Fact, Fiction and Phariseeism

Jul 30, 2013 Comment(s) Tags: , ,

Can a story be ‘true’ without being factual or historical? Certainly—as we all know, Jesus taught with parables; indeed, He hardly taught anything –without- using parables. We can even find truth –in- all kinds of stories we might not call ‘true’—for instance, in pagan myths, or in contemporary fiction or film. Just last weekend I attended Doxacon, a conference put on by St. Mary’s Orthodox parish in Falls Church, VA, with the theme “The Truth is Out There: Where Faith and Truth Meet Science Fiction and Fantasy”. The chairman’s opening remarks made reference to St. Basil the Great, who taught his students that pagan mythology could be a good source of truth and moral example—but with the caveat that they must use discernment in their reading.

In the last few decades, the previously unknown literary genre of “Creative Non-Fiction” emerged into prominence with books such as Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer winner Angela’s Ashes. Blurring the distinctions between fact and fiction for the sake of a more compelling story, these sorts of books are sometimes revealed to have taken more than a few liberties with the facts.

Or consider the current obsession with ‘reality’ TV shows. How real are the people, how true the events featured, when the very presence of cameras can’t help but introduce a certain falsity into the situation?

Meanwhile, on the internet, fact and fiction mingle freely every day, particularly in the form of items passed on instantly without any discernment via social media.

Enter Jeremiah Steepek, pastor disguised as a homeless man. His 10 thousand member mega-church snubbed him, with only two or three people speaking to him, and NONE giving him the change he begged for. He then came up to the pulpit, rags and all, to deliver a stinging sermon to the church full of heartless hypocrites. This story, accompanied by a striking black and white photo portrait—presumably of Mr. Steepek—spread like, well, a virus, but it wasn’t long before the skeptics on sites like hoaxbusters and snopes.com were pointing out the almost-obvious: Google can’t find Steepek and his unnamed megachurch anywhere but in this same story.

The backlash against the debunkers began: “It’s a BRILLIANT story, a WONDERFUL story! How DARE you judge, it doesn’t MATTER if it isn’t true, it has a good lesson!!!!!”

Certainly the story was a parable, with the unexceptional moral “We shouldn’t neglect the homeless.” Sort of reminds you of The Good Samaritan, doesn’t it? But there are some noteworthy differences.

When Jesus taught in parables, he was teaching in an accepted genre in the rabbinical tradition. The Good Samaritan comes in response to a specific question from an audience member who, told to love his neighbour, wants to know “and who is my neighbour then?” The questioner is of course trying to determine who is –not- his neighbour, so he won’t have to love that person.

The whole audience knows they are about to hear a fictional story that will teach them a lesson, when Jesus says “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…..” They also know Jesus is critical of the religious establishment, but even his audience of the disenfranchised are not prepared for a foreigner and heretic like a Samaritan to become the hero of the story. The impact of the tale is in this surprise ending.

The Pastor Steepek story, however, which appeared full-blown on the internet to a world that didn’t ask for it, seems to have no hero—only a prophet-preacher disguised as a victim of an exaggerated number of oppressors. The big reveal at the ending of this story is intended to shame the church members and berate them for their coldness. Pastor Steepek doesn’t let his little trick with the false identity speak for itself, but pounds in the lesson with several paragraphs of sermon at the end of the story.

In contrast, Jesus doesn’t preach. The priest and Pharisee are shown passing by on the other side, but instead of belabouring the shameful cold-heartedness of these characters, the Lord focuses his main attention on the unexpected hero, the Samaritan, relating in great detail the kindness and generosity of this ethnic and religious outcast.

Why does a story like the Pastor Steepek one get passed on with such speed and excitement? The superficial appearance of it being a ‘real’ story with a named protagonist does help to speed it on its way. But mostly I think this is the kind of story that appeals to the New Pharisees.

Pharisees are always with us. Christians in film and TV are overwhelmingly portrayed as stereotypical hypocrites who preach such things as sexual morality and honesty, looking down on others while all along stealing and committing adultery. Christians are relentlessly labelled as the Pharisees of today.

But there are other Pharisees of course, those who like the Pharisee in another parable, thank God (or thank themselves, if they do not believe in God) that they are ‘not like those Christians’. There are even Christians who thank God that they are ‘not like those other so-called Christians, those mega-church Christians.’ The Steepek story invites just such self-congratulation from some readers, while playing upon the collective guilt of others.

No doubt there are some Christians who would not help out a homeless man who asked for change at church. But to what extent is this part of the Steepek story really ‘true’ even if not factual? What if there were a similar story that really did happen?

In fact the hoax busters turned up one such story about a pastor who dressed up as a homeless man. His name is Willie Lyle and he pastors a real church in Tennessee. Not a megachurch, but one of modest size, with about 200 members. He decided to spend a few days as a homeless person on the street, and ended up lying on the lawn of his church on Sunday morning. Though unrecognized by his flock, he received the offer of help from about twenty of them. That’s a tenth of the congregation, and more than enough to actually give him some kind of help if it were needed. In addition, Pastor Lyle told of how he quickly found resources provided by Christian charitable agencies on the streets. More was needed, of course, but his story contains no blame or shame of supposed ‘Pharisees’, only positive examples.

The Pastor Steepek parable remains a bit mysterious—who wrote it, and why? The photo seems to be taken from the site of a photographer who snapped the picture of a homeless man in Surrey, UK. Unless the photographer is also the author of the parable, or gave his permission for the photo’s use, there is certainly a question of ethics regarding its use, with both the photographer and his subject possibly being wronged by its indiscriminate posting around the net. Did the author of the parable intend to trick people, the same way Pastor Steepek in the story tricked people to make a point? If so, he didn’t try very hard. The unusual name of the pastor plus the lack of name for the megachurch guaranteed the hoax would soon be found out. Was this done by a dumb (but of course hypocritical) Christian? Was it done by a malicious anti-Christian person who wanted to show Christians as not only hypocritical and careless about the needy, but also gullible enough to pass around a made-up story as if it were real? We don’t know. The use of the photo is manipulative and deceptive, but does that matter? Is it a good story anyway?

The deception certainly only succeeded as much as it did because of the nature of social media and our constant information overload. We see a photo and a name shared by a friend, scan the high points of the story, and click ‘like’. Too few people in the chain of shares examine what they pass on very closely, and with Christians this is perhaps partly because we have had too much emphasis on being ‘harmless as doves’ rather than ‘wise as serpents.’ The truth is, Christians can be gullible.

In our media-saturated world, we need discernment more than ever. Stories of all kinds, fact or fiction, can be edifying, but absorbing them whole and uncritically can poison our perspective. “It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it’s a great story!” Really? So, does it matter if the Resurrection is true, as long as it’s a great story?

As for Pastor Steepek’s story, I have to say I don’t think it’s a particularly good story. Placed next to the Good Samaritan and to the factual story of Pastor Lyle, the tale of Pastor Steepek comes off as rather predictable, heavy-handed, mean-spirited and preachy.

Still, perhaps the best thing to come from this thinly-disguised parable is not its own heavy-handed moral, but that it has drawn attention to the story of Pastor Lyle. You can read that one here. It is well worth your time, and worth passing on too. Meanwhile, as we surf the net, let’s renew our efforts at discernment and remember to pause before we click ‘share’.

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Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Donna Farley has been writing all her life, and currently…
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