17 November 2008

"Honesty" Without Truth?

by Phil Johnson

mong the many words (and concepts) that have been deconstructed and redefined for these postmodern times is the idea of honesty.

You know: doubt is the new "humility"; free-thinking is the new "tolerance"; moral apathy is the new "charity"; and now querulousness is the new "honesty."

To the postmodern mind, "honesty" has come to mean the uninhibited venting of every egocentric feeling, every nagging doubt, every petty complaint, every subversive thought, and every negative passion. Maturity and discretion used to keep people from indiscriminately expressing certain potentially-destructive thoughts aloud—much less broadcasting them to the world. In fact, a natural—and valid—sense of shame kept most of our ancestors from publishing detailed memoirs of their own crimes and misdemeanors for all the world to see (cf. Ephesians 5:12).

But nowadays you can blog a detailed account of your latest argument with your spouse; post it so that everyone from here to Timbuktu can read it; claim you are simply journaling a candid confession—baring your very soul for the cathartic effect such unbridled candor brings; and then just luxuriate in the warmth of countless flattering comments from voyeurs who will enthusiastically congratulate you for your "refreshing honesty."

As if such "honesty" were in short supply these days.

There are forums in every corner of the Internet where people enthralled with that style of honesty go to exhibit the mischief in their brains for one another's benefit, and to enjoy one another's fulminations. You've got the pub-themed group blogs on the dark side of the Christian blogosphere, countless forums and e-mail lists that serve a similar purpose, and plenty of participants all around who are happy to reinforce one another's petulance—all in the name of transparency.

One of the best-known and most creative of these is PostSecret, a blog where people make grunge-art post-card "confessions" of their deepest, darkest secrets. (I would link to it, but frankly many of the confessions are too smutty to get a link from here.) I find "PostSecret" deeply disturbing. I'm especially amazed and appalled that so many people say they think it's "beautiful." Still, what really kills me is all the self-congratulatory braggadocio about "honesty" from people who like to make a pageant of their shame. How honest, really, is an anonymous "confession"?

In a similar way it turns my stomach when these quasi-Christian Internet forums populated by people who revel in doubt and dissidence give themselves kudos for their "honesty" while they are busy making a burlesque of the very idea of truth. And ditto when someone wants to pretend there's something extra-candid about smutty language.

See, the thing is—real honesty is about truth. And if your attitude toward truth ranges anywhere from angry contempt to blithe indifference, you don't get to pat yourself on the back for your "honesty," no matter how unrestrained or exhibitionistic you let yourself be with those things you'd probably be better off seeking private help for.

"A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back" (Proverbs 29:11).

Phil's signature


Willem Bronkhorst said...

Spot on, once again! Many of these "honest Christian pubcrawlers" are not honest enough, though, to come right out and confess openly that they have not believed the Word of God for a long time, if ever, while most of us can see this for ourselves without them saying so.

Andrew E. Courtis said...

This is very good Phil, I appreciate your comment near the end, "real honesty is about truth."

greglong said...

Or how about the site an Indiana megachurch put up to get traffic for its series based on "The Office" TV series: "myofficesecrets.com" (no longer available), where anyone could go to anonymously share their office secrets for all the world to see.

Thanks, Phil. Great post.

J♥Yce Burrows said...

Appreciate this post in an Oprahization...or is that Springerization era? online and off. Never heard of PostSecret; would it be a negative to be out of such a lack of etiquette loop? Washington Post's Miss Manners would suggest a locked diary in the sock drawer ~ for the discreet person that wants to gossip about themself and others politely and without malice. Shameful.

Your last paragragh sums it up well.

Kim said...

Hear hear, re your comments about PostSecret. Many of the young people in our church talk about this, and I was horrified by some of what I saw.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Phil, my thoughts exactly. Real honesty is about truth.

donsands said...

"Maturity and discretion used to keep people from indiscriminately expressing certain potentially-destructive thoughts aloud—much less broadcasting them to the world."

Yep. Some people get a kick out of hanging their dirty laundry out for all to see.

Thanks for the good post.

DJP said...

I aimed at this area in this series, but you did it far more concisely and memorably.

candy said...

How interesting that you should mention PostSecrets. My son just told me he bought a book in San Fran by Frank Warren, who put together PostSecrets. I had never heard of this until two days ago. My son loves the book and told me that one of the postcards inspired him to go see a therapist. Sigh. Such a shallow world that finds more meaning in random postcards than in the God of the universe.

James Scott Bell said...

Part of the problem (perhaps the major part) is the feminization of culture and the church. These bare all, emotion-led expositions come from the "just express your feelings" pop-psychobabble school of unisex utopianism. It used to be considered a manly virtue to fight against your baser instincts, to stand up for truth, and to restrain yourself from spilling every corner of your emotional drawer out onto the public table.

Life is hard and male headship was instituted to lead that fight. Take away the headship, indeed the whole idea of its validity, and you get an unwillingness to fight for truth and right conduct, an unwillingness that now infects the church.

Matt said...

Wow. Johnny Dialectic, your thoughts are just as good as Phil's.

Great thoughts, Phil. I've often wondered how emergers can feign such indignation for dishonesty when their erosion of truth doesn't allow for as much.

Oh, and best graphic ever. The bowl, that is.

Rick Frueh said...

Truth demands responsibility.

Uncertainty elicits more dialogue.

Honest uncertainty about core issues many times morphs into a self righteous aversion to arrive at truth. The uncertain round table is sometimes a self gratifying venue where committed truth is considered an obstacle to discourse.

The Words of Jesus were sometimes so offensive, so uncomfortably certain, that they took up stones to kill Him. Norman Vincent Peale would have been ashamed.

Ben N said...

Nicely put, Phil!

Chesterton saw it coming: (all quotes are from his "Orthodoxy"):

"The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance."

"The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. "

"We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. "

"Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything. "

"Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot"

Mark B. Hanson said...


Nicely chosen! Chesterton had the virtue of not being in step with his own "modern times", which makes him timeless. If only modern Christians would look away from their desire to speak to our age, and cultivate the more difficult passion of speaking to all ages.

Chris H said...

It's heartbreaking that for all the "honesty" flowing, too few are honest about their need for the Christ of the Bible to forgive and redeem them from the things they're being "honest" about.

I will disagree with your blanket assertion regarding PostSecrets, though. As a professional working in the residence program of a secular university, and a minister to teenagers in my church, giving people an opportunity to be anonymous about their pain gives me an opportunity to minister with more direction. Many young people are bound to silence because they fear rejection; running a program like PostSecret allows them to speak up without being rejected - and gives me a window into the pain of the people I am ministering to.

Not a blanket support of the books, just an affirmation that there is something useful to it when applied to ministry, not simply enjoyed for entertainment.

ff4Christ said...

Here is something I have been meditating on for some time: we live in a time in which there is no shame and yet pride is the greatest and foremost personality trait.

Solameanie said...

making a pageant of their shame. . .


And not only is it troubling that people post this stuff. It's very troubling to me that more don't see the inherent voyeurism in reading it.

I am waiting for the day when "Christian pornography" gets introduced as cathartic and acceptable. While that might seem like a snide joke, I'm half serious. They might well try it.

Anonymous said...

"A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back." - Proverbs 29:11, ESV

I have become more and more skeptical of these expressions of "confession" and "honesty" for many of the reasons you list here. While transparency, confession and honesty are all virtues and should be celebrated as such, they should not be sullied with vulgar and sensual manifestations whereby we justify our sinfulness and wallow in it.

Confession unaccompanied by repentance usually only acts to reinforce sinful behaviour. When all we do is confess, confess, confess, it normalises sinful behaviour, and often turns it into a means for acquiring attention and feeding the ego.

It's pretty basic group psychology... when it seems like everyone's doing it (insert sin here), no matter how wrong we may understand it to be, we'll feel in ourselves more freedom to transgress in the given manner if the group indulges it routinely, openly, and without retribution. Then again, I suppose that's the test of a believer's character, isn't it? Whether or not they'll abjure their sin, despite even a "Christian" society's acceptance of it.

Even So... said...

In any event, confession is not repentance...

Phil Johnson said...


Bingo. I ought to have included that verse in the post. In fact, I think I will.

CH said...

I wonder how much of a connection there is between Phil's post and Carl Trueman's post at Reformation 21 on the childishness of the culture.

Having spent quite a few years in the wasteland of youth ministry and teaching high school, I have seen a propensity to this type of "honesty."

But as Trueman and Phil both point out, the bigger problem is that this type of behavior has been adopted, and glorified, by the adults.

Postmodernism is quite literally a childish philosophy.

Rachael Starke said...

This post also reminded me of Dan's series, and particularly this really helpful Spurgeon quote:

"I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to, but I always get back again by this-I know I trust Christ. I have no reliance but in him, and if he falls I shall fall with him, but if he does not, I shall not. Because he lives, I shall live also, and I spring to my legs again and fight with my depressions of spirit and my down castings, and get the victory through it; and so may you do, and so you must, for there is no other way of escaping from it. In your most depressed seasons you are to get joy and peace through believing.

I'm getting ready to "share my testimony" (you know, the lady equivalent of preaching/teaching :) )at our women's Bible study this week, and have been praying particularly that it would really be a time of telling Christ's story, rather than my own. Thanks for the extremely helpful reminder, and warning, about how to make that so.

bhuston said...

“To the postmodern mind, "honesty" has come to mean the uninhibited venting of every egocentric feeling, every nagging doubt, every petty complaint, every subversive thought, and every negative passion. Maturity and discretion used to keep people from indiscriminately expressing certain potentially-destructive thoughts aloud—much less broadcasting them to the world. In fact, a natural—and valid—sense of shame kept most of our ancestors from publishing detailed memoirs of their own crimes and misdemeanors for all the world to see (cf. Ephesians 5:12).”

Phil, I can hear the objections now. What about James 5:16’s exhortation to confess your sins one to another? I say: Yeah, confess them, but do us the favor of adding just an ounce of true remorse and ownership of your sin. And is there a need to publish your sins in every graphic detail, almost romanticizing about how your sins are a kind of nobel expression of your own personal grapplings with the fallen human condition and your confessions are a transcendence out of that condition all on their own? This thing called sin is a not a beautiful tapestry woven together for you to explore, it’s a thing to abhor.


Mikey C said...

Obviously airing our own problems for the sake of 'honesty' is not good, but where is the line between this and trying to share our difficulties with others out of a genuine desire to overcome those issues or help others?

Mikey C said...

Ha ha! I just noticed the answer, I'm assuming repentance rather than just confession. Feel free to ignore me :-)

Solameanie said...

We also mustn't forget being "authentic." That is a much beloved word these days. Should I assume that all of this confessional handwringing is part of what it takes for authenticity?

rodwithoutareel said...

I think that honesty does have to do with the ability to share truth about your sins and need for repentance. And it's better to be honest about what you believe than pretending to believe it. blah

Andrew said...

It is amazing that in an age where there is so much "honesty" there is so little truth. Thanks for the post!

Caleb Kolstad said...

Great reminder!

FX Turk said...

There are more vile things than PostSecret on the internet. None of them, however, pretend to be virtuous -- and that's the nutshell problem with this sort of con fessional rubbish.

Live As If said...

Verbal vomit does not bring one praise or honor. At least none will come from one who fears God.
As God's word reads, "What the true proverb says has happened to them: 'The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.'"
2Pe 2:22 ESV

Great, great points Phil, thank you.

Susan said...

I see--so the main difference is in the repentance. That answers my question, y'all. I don't remember who said this (probably either Sproul Sr. or Robert Godfrey), but some sins are so shameful, they shouldn't even be mentioned (loose paraphrase). And Bootsandbibles really has a good point when he says that confession w/o repentance normalizes sinful behavior--it really does get worse when we keep talking about our sins as if they were some sort of trophies, rather than crying out to the Lord in our hearts for help.

(BTW, Phil, did you really take the time out and reproduce Munch's work with leftover ice cream?? Or is it just a play on words, i.e., we all "scream" for ice cream? Or maybe we're screaming because there is too much dirt confessed for our minds to consume!? In any case, it is interesting!)

~Mark said...

I was fooled for a short time years ago by two semi-Christian bloggers, whose open whining I took for struggling with their walk. It took all of a couple months for the posts to become of the quality of exposing an argument with your spouse but with them it seemed more to drag Christians down to their level.

After trying to show them where they could find the answers they "sought" in Scripture only to see them continue the turn from "questioning" to virtually championing everything unChristian from Brian MacLaren to Yoga, I delinked for good.

On the bright side that taught me to severely limit the number and type of blogs I visit on even a semi-regular basis, which was a good thing.

~Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
~Mark said...

Speaking of "being authentic", I posted a note on my Facebook page the other day 'cause I was thinking of that topic.

What if, while defending "just being real" you discover that the real you is a jerk?

candy said...

Rachel said: I'm getting ready to "share my testimony" (you know, the lady equivalent of preaching/teaching :) )at our women's Bible study this week, and have been praying particularly that it would really be a time of telling Christ's story, rather than my own.

It is funny you brought that up. A friend and I were just mentioning that at her women's meetings, testimonies seem to be the oft used teaching material. We were lamenting the fact that many women's meetings don't dive into good theological teaching instead. My friend stated that she just doesn't like to go to her women's meetings because so often the women dissolve into tears over someone's heartfelt, tumultuous past. I used to go to the same church and lamented the same thing. I was pleased that at the last women's retreat we had Noel Piper as our speaker.

Some women's meetings are like the Christian version of PostSecrets.

Anonymous said...

@ ~Mark

That seems to be one of the more consistent revelations I get after periods of introspection. I try to use it as a starting place for understanding my own need to be humble before the Lord and others, not to mention the daily necessity of repentance.

Terry Rayburn said...

Eph. 4:15 takes care of a lot of the problem...

"...speaking the truth...

in love."

David A. Carlson said...

This post made me think of Mathew 23 and "whitewashed sepulchres".

Jay said...

It's always a bit of a balancing act, isn't it? Surely people don't need to keep doubts, fears, struggles, etc. bottled up inside due to misplaced feelings of shame. If someone is going through a rough time spiritually, they need to be honest about it. But I think they need to be honest in a way that is seeking a solution to the struggle, not glorifying the struggle in itself, and I think where the problem with the Internet comes in.

I'll be frank, I post about my inner workings and struggles often. It's not exactly easy talking about homosexual struggles in person, especially in the more conservative South. But I have gradually learned to not post on them until after I've come to at least somewhat of a solution or course of action to take to them.

And I often call for people to give me ideas and solutions, since I know there is a network of men and women who have made further strides in this area than I have and who can give advice that I couldn't exactly get from the Christians around me (no offense to them, of course; it's just a unique struggle).

Making it public instead of private is something I am concerned about, because on one hand I don't want to be a stumbling block to anyone else, but on the other hand there is a benefit to putting a human face onto a struggle that most people don't deal with and many are completely ignorant of.

Jim Pemberton said...

There's a lot of good stuff here.

My observation is that if people are disemboweling themselves spiritually, there is some felt need that doing so will meet. There are two possibilities in this regard.

First, internal presuppositional conflict isn't being answered adequately and people are desperate to find the answer that will give them peace. Simply telling them to shut up and be a man won't address the root of the issue, part of which is the second possibility:

Second, common relationships in western culture have degraded to the point where we all but refuse to meet each other's emotional needs. Without godly fiendships, people despair. We are told that we need to develop godly friendships. However, we cannot control others and there are no guarantees that someone else will want to be a friend. This means that the only thing we can do is be a friend whether or not our friendship is reciprocated. The problem is that if you have no friends, you have no model for how to be a friend. It's a horrible position to be in and way too many people, including Christians, are in it.

This all contributes to many of our sociological problems such as divorce, gang activity, homosexuality and the drug culture.

What's the solution? If you have know how to be a friend, befriend someone who needs to learn and teach them by example. This is the greatest ministry for propagating godly wisdom.