In A World Of Fake News, Is Fake Theology Next?


Jesus wasn't a refugee – at least not in the minds of the presenters of Fox & Friends. The Fox News network chat show dismissed the idea that the infant Jesus escaped to Egypt with his family, after high profile pastor Rev Al Sharpton tweeted about it. Presenters Steve Doocy and Carley Shimkus claimed that in fact, Jesus' family were simply travelling around to pay their taxes, possibly conflating two separate Gospel stories in the process.

Doocy and Shimkus are of course mistaken. The biblical account clearly finds an angel in Matthew 2:13 telling Joseph to "Arise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt and stay there," because Herod wants the baby dead. It's the very definition of having to seek political asylum, and it's a view confirmed by a vast majority of scholars and sources, not least including the Catholic Church itself. The trouble is that this view aired unchecked on an influential show, passed off as a correction of the facts by its rather dismissive hosts.

It's not the first time that Fox presenters have attempted to challenge conventional wisdom on the bible and its contents. According to The Kelly File presenter Megyn Kelly in 2013, "Jesus was white", and this was part of his verifiable historicity. Although Kelly later confessed that this fact is "far from settled", the damage of such an unqualified outburst had already been done. Plenty of other voices joined in to support her original statement, in the face of overwhelming evidence that as a Middle Eastern man, Jesus would have been Middle Eastern.

Communication, and the way we hear and process news has changed rapidly since the advent of the Internet, but in more recent days this revolution has taken a worrying turn. As has been written variously elsewhere, facts now seem secondary to forceful viewpoints, and become replaced by 'alternative truth'. Fake news started as satirical or fraudulent media created with the intent to mislead or amuse, but it seems that President Trump and his supporters have co-opted the term as an accusation to throw at mainstream media sources that don't support their view.

This approach only thrives in a world where information is so prolific and overwhelming that we've lost touch with the capacity to keep a grasp on the facts. We learn to trust sources who confirm our own beliefs and biases, and believe what they tell us instead of checking the facts behind what they say. And while that's understandable, it's also incredibly dangerous.

What's particularly worrying in a nominally-Christian context like the United States, is that the hosts of Fox & Friends have demonstrated that this same approach can be transferred from news to theology. High profile, trusted sources can make potentially outrageous statements about the Bible and get away with it unchallenged, potentially reframing the theology of millions of viewers as they do so.

Since Jesus' actual teachings are fairly inconvenient if you happen to want to build walls between people groups, foster an environment of prejudice and prioritise the interests of the rich, Fake Theology could become a powerful tool in the New America. Remember that Donald Trump himself is a man who once claimed his favourite Bible verse was "never bend to envy", a proverb which doesn't actually exist – and he's managed to convince huge portions of the church that he's Born Again. Why wouldn't those same people begin to trust his claims about what God thinks, wants, and even says in the Bible? Declining biblical literacy makes Fake Theology a potentially powerful political tool.

The only way that any of us can avoid this potential phenomenon from taking a grip is by ensuring that we're in the habit of checking for ourselves what the Bible really says. That's not just applicable when we listen to world leaders; it's also relevant when we're sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning. I was once at a conference where a provocative preacher read a passage from Philippians 5, to an audience of silent nodding young Christians. When he had finished, he asked what people thought, and their affirming noises turned to shrieks of horror when he revealed the punchline of his point: there is no Philippians 5.

Jesus famously said "I am the truth", and as his followers, we should naturally want to pursue the same. We might find instances and accusations of fake news distasteful, but subverting the truth about Jesus is urgently – and eternally – dangerous. Let's keep our eyes open and our brains switched on. No 'trusted source' should be a replacement for knowing God and his word for ourselves, and that's possibly more important now than ever.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.