Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Truth and Da Vinci

I don't like Dan Brown's writing style. Said so here. But his plots are fun. Over three Sunday evenings in May at St Paul's we are making The Da Vinci Code the subject of our evening services. We are going to look at:

  • Bible reliabilty
  • Jesus' divinity
  • Mary Magdalene
I spent a happy afternoon yesterday watching the promotional trailers and teasers on the Sonypictures site for the movie, which comes out on May 19th (Cannes May 17th if you can get) and reading up on the matter.

Annoyingly I had to buy another copy of the novel because I had left my previous copy in a holiday apartment somewhere in the world.

More on the issues raised by the film over the weeks, but for now, this. My friend Mark Stibbe, now Rev'd Dr and very gifted scholar, academic and popular communicator has produced a DVD of his lecture on the book, which he was giving regularly in late 2004 early 2005, to much acclaim.

In this he examines some of the premises Dan Brown makes. Again, more on this in the sermon series. The thing I noticed, and don't think I have seen put quite so bluntly before is this. Mark says there are three attitudes to truth we can identify, since the Gospels were written.

Pre-modernist attitude - truth is absolute
Modernist attitude - truth is relative
Post-modernist attitude - truth is created

In other words attitude to truth changes, although perhaps it changes so slowly that it is hard to notice from the perspective of but one lifetime.

This rings true. Pre-modernists made you refute or burn if you denied the perceived 'absolute' truth, especially in areas of theology or natural philosophy (which was what science was called before the nineteenth century).

The modernist attitude, much discussed, was that truth was all relative. This has been largely discredited. You can't say 'I am absolutely convinced all truth is relative.' It's a non sequitur. You cannot, as Nick Pollard has put it, stand in the middle of the road and say, 'I refuse to take this oncoming bus into my sphere of truth and ultimate reality.' Well you can, but not for long.

So what of this post-modernist attitude - we create truth? Certainly our Prime Minister does it. With him, I have heard it said, the future is always certain; it is only the past that changes. I don't think he is capable of living with the concept of a lie. The closest we get is that everyone thought it was the truth at the time so it was, effectively, true for us.

So our cultural make-up is to construct truth. We make a version of the world we can know and live with. And that means we love the idea that something which people have thought to be true for ages is a conspiracy. We love the idea that we have uncovered the truth. The truth is out there. This is my truth; tell me yours.

It means that a movie maker feels able to say 'based on a true story' in almost all circumstances. Stibbe tells us that when the Coen Brothers made that claim for Fargo it started a treasure rush for the alleged buried cash. This led to at least one fatality. There was no cash. It wasn't that sort of truth. Somehow all fiction is based on truth or we wouldn't recognise the scenarios.

Stand-up comedians have, for years, told us stories that were 'true'. Not because they were but because they were exaggerated truth, they 'could have happened' or simply to get attention.

Dan Brown says his story is fiction but the facts are true. 'All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in ths novel are accurate.'

Let's see if we can construct some common threads of truth out of all this then. Should be fun.

And as he reached the end of the post he suddenly realised the truth. And it terrified him more than anything had ever terrified him his whole life.


Mark Berry said...

I agree with you pretty much... but a)you give Brown way too much credit as an writer! and b) Pre-modernist attitude - truth is absolute
Modernist attitude - truth is relative
Post-modernist attitude - truth is created - This is (of course) way to simplistic... and I'm not sure I would say 'in' PM 'truth' is created, perhaps a better word would be synthesised? in the sense that meaning is construed from experience/worldview/psyche... to say 'created' feels a)dismissive and b)implies an intended manufacture - I don't find the Blair example helpful.. Politicians operate in a world of political/economic expediency... not one concerned with Truth at all! It also sets up the dynamic that the opposite of Truth is Lie... going back to Brown... is TDVC Truth... is it Lies... or is it economic expediency? IMHO Conspiracy has become a part of the contemporary worldview (part of the PM rejection of Institution?) regardless of "facts" - It seems to me that one of the phenomena of PM is that 'truth' is held lightly - we know well how "facts" can be manipulated/interpreted to loose connection with reality and therefore we have become suspicious of 'fact'/'truth' claims - especially from the powerful! Anyway... Brown may believe his own hype or maybe it is a economic construct? The only aspect of Brown that I would say shows any flicker of 'cleverness' is his use of contemporary worldview to make money!

BTW you say his "plots" are fun./.. surley it would be more accurate to say "plot" as all four of his books share the same one?

St said...

Good comment Mark, thanks. Bang on about Dan Brown's 'plot'. Must have been a typo to pluralise it.

Still want to niggle away at the truth and politics though. There must be some relationship between political necessity and the truth. How many times do we hear ministers say, 'The fact of the matter is ...'

Is it simply the case that the definition of the word 'truth' is changing and means something diferent in the political spectrum? And what impact might this have on what people understand when they hear us say that Jesus is the truth?

Stewart said...

Truth, it seems to me, is a messy, sprawling awkward business, which doesn't fit into neat little boxes. And yet so much of the time, in all walks of life, we try to make it simple and easy to understand.

I think this is at the heart of any issues that exist between politics and truth. Politicians, communicating with and through the media, try to present big complex difficult issues as being easy to comprehend and deal with. This is obviously dishonest on some level - but I don't think it comes from a desire to deceive, so much as it's a necessity if you are to explain your actions in a way that people can possibly understand. Obviously they also emphasise the arguments that support their position, and play down those that undermine it - but if we're being honest I think we all have a tendency to do that...

The other problem with truth (which has a particular bearing on politics) is that while truth is absolute, our understanding of it is usually subjective. Our understanding of truth can only ever be partial - so everytime we come to a conclusion about... well, anything, we have to recognise that at some point in the future some new facts might emerge which undermine our position and force us to reconsider. Generally people are very bad at doing this - once we get an idea into our head, we don't like to admit we were wrong, even when new facts come to light.

Politicians are no different. The nature of their job demands that they publicly make judgements on a fairly regular basis. Then when it inevitably occurs that one of these judgements was wrong they find the media and opposition politicians baying for their head. In these circumstances acknowledging that you made a mistake becomes a very dangerous business, and could well cost you your job and your career. In the circumstances it's hardly surprising that politicians rarely acknowledge their mistakes, and prefer not to answer a straight question with a straight answer.

I don't think its the case that truth means something different in the political spectrum - I think it's just that there is often a vast chasm between the truth and our understanding of it, and that it's in this gap that political debate is most fervent.

Jonathan Potts said...

The other problem with truth is that while truth is absolute, our understanding of it is usually subjective.

I like this - it reminds me of Kant. It's always necessary to seperate ontology (what there is) and epistemology (what we know of what there is). The root of fundamentalist (pre-modern?) attitudes come when we confuse the two:

1. Truth is absolute.
2. I believe x is true.
3. So x must be true and must be defended at all costs

I frequently hear Christians confusing the two (even those who wouldn't say they are "fundamentalists").

Archbishop Rowan Williams likes to talk about truth being found not in one point of view or another but in the dialogue between points of view. (I'm sure this has been said by other before but I heard it from him. By this, I think he means that we shouldn't stick doggedly to one point of view because "truth is absolute and we must not deviate from the narrow path". Moreover, it's more likely we'll miss the narrow path if we don't at least consider the idea that someone else's point of view might be correct and our's wrong. This, too, is very Kantian. I like it.

Mike said...

Hi Jonathan

Rowan Williams sounding very Hegelian there - synthesis and all that. Actually there is a new movement in philosophy/theology which see the pre-modern era as offering some answers to post-modernism - Radical orthodoxy. Far from being fundamentalist (in any sense we usually use it, they draw on Aquinas to show that the absolute truth of God is both rational, yet mysterious, and only partially knowable (unlike fundamentalists who know everything!!)

Millbank & Pickstock if you're feeling brave: Truth In Aquinas

Jonathan Potts said...

Thanks, Mike. Sounds interesting. I'll put it on the reading list.....

Simon said...

I don't believe in truth.