April 14, 2006


1510 page17 capfter years of selecting fiction for her influential book club, Oprah Winfrey chose a memoir--the now infamous A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. The book, a harrowing account of overcoming drug addiction, was admired for its brutal honesty. As it turns out, the account, while brutal, was anything but honest.
An investigative Web site1 discovered major discrepancies between what Frey had written and what had actually occurred. At first, Oprah defended the memoir, and the author behind it. Later, she reversed course, apologized for her previous statement, and on live television grilled an increasingly uncomfortable Frey.
The fiasco over truth is a fitting footnote to 2005. Not only was A Million Little Pieces the second biggest seller that year, but “truthiness” was chosen as the word of the year.2
While truthiness has a wholesome ring, its meaning is less flattering. Truthiness refers to knowing something emotionally or instinctively, while ignoring facts or evidence. As Michael Adams, a linguistic professor at North Carolina State University, puts it, “Truthiness means truthy, not facty.”3
Truthiness thrives in the fuzzy space between fact and fiction, between appearance and reality, between a truth and a lie.
James Frey’s memoir was “truthy,” but it wasn’t “facty.” To tell a more dramatic story, Frey embellished, exaggerated, fabricated. But another motivation is both surprising and telling. In a lengthy author’s note, which Random House will include in future editions, Frey confesses: “I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am.”4 In other words, Frey’s persona was worse than the actual Frey.
1510 page17Christian literature is faced with the opposite temptation. We readers desire uplifting stories of saintly, inspiring individuals who might have temptations, but who eventually overcome them. When the Adventist Review published a story about Rickey Smith,5 an Adventist who was also an American Idol finalist, many readers were disconcerted. Some were concerned about the popular culture references. Others were unsettled because Rickey Smith’s spiritual journey was complicated. Smith had courageously admitted that at times his faith had faltered. He also stated that his faith had grown. Like many of us, his Christianity was a work in progress. Life is complex like that.
The truth is that we are sinners. Our lives, our stories, are not simple, resolved narratives; instead, they reflect the ebb and flow of our relationship with Christ. Even when one is walking closely with God, one says and does things one regrets.
But what good does it do to consider the more complex hues of a story? Shouldn’t we instead focus on what is noble, pure, and lovely?
When Paul wrote to the congregation at Philippi and exhorted them to dwell on excellent things, he began the list with truth. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”6
It does little good to consider a mirage, a sanitized rendering of events. Truth, in all its complicated shades, has depth and integrity. Consider the Bible. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of murder, deceit, and adultery committed not by the bad guys but by the good ones. In David’s case they were perpetrated by a single man.
Yet David is called a man after God’s own heart.7 David’s story is one not only of glaring sin but also of great redemption and of a heart that yearned for God.
We can take comfort from the humanity recorded throughout the Bible. Noah got drunk. Peter denied knowing Jesus. Paul bickered with Barnabas. Jonah wanted to see his converts destroyed. Miriam was racist. The saints of God are saints only because of His redemptive sacrifice.
A “truthy” story might be easier to digest, but an authentic story, one that embraces complexity, is ultimately going to resonate. It is truth that helps us identify what it is to be human and to struggle and to find grace.
2 Each January the American Dialect Society chooses a word or phrase coined the previous year, which also best defines that year.
3 “‘Truthiness’ Is Word of the Year,” www.cnn.com/2006/US/01/07/word.contest.ap.
5 “Finding His Religion,” by Kimberly Luste Maran, Adventist Review, Sept. 8, 2005.
6 Philippians 4:8, NIV.
7 See 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22.
Sari Fordham is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, currently taking part in an exchange lectureship program at the University of Salzburg in Austria.