the ages. There is scarcely a question more important. The great men have either argued in circles or given up. Yet his question should be answered. Jehovah’s Witnesses have really put themselves out—they have fairly turned their lives upside down—to bring that answer to him, only to be blocked by ‘respectable’ religion. It is not a matter of snatching away church members; let them claim him if they can answer his question. Unfortunately, they cannot, and they will not. They have boxed themselves in with pre-existing notions and unreasonable doctrines. So they don’t try. They take cover instead behind defamation laws. Indeed, several of their doctrines would negate the answer to Fry’s question, though biblically the answer be plain as day.
For example, it is common, upon the death of a young child, for a member of the clergy to explain it with the analogy of how God is picking flowers. It goes something like this: God has a garden; he grows pretty flowers, absolutely the best. But he needs one more. There’s one spot that’s just not right. Ah! The missing ingredient is your sole flower. He’ll pick it. Surely, you’ll be happy. What’s that? You’re not? Who would ever think such an analogy as ‘picking flowers’ would be comforting? It is monstrous. No wonder people go atheist. Take away the most precious thing a person has simply because you have an opening and expect him to be comforted over that?
The ‘picking flowers’ illustration is nowhere found in the Bible. But, just once, the Bible uses an illustration parallel in all respects except the moral, which is exactly opposite from the flower illustration! It takes place after King David, captivated over Uriah’s wife, takes her as his own, impregnates her, and silences her husband by having him killed. The passage reads:
“The LORD sent Nathan to David, and when he came to him, he said: “Tell me how you judge this case: In a certain town there were two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. Of what little he had she ate; from his own cup she drank; in his bosom she slept; she was like a daughter to him. Now, a visitor came to the rich man, but he spared his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him: he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David grew very angry with that man and said to Nathan: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves death! He shall make fourfold restitution for the lamb because he has done this and was unsparing. Then Nathan said to David: ‘You are the man!’”16
Now, this analogy is just! The man is not expected to be comforted that the king stole his lamb to impress his visitor. Anyone who’s ever recoiled in disgust at the ‘picking flowers’ analogy is reacting exactly as the Bible says he should! It is the clergyman who is advocating the obscene. The flower picker is not to be praised. He deserves death! Having followed the prophet Nathan’s logic, the atheists take the moral high road in this instance and kill God! The condemnation of religion at Revelation 18:24: “In her was found the blood of…all the ones who have been slaughtered on the earth,” is not due to her war-stoking record alone. It is not just due to her acts of commission; it is also due to her acts of omission. Such teachers swap Bible truth for junk food, and spiritually starved people forage on evolution and atheism for nourishment.
Since the illustration is slanderous toward God and not found in the Bible, why do so many clergy members use it? The answer is that they have bought into unscriptural and unreasonable doctrines that unfailingly paint them into moral corners. You make a god-awful mess trying to escape from these corners. The unscriptural doctrine here is: ‘When we die we don’t really die.’ That is, there is some component of us, usually called the soul, that lives on. It is immortal. Have you been good? Then death is your friend. You get promoted to heaven, and how can anyone not be happy to see good people promoted? It’s a win-win! The trouble is, people don’t behave as though it’s a win-win. People mourn at funerals, they don’t rejoice. They take a long time to readjust. Some never readjust to the death of their child; children are not supposed to die before the parent. Death is not natural. It is not a friend, as most religions would have us believe. It is an enemy.17
Returning to Fry’s complaint, note who takes the hit for religious negligence. It is God! Fry rails against God, not clergy persons and not religion! He should rail against the latter, for it is they that fail in their job to explain God. It should not be God who takes the hit. Fry simply assumes—what reasonable person would not?—that if there is an answer to a spiritual question, the self-proclaimed experts will have it. That they do not must mean that an answer does not exist. It does not occur to him that the experts are themselves misled, or in some cases even frauds. God’s reputation suffers. Even beyond addressing Fry’s righteous gripe, Jehovah’s Witnesses ardently want to defend God; after all, that is the function of a witness: to defend one who is accused.
It is a stretch, but perhaps Fry will one day come across Jehovah’s Witnesses and be puzzled at finding that they are in Russia a ‘totalitarian sect.’ It is too bad for him that they are so maligned. So fundamental are his questions of God and suffering that even if the repugnant word ‘totalitarian’ was true, he might decide to rethink his objection to it, for it is not as though anyone else in the field of religion has offered anything to satisfy his spiritual thirst. Slandering good people with charges of totalitarianism does not always work. Sometimes the contrast between the accusations and what people can see right before their eyes is too great, and people are drawn to what they might not otherwise have noticed. For some the best motivation to do something is to be told that they cannot. Might Fry be one of those people?
His words were reported to the police by “a member of the public, who asked not to be identified,” and who later explained that he (this is too much—it really is) “had not personally been offended by Fry’s comments—I added that I simply believed that the comments made by Fry were criminal blasphemy and that I was doing my civic duty by reporting a crime.” If the incident mirrors the incidents of many countries, the “member of the public” was an infuriated clergyman, maybe even Dvorkin himself, who was personally offended and therefore tried to arrest the one who had insulted him and his profession. In the end, whoever it was did not succeed. Fry was not charged. It was decided to let the law slide because “no one was hurt.”
Sure, go ahead and slap down Fry, if you must. But also address his complaint. Had his complaint even once been addressed, he might not have launched his TV salvo to begin with. Few pay any attention to the Bible’s explanation of suffering because it is Jehovah’s Witnesses that offer it. As with most things, it is not what is said that is important. It is who says it. People look to a respectable source to answer such questions, for surely answers should come from someone trained in academia, they assume. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice,” says the proverb. ‘Nonsense!’ the world’s movers and shakers respond. ‘It cries aloud in the university campuses and quadrangles. Only ignoramuses are found on the street.’18
How a religion can be considered a respectable source while coming up empty-handed on the fundamental questions of life is a question for others to ponder. But popular religion will ever be a reflection of what people honor most, and such fundamental questions, while they may appear on the list of concerns, do not rank as highly as does fitting in with the world’s overall aims and thereby enjoying respectability.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, at significant expense and inconvenience, have put themselves out to answer questions like Fry’s, should not be impeded. Let’s face it—one builds up some ‘street cred’ through such an unpaid public ministry. There is nothing in it for them. Sure, it can be spun in a derisive manner by persons intent on that aim: that they have a ‘need’ to validate themselves or a ‘need’ to be right. But it is better to take it at face value: as doing a good deed. Witnesses understand kingdom preaching as a Christian duty dictated by love of God, for he is the one who gets slammed—and for neighbor, for they are the ones who suffer for it. If you have knowledge, you don’t just sit on it. How loving would that be? You light the lamp and put it on a lampstand.
After 45 years, I reconnected with an old friend. It was the friend who had ribbed me mercilessly about the United Nations when I had first become a Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a unique understanding of that world body—that it is the ‘image of the wild beast’ of Revelation. The wild beast is the worldwide political system and it has ‘breathed life’ into the image of the wild beast, which is thereby empowered to govern the entire earth as a single organization, something its individual components have proved unable to do. It represents worldwide government by man instead of worldwide government by God, and thus it finds itself in the crosshairs of biblical interpretation.19
It is also in its second life. Its first life was as the League of Nations, formed to maintain peace following World War I. The League failed twenty years after its inception, powerless to dissuade factions gearing up for a repeat war, but the concept was resurrected after World War II as the United Nations. Even this resurrection fits in with a Revelation verse: “The beast that you saw existed once but now exists no longer. It will come up from the abyss…”20 Watchtower President Nathan Knorr predicted the ‘beast’s’ reappearance at a 1942 convention, while the entire world was for the second time at war.21
The two diverging views over just who should govern humankind—man or God—split decisively in 1919. The newly formed League was hailed by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America as “not a mere political expedient; it is rather the political expression of the kingdom of God on earth.” Jehovah’s Witnesses, their head ones just released from Atlanta prison for alleged violation of the 1918 Espionage and Sedition Act, promptly regrouped and announced at a landmark convention: “Behold, the King reigns! You are his publicity agents. Therefore advertise, advertise, advertise, the King and his kingdom,” government by God.22 The contrast could not have been more stark.
Now, I knew the preceding only vaguely at the time, and my friend did not know it at all. His picture of the United Nations had been forged as a child, as had mine. It was the organization that collected money for the eradication of disease. As a child I had carried one of their milk cartons modified to collect coins for just that purpose—what on earth could be wrong with that? My friend harped and harped on it and I finally told him that it was just a footnote, not a big deal, and that he should give it a rest.
The circuit overseer was to visit our congregation and there was to be a special slide presentation. I invited my friend and gave him to understand that, in view of his giving me nothing but grief about my new faith, if he attended this one meeting I would consider that he had given it a fair shake and would thereafter shut up about it. He came and was shoehorned into a crowded Kingdom Hall. All was going well, and I was happy that he was receiving ‘a witness,’ but toward the end of the presentation a slide displayed the U.N. building rent in two by a lightning bolt from heaven! an image that I had never seen before and do not think I have seen since. I should have invited the Soviet leaders instead of my friends, for they would have cheered; Russia routinely got shellacked in the Security Council back then, ever outvoted by the pro-West majority. Putin himself (I am playing a bit here) might even have removed and pounded his shoe in appreciation at that Kingdom Hall meeting, just as Khrushchev had done years before at the U.N itself. But I hadn’t invited the Soviet leaders. I had invited my friend, and I kept my end of the bargain to witness to him no more, with but occasional relapses—for after all, I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Meanwhile, the United Nations continues to function until the world ignores it to embark upon WWIII, but since that has not yet happened, perhaps it must be granted some credit. Every once in a while, I am told, it contacts the Watchtower Society to ask them if they would please drop this ‘wild beast spiel.’
Anyhow, I caught up with my friend again after 45 years. He had been a heavy smoker back in the day and he was now dependent upon an oxygen tank, which impeded his mobility. Who was it that said we spend the first third of our lives ensuring that the final third will be miserable? Once long ago I had commented on that delicious aroma of a newly lit cigarette. “Every puff is like that when you are a smoker,” he replied. Yet now he crusades to dissuade others from that course.
The zealots of New York State bombard me with graphic anti-smoking TV ads, as though intent on spoiling my dinner. Visiting with my old friend was more effective. I thanked Jehovah, for it easily could have been me. I easily could have been funneled into it, for it was all the rage once and it is not to my credit that I abstained. The year I was baptized smoking became an offense for which one could be expelled from the congregation. Some had the most difficult struggle quitting. Some didn’t quit and ceased association with the religion. Yet seeing my old friend, who had lived a life of both joys and sorrows, knowing it will likely be cut short due to the tobacco—it made me grateful for that firmness. Though Witness detractors today complain about many a freedom-restricting policy, I have never known any to complain of this one, which must have saved countless thousands of lives. Should a safety-conscious world ever focus on Witnesses shunning tobacco, drugs, alcohol abuse and warfare, it might mandate that everyone sign on.
My friend will die younger than otherwise, most likely. Yet, is it not but fake news that 80 years and then death is all we should expect? Those of this world settle for so little. If Google and Facebook filter out the fake news of the present, why should not Jehovah’s Witnesses filter out the fake news of the future? If only the Church would do it. Then Witnesses wouldn’t have to. Everlasting life on earth under kingdom rule is the Bible hope. Death in the Adamic system of things is not permanent. “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who are sleeping in death, so that you may not sorrow as the rest do who have no hope,” Paul writes.23 ‘Yes, we do,’ the Church says in effect. ‘Stay ignorant.’
The overall church world will not explain about those ‘sleeping in death.’ They cannot. They have it all backwards and they present death as part of God’s plan. They portray it as is a friend, whereas the Bible clearly says it is an enemy and not part of God’s plan at all. Live a few decades on a trialsome earth, then (if you are good) get promoted to heaven, they say. It is all wrong. It is all unscriptural. Earth is our intended home, the Bible says. While it is true some end up in heaven, it is a tiny group for a special purpose—to rule with Christ as ‘kings over the earth.’ How many nations consist of only kings?24 Religion finds the doctrine that all are heaven-bound hard to convey to young skeptics. It makes no sense to them. Why didn’t God put them there in the first place if that’s where he wanted them? Nor does that hope strike most of them as desirable. They like it here, they point out, or at least they would if humans would stop fouling the nest. What would they ever do with themselves in heaven?
The ban impedes Russian citizens from getting a straight answer to another one of the greatest mysteries of all time: what happens at death? Is this life all there is? Why does Genesis tell of people living 900 years back in that time? What does that portend? Is it really because they measured time differently, as the Presbyterian pastor told me? If so, why do later generations live just 500 years and later still, 200, eventually dropping to 30 or so during the Dark Ages before a reapplication of sanitation principles found in the Torah bounces lifespans back up to the present 80, like a correction in a plummeting stock market?25
Social media can induce depression. Regularly this is heard in the West. ‘My online friends’ lives are so exciting—always they are posting interesting things,’ people say, ‘but my life is so dull.’ Facebook itself is fake news, distorting reality! But even if it did not, even if it relayed the present life accurately, is not this entire world of human devising fake news: ever overpromising and underdelivering? Is not everything outside of spiritual matters fake news? Or at least besides-the-point news. If someone breaks through the fake news to discover the real stuff, as Jehovah’s Witnesses think they have done, can anyone think that one will be satisfied with the fake news again?
Living forever on a paradise earth sounds like a fairy tale. Why expect anyone to waste their time obsessing about that? But it also sounds very good. If the time involved to investigate is substantial or the cost prohibitive, one might expect people to dismiss the notion out of hand. But if the time involved is modest, and the cost is free, some will decide to look into it. They’ll appreciate that someone has gone to a lot of trouble in order to bring that message to them; a free home Bible study to the general public is the signature offer of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Once a person has had the satisfaction of assembling the puzzle pieces that are the Bible, replicating the portrait of the puppy dog or mountain range on the box cover, he is immune to the critic who says he put it together wrong. He is especially immune if that critic’s own puzzle lies unassembled in the box on his closet shelf. Afterwards, with puzzle completed, he is even immune when he is cruising down the highway at full throttle, and the critical atheist on the radio tells him his car doesn’t run.
The puzzle cannot be assembled in church. Too many pieces have been altered and they no longer fit together. It was the same in the first century. In an effort to stay popular and contemporary, the establishment tampered with the pieces, to the point where those pieces became fodder for theological rumination, but roadblocks to actual understanding. Though there were plenty of (Jewish) priests back then, it was for the nascent Christianity’s Phillip to approach the traveling court official who was reading aloud Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked him. “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” was the reply.26
The reconstructed box cover picture is the answer to everything of consequence. God wants us to have it. He wants us to seek and find him. He is “not far from any one of us.”27 If you destroy the puzzle pieces, it is hard to assemble anything that makes sense. Witnesses only want to clarify and preserve the pieces so that the puzzle can be put together. They are guardians of doctrine in that regard. It hardly makes them extremist. Rather, it makes them essential.
Most church teachings are not plainly found in the Bible. The attempt to read them in causes people to throw up their hands in despair of ever understanding the book. The Trinity teaching makes God incomprehensible. The hellfire teaching makes him cruel; Isaac Asimov was not off-base when he likened the hellfire teaching to “the drooling dream of a sadist.” Both doctrines are components of the fake news of religion that was carted out to the curb 100 years ago by early Watchtower associates acting as ‘the messenger preparing the way.’ When you ‘prepare the way’ for any sort of building project, carting out the trash is the first thing you must do. Thereafter you don’t obsess over it. You needn’t tell Waste Management why the contents of the dumpster must go. Accordingly, Watchtower publications rarely mention the trash these days. They are content to provide a toolbox containing a few specialized brochures and magazines to reason with those outside who yet hold onto the old doctrines. But for congregation members they get on with the essence of Christian living.
Christ went under the water in baptism and so did Christians. When they emerge, it is symbolically as with a new personality. He was nailed to the stake. That’s what happened to the old personality of Christians as well. The symbolism helps them with their resolve to continue stripping off the old personality and donning the one that is Christ’s. Squabbling over the trash will have a place so long as there are people who think it is really valuable stuff, but the true power of Christianity lies elsewhere. The verses that can be used to refute the Trinity doctrine were not written for that purpose. Reaching for maturity, the Christian explores the purposes for which they were written.28
Many a person brave on the battlefield cowers at the prospect of discussing spiritual things with a visiting Witness. He worries that his choice weapon, “I never speak of religion or politics,” may not be enough to drive off the assailer. Deep down inside he may suspect that he probably should care more about spiritual things than he actually does, for he has heard, and it sounds laudable, that ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’ Perhaps it is even as Mathew 5:3 says: that the ones conscious of their spiritual needs are the ones who will ultimately be happy. They will seek to fill those needs. All persons have spiritual needs, but they are not necessarily conscious of them, just as they are not necessarily conscious of the need for vitamins. Neglect them at your own peril. One gets sicker and sicker without ever quite knowing why. Strangely, few Bibles are so clear as the New World translation in rendering the expression ‘conscious as to spiritual needs.’ Most settle for an incomprehensible ‘blessed are the poor in spirit,’ or ‘beggars of the spirit.’ If you beg for something, surely you are aware that you need it. Except for the New World Translation, the passage is obscure. Russians will have to ask their relatives across the border to look that verse up for them.
I like the Peter Sellers movie Being There, in which Chauncy very slowly explains to political leaders how one season follows another. They treat him with the greatest deference and assume that he is speaking so slowly so as to allow them to grasp the economic implications of allowing the business cycle to play out. In actuality, he is a mentally challenged man who has difficulty recalling the order of the seasons. The assumptions of the learned are often fake news. The emperor often parades around in invisible clothes and only the children spot it as fake.
Is insistence upon critical thinking, all the rage today, and enjoying a resurgence from the time of Caecilius, among the greatest facilitators of fake news? Criticalthinking.org laments that “much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced….Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.” The web writer assumes that is possible. He continues: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.” Manifestly, this way of thought appeals to persons who are fond of ‘self.’ Critical thought “presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”29 Is not the devil in what it “presupposes?”
Consider the role critical thinking might have played in a 2009 diplomatic spat between Britain and China. The Chinese authorities had just executed a British citizen for drug trafficking in their country, the first such execution since the 1950s. The British had wanted him spared owing to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They’d lobbied hard for that outcome. When it didn’t happen, British Prime Minister Brown cried: “I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted.…I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken. But China would have none of it. “Nobody has the right to speak ill of China’s judicial sovereignty,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. “We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations. We urge the British side to mend its errors and avoid damaging China-British relations.”30
What is dealt with here are differing cultural attitudes towards social policy, criminal conduct, mental illness, personal responsibility, individual rights, and drug use. These are values. Just how does ‘critical thinking’ sort out the interplay between them? For the most part, the two citizenries lined up with the viewpoints of their respective governments. Was critical thinking only to be found among one or the other population? If so, which one? It was China that played the ‘critical thinking’ card first. “We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally,” Jiang said. Why didn’t the Brits think of enshrouding their plea in rationality? Too late now. China beat them to it, and now the British are, by default, irrational.
For all the brouhaha over critical thinking, pigs will fly before nations give up cherished norms forged over decades, even centuries. Critical thinking has its place. There are some areas where it alone delivers. But it is never the be-all and end-all. Don’t let its staunch advocates tell you that they have uncovered the nirvana to establishing truth. They are too quick to presuppose that they are the guardians thereof. From their ranks comes the too-confident person who does not suffer fools gladly—and a fool is anyone with whom he disagrees. His fake news is the most pernicious of all because he takes it as a matter of faith that his method makes him impervious to fakery.
The experience of unity is a profound draw for Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a profound “taste and see that God is good.”31 There are ever so many Witness opponents online, and many of them once were Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. Judging from what they write, it is safe to say that they would not be able to tolerate one another outside of the Internet, where they have united for common cause. They can and doubtless do snipe at each other endlessly on other venues, perhaps over Trump/Hillary, or God/no God, or global warming/global denying, or medicine/alt medicine. They should embrace the world they have collectively chosen. When they see mayhem on TV—embrace it, it is theirs. They once had unity. There were once able to sacrifice some petty freedoms in order to grasp significant ones. But now it is the petty they cherish. It is the ‘Dreamers’ who dream only of where they can suffer the fewest people telling them what to do and where they can make the most money.
When critical thinking is turned upon the Bible itself, the book promptly disintegrates. The reason Jehovah’s Witnesses can look at the Bible as they do is because they have ‘tasted and seen that the LORD is good.’ It is the heart molded by experience and focused effort. But if you hail from the world of criticism, you cannot conceive of unity. You have never seen it. Leave these people to their own devices and there is no Bible book written as presented. Every one of them is a hash of conflicting writers with warring agendas. It is the only reality such scholars have ever experienced, and it colors all their scholarship. Assumptions matter. The course of justice is altered when “innocent until proven guilty” becomes “guilty until proved innocent.” One can demonstrate that the Bible is reasonable, but one cannot prove it. Nor can one prove the opposite. Primarily, it is ‘taste and see.’ In mile-high Denver, Colorado, people believe in floods. They believe in them in New Orleans, too, below sea level, but the quality of their belief differs, for they have ‘tasted and seen’ floods.
Critical thinkers who have not seen unity, save in tyrannical settings, assume it does not exist. Their world is one of critical argument. Their vehemence in argument is emblematic of why it does not work. No attempt is made to relate to the other side. The intent is only to demolish it. Sometimes I worry that their cherished evolution is true and that they are the final product of it. If so, kiss any prospects of getting along goodbye. The trouble with critical thinking is that its proponents invariably assume that they have a lock on the stuff and that, consequently, their role is to correct others.
Some years back I conversed with one of these fellows at his door. He insisted that I define all my terms, interrupting me frequently to that end. If I said “religion,” for example, he said “define religion.” If I said “God,” he said “define God.” If I said “system,” he said “define system.” This happened four or five times and, in an effort to break the mood, find common ground, and simply be pleasant, I commented upon his steep driveway—that it must make for challenging driving in the winter. He corrected me! He had planned it at exactly the right pitch and composition and alignment toward the sun, so that, on days the sun appeared, ice would melt before he had to traverse it. “He even argued about his driveway!” my dumbfounded companion said, as we walked down it.
Jesus cares little about the head, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not especially ‘heady.’ For every appeal Jesus makes to the mind, he makes ten to the heart, spinning parables that he rarely explains. Even when he offers explanation, it is not such that it would satisfy the critical thinker. Perhaps he does it so that the latter, too impressed with their own wisdom and demands for proof, will argue themselves right off the deck of the ship before it reaches its destination. Says the Lord: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because “they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: “You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.”32
Cherished methods of argumentation are not the Christian priority. Jesus freely utilizes hyperbole, a device which may so frustrate the critical thinker that he is apt to label it simply an untruth. So be it. In his own way, he is as rigid as is the fundamentalist who would take the expression ‘crocodile tears’ to mean that (I am exaggerating here just a bit) whoever is being spoken of is a crocodile. Of course, one must strive to make sense, for “Paul joined them, and for three Sabbaths he entered into discussions with them from the scriptures, expounding and demonstrating that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead, and that ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus, whom I proclaim to you.’” One must be like the Beroeans and check that all things told really can be established.33 But one needn’t feel constrained to follow the rules of a world that worships critical thinking, since it sometimes is their first rule that you can’t move any of your pieces. If they shriek that you have raised a strawman, point out that Jesus wants men of all sorts to be saved—even straw men. There’s nothing wrong with strawmen. They are used in the Bible frequently. They are a fine rhetorical means of telling an unreasonable person: ‘Your point is too silly to merit a serious response,’ just as in the Star Trek episode wherein Mr. Spock promises to give Dr. McCoy’s suggestion all the attention it merits. He pauses a split second, then proceeds with his business.
The mind does not run the show. Judging from how seldom Jesus appeals to it as opposed to the heart, it never did. It is the heart that decides what it wants. It then employs the mind to cloak around its desire a veneer of respectable rationality, if such can be arranged. If it cannot, the heart just makes a grab for what it wants and charges the head to devise a rationale whenever it gets around to it.
Critical thinking cannot save us. Many things today are, for all practical purposes, unknowable, with endless permutations that can be spun in endless ways, often deliberately, by ones of vested interests who wish to muddy the waters. One must look to the heart for guidance, and even leadership. The head will catch up in time. Max Planck the physicist, surely one who appreciated critical thinking, observed: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Even that statement presupposes that the new truths accepted after a generation truly are truths. It is not inevitable that they are. They are sometimes the mountains and hills that crumble just when you must lean upon them the most.
There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false, says John P. A. Ioannidis in an abstract to a study examining the topic. “Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”34 Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, adds: “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”35 Dr. Marcia Angell writes similarly: “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.”36
The devotees of reason toil away at their favorite model and do not notice when their tools are hijacked by sinister forces. Sometimes it is ego. Other times it is money. The majority team gets the ball, tilts the field against the minority team, and may even seek to obliterate them. Many things established have been established by decree. Many things proven have been proven by ignoring evidence to the contrary. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” stated Upton Sinclair. A foremost observation of critical thinking ought to be that we are not very good at it.
Critical thinking is a tool only as good as those who would wield it. The typical person has much on his plate and cannot be expected to uncover the ruses. He is safeguarded only when he assumes that ‘science,’ like everything else in this world, is contaminated. It is frequently enough trumped by money or politics that it must be never be taken as an absolute. It’s great stuff, science is. Pour me a double-shot of it. But it must not be relied upon as the primary means of establishing truth. One need not be overly concerned over the latest decree of contemporary science. Sometimes it changes. Even though it be a tsunami. it reverses course and goes right back into the hole from which it came.
The greater world recommends attaining wisdom. So, too, does the Bible. But the two brands are not the same. In some respects, they are polar opposites. “The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits,” says the Bible.36 ‘Peaceful and gentle?’ The world would say no. ‘Compliant?’ It is a quality inviting contempt. ‘Full of mercy and good fruits?’ No. It goes where it goes and takes umbrage should anyone impose upon it standards of good or bad. The two brands are not the same. Either the wisdom of the Bible is foolish, or the wisdom of this world is.
Is this why those who accept the Bible as presented by Jehovah’s Witnesses do so in the first place? They conclude that the Bible’s wisdom is better. Upon investigation, they see the diverse pieces come together to reveal the vista on the box cover. They taste and see that Jehovah is good. The latter has nothing to do with critical thinking, the former only marginally so. The critical thinker would first analyze the pieces in close detail, find blemishes in each, and thereby throw them all away.
Anyone reading through the Old Testament cannot but help pick up the refrain, the rundown of God’s dealing with Israel: “I let my people get beat up because they were too bad for too long. But then the nations said: ‘Look! God cannot protect his own people!’ So I beat them up too. And I brought my own people back just to show them.” It is no more complicated than that with the great God of all creation? No. It is not. Sometimes we can overthink things. Though his wisdom surpasses all understanding and we can see only the fringe of his ways, when he chooses to relate to humans, he is breathtaking in his pedestrian common sense. He is not ashamed of it. He glorifies it.38
- Fact Check: “Did Trump Warn Russia Over Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban and Urge Members to Seek Asylum in the U.S.?” snopes.com, May 2, 2017, accessed March 28, 2018, https://www.snopes.com/jehovahs-witness-russia-trump-asylum/
- The Octavius of Minucius Felix, Roberts-Donaldson English [from Greek] Translation, c160-250 A.D, chapters VIII, IX, compiled by Peter Kirby, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/octavius.html. The debate between an early Christian (Octavius) and a Roman skeptic (Caecilius) is among the oldest, possibly the oldest, of extant Christian Latin literature.
- The Octavius, XII
- Kevin Roose, “Here Come the Fake Videos, Too,” New York Times, March 4, 2018
- Isaiah 5:20-25
- 1 Corinthians 7:31
- 1 Corinthians 4:9
- Word History: “The Origin of ‘Hypocrite’- This Common Word Has a Dramatic Origin Story,” Merriam-Webster, accessed March 28, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/hypocrite-meaning-origin
- Luke 23:2
- Isaiah 51:12
- Harrison Koehli, “Sott Exclusive: Full Unedited Text of Vladimir Putin’s Interview with Charlie Rose: What CBS Left Out,” sott.net, September 29, 2015, accessed March 28, 2018, https://www.sott.net/article/302911-Sott-Exclusive-Full-unedited-text-of-Vladimir-Putins-interview-with-Charlie-Rose-What-CBS-left-out. It doesn’t hurt to see what was left out. It reinforces perception that the media of any country pursue primarily the memes popular in that country.
- Padraig Collins, “Stephen Fry Investigated by Irish police for Alleged Blasphemy,” The Guardian, May 6, 2017, accessed March 28, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/may/07/stephen-fry-investigated-by-irish-police-for-alleged-blasphemy
- The Octavius, V
- The Octavius, XIII
- 1 Corinthians 3:19
- 2 Samuel 12:1-7
- 1 Corinthians 15:26.
- Proverbs 1:20
- Revelation 13:14-15
- Revelation 17:8
- Jehovah’s Witnesses – Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1992) 262
- Ibid., 192
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13
- 1 Corinthians 15:26, Revelation 5:10
- Genesis chapters 5 and 11, Psalm 90:10
- Acts 8:30-31
- Acts 17:27
- Romans 6:4-6, Colossians 3:9
- “Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking,” The Foundation for Critical Thinking, accessed March 28, 2018, http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/our-concept-and-definition-of-critical-thinking/411
- Associated Press, “China Confirms the Execution of British Citizen Akmal Shaikh, Despite UK Plea,” New York Daily News, December 29, 2009, accessed March 28, 2018, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/china-confirms-execution-british-citizen-akmal-shaikh-uk-plea-article-1.432326
- Psalm 34:8
- Matthew 13:13-15
- Acts 17:2, 11
- John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLoS, August 30, 2005, accessed March 28, 2018, http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
- Richard Horton, “Offline: What is Medicine’s 5 Sigma?” thelancet.com, Vol 385, April 11, 2015, accessed March 28, 2018, http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2960696-1.pdf
- Marcia Angell, “Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption,” The New York Review of Books, January 15, 2009, accessed March 28, 2018, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/01/15/drug-companies-doctorsa-story-of-corruption/
- James 3:17
- Job 26:14