Monday, August 4, 2008

Jesus on Bullshit

I just finished Harry G. Frankfurt's bestselling little book, On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005). If I were really cool, I would've read and commented on it a couple of years ago. Then again, I've long since learned that any attempts at coolness on my part always backfire.

For those who don't know, On Bullshit is a serious work of philosophy though it is less than 70 pages long. Frankfurt has since published On Truth, which I have not read. Frankfurt's distinction between bullshit and lying may illuminate Jesus' saying concerning oaths (Matt 5:33-36; cf. James 5:12). Lying, according to Frankfurt, requires a concern with the truth. Lying happens when someone says something that they know to be false in an effort to lead others to believe what is false. In other words, to lie you have to care about the truth. But bullshit happens when people don't care about the truth at all. Bullshit is simply talking for the sake of some purpose unrelated to the words coming from one's mouth.

Perhaps the most simple case of bullshit occurs when a student says something like, "I bullshitted my way all the way through the exam." What that student means is usually something like this, "I wrote and wrote, hoping to confuse the instructor into thinking I had something of value to say, hoping I got lucky and said something relevant, most of all hoping to cover up my ignorance."

Jesus' sayings concerning oaths strikes somewhere near this point. The saying stands among the famous Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard it said, but I tell you...." Jesus begins by addressing a commandment concerning fulfilling oaths, then he moves on to prohibit oaths altogether. Just "Let your word be, 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'' anything more than this comes from the evil one" (NRSV).

And what is the purpose of an oath? An oath serves not to make a truth claim but to attest to the sincerity of the person speaking the oath. In other words, an oath is a kind of personal guarantee having nothing directly to do with the matter at hand. In short, oaths are a specific form of bullshit.

I grew up in Alabama, where bullshit is an art form. To be honest, I enjoy bullshit a lot. However, Christian groups have occasionally emphasized Jesus' teaching concerning oaths. These promote a sober approach to human interaction, where people say exactly what they mean, no more and no less. Personally, I find that approach to life a little stifling. On the other hand, I see way too much bullshit in the church, from fake enthusiasm in worship leaders, to fake happiness in ordinary people. Folks can spot that kind of bullshit a mile away, and it does great harm to the church. Indeed, I bullshit may be one of the major reasons that most churches are declining. If Christian faith isn't strong enough to engage real life, why bother?

I recommend Frankfurt's On Bullshit.


Luke said...

hey greg! thanks for yet another book i have no time to read! ;-)

i love the concept here.. despite public appearances i really don't tolerate a whole lot of bullshit. i try to have purpose and meaning to everything i say and will refuse to be polite just for polite-sake. for example: i won't give out an empty invatation.. if i want you at my house, you'll be invited and welcomed. if i don't want you there, i won't invite you.

does that make sense?

anywho... it's a hard rope we walk.. we here in seminary are usually caught between saying something but endlessly qualifying it out of existence... or saying "nothing" with conviction.

Maggie said...

Greg - Sounds like something I should read. All my life I've been trying to understand honesty. This book seems to add another dimension worthy of considering. Have you read Sisela Bok's book on Lying?

Greg Carey said...

No, I didn't know about Bok's book. Would love to hear more about it, Maggie.

Maggie said...

Greg - have you seen the article "If the Truth Were Told" in the latest Christian Century? Very interesting. Something to add to the conversation, especially on the idea of having some regard for the truth.
Bok's book has been around for years. It is a philosophical examination of truth and the ethics of lying - all of the many varieties of lies.

Greg Carey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Carey said...

Thanks, Maggie. I was ignorant. I'll look up the CC piece.

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