Saturday, January 14, 2006

Tricked by "Truthiness"

It is bad enough that author James Frey’s best-selling and Oprah-propelled “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces as been outed as largely fictional by Smoking Gun's piece, "A Million Little Lies." (No one I’ve read is denying that Frey’s book is riddled with fiction posing as fact.) Oprah now says she still stands by the book. Frey has issued no real apologies. Rather, “truthiness” (it would be nice if it were true) is good enough, so long as it inspires people. One benighted blogger even defended Frey by saying that memoirs in postmodern times don’t have to be truthful. (To his credit, he later recanted and pulled the post.)

What we don’t find in Frey or Oprah is repentance: the humble stance that admits wrong, apologizes, and promises to do better. Instead, we get spin and the redefinition of terms (shades of Clinton and “is”). Oprah says it was the publisher’s responsibility to label the genre; but it doesn’t matter since it has helped people with addictions. But it has been pointed out in The New York Times that Frey’s book would not likely have become a best-seller as a novel. The lie of authenticity was essential to its illicit ascent. And one spunky reader is suing the publisher for fraud. She bought a “memoir” and she got a novel. Good for her.

Amidst all the dizzying spin and excuse-making, Christians should rejoice the ultimate story of redemption—the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ—is factual, verifiable, authentic, and incomparable. As Os Guinness wrote years ago, “Christianity isn’t true because it works. It works because it’s true.”

13 comments:

Hobie said...

Umm... No one wrote a word about Jesus for 50 years after his death. The life-span of a person back then was somewhere between 30 and 50. So, it's unlikely that anyone who wrote about Jesus actually knew him.

Does that make the story of Jesus any the less powerful? No it doesn't. But it does give one pause in considering the "facts" of his life. Whether or not all the facts of Jesus' life are verifiable or not doesn't matter, as the story affects our hearts and changes our lives.

Frey is not Jesus. Frey is an addict. As such, his story had depth and weight for me and enabled me to come further along in my recovery. If you want to discount that because he didn't all the things he said he did, then I question your "truthiness."

Santos said...

Being inspired (in the sense of being motivated to change how one lives ones life) by a good story whether is true or not is a very sad delusion.

Hobie asks "Does the story of Jesus any less powerful if it were not factual? (he seems to have made his mind that is not) My answer: It depends. If what is meant by "powerful" is the dramatic effect of Jesus' story, I suppose it would not.

On the other hand if what is meant by powerful is what Paul means by it when he says that the gospel is the "power of God for salvation" then it has to be factual to have such power.

I am truly glad that hobie is progressing in his recovery and I don't think Doug is discounting that. If Frey "didn't do all the things he said he did" he lied. I would encourage you to find true recovery in He who never lies.

Douglas Groothuis said...

The New Testament was written by eyewitnesses or those who consulted eyewitnesses. The synoptics were very likely written before 70 AD. John was an eyewitness and written sometime later.

The essence of Christianity is historical, factual. The New Testament accounts are not presented as myths, legends, or literary creations. See the prologue to Luke, for example (chapter one, verses 1-4). CS Lewis realized that they did read as such, given his vast knowledge of fictional genres. That was one reason he became a Christian.

Paul says that if Christ is not risen, Christian's faith is in vane. See the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. He wrote that in the 50s, only twenty years or so after Jesus death and resurrection. He there appeals to the witness of many people, some who were still living!

I hope Hobie turn to the Christ who conquered death and offers real hope to all who are burdened and heavy laiden.

Weekend Fisher said...

The "life span" fallacy is common enough. Let's say for the sake of argument that those numbers are right and the average lifespan was 40. That includes all the people who died as infants and children. There was nothing unusual about living to old age; there was just nothing unusual about dying in infancy or childhood either. It's not like everybody just hit the median. Even these days when the average is somewhere in the 70's, there are a lot of people who die in their 60's and then a lot more who make it well into their 80's.

Ed Darrell said...

I'm amused by the claim that memoirs sell better than novels. They sell better compared to the business help books on the non-fiction lists, perhaps -- but there are more novels sold than non-fiction, especially at the top of the best-seller lists.

What, exactly, is it you want Oprah to repent for? What did she do "wrong?" Is the book's value completely destroyed by its being fictional (in a small part, even), as opposed to the value of "A Christmas Carol," which, if untruth/truthiness be the disqualifying factor, must be one fo the least useful books of all time?

The story of Jesus is factual (we take on faith, authentic (but so is "Huck Finn"), and incomparable to any one of the stories it is often compared to. Verifiable? Not in any official form. Thomas was probably the last who got to verify it, and Jesus noted at the time that others would need to take it on faith.

Truthiness isn't vacant from Christianity, though. Note how many think "God helps those who help themselves" comes from the Bible. Note how many mistake Genesis for a science text.

David said...

ed darrell,

This week's issue of Time magazine runs a story on this James Frey episode and cites a Nielsen BookScan stat that non-fiction outsells fiction by about 100 million books a year.

In response to this fact, Michael Coffey at Publishers Weekly comments that "Fiction seems to have lost a lot of authority in the culture...People now look more toward true stories as something that justifies the expense of their time."

So this insight might explain why someone like Frey would be tempted to advertise his book as a memoir, rather than a work of fiction. A true story of redemption is more likely to captivate an audience than a made up one.

This also suggests that Frey's actions are particularly egregious, since he seems to be manipulating his readers' naivete in order to turn a profit.

Ed Darrell said...

Well, I stand corrected.

Now, can anyone tell me yet what Oprah is to apologize for? How she is to blame for the untruthful claims of a person who is not under her thumb nor in any other way doing her bidding is just beyond me.

Is Oprah your brother's keeper?

Heck, if George Bush got half the flack Frey got for telling whoppers many times more damaging, we'd be closer to justice.

Ed Darrell said...

Sam Alito told a similar fiction on his application to the Ed Meese Department of Justice. Should Oprah apologize for Alito, too?

Douglas Groothuis said...

O should admit she was duped and apologize for promoting a fictional book as truthful. It's simple.

David said...

ed darell,

I think I understand your point that Oprah is not directly responsible for the fictions in Frey's book. That much is true. But the reason it was important for Oprah to apologize, I believe, is because of the influence of her book club. Simply put, if she endorses a book, it will start selling like hot cakes. So she does have some responsibility to say to her fans, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have promoted this book." That's pretty simple, and I don't think that would involve her significantly losing face. The American people are a very forgiving and understanding bunch.

Ed Darrell said...

We agree there is fiction in the book: Does that make it a bad book? Is there any reason NOT to recommend it, other than some vague notion that means sometimes direct the ends?

Why should Oprah not recommend the book now? What part of it is less inspiring, or less true?

Douglas Groothuis said...

If the book claimed truth, and offered plenty of fiction. That brings nearly everything about it into question. The drug addict has not recovered from lying, apparently. It is sad.

If you want a truthful and inspiring story, I recommend "Born Again" by Charles Colson or (better yet) "The Confessions" by Saint Augustine.

Susan said...

Oprah reads your blog?:
James Frey Gets Grilled Live On Winfrey's Talk Show