What is Truth?
My family and I are going to see the Broadway musical, WICKED, tonight. The story, based on the book written by Gregory Maguire, is part prequel, part retelling of the WIZARD OF OZ from the viewpoints of Glinda the Good Witch and The Wicked Witch of the West. In WICKED, we see a very different version of events than those depicted in L. Frank Baum’s classic. I won’t spoil it by telling you more. I suggest you see it and decide for yourself which version is “the truth.”
But it’s funny timing. I’ve been thinking about truth a lot recently: Particularly in books, but also in other forms of entertainment. Think, for a minute, about the way we talk about things we have read, watched or heard:
Did that really happen?
You can’t make this stuff up.
That’s hard to believe!
It’s right out of a novel.
It’s stranger than fiction.
You can’t believe everything you read!
Ain’t that the truth!
We’re obsessed with the “truth” – but not in an honest way. Ironic, isn’t it?
We love reality TV, even while recognizing that there’s nothing real about being followed around by a camera crew all day. There’s no reality in being pulled out of typical life to compete with a group of similarly-talented people, either. But we keep coming back for more. (Personally, I’m waiting for them to start casting THE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL).
Reality shows vie for top Nielsen ratings each week with crime dramas. And even though these are fictional, viewers say they like them to feel gritty and real. This is why you hear genuine forensic anthropology discussed on Bones; it’s why actors on NCIS wear uniforms and spout military protocol. But even while we’re patting ourselves on the back for enjoying “realistic” drama, we’re ignoring the obvious ways in which these shows stretch the truth. Jurisdiction, unlikely partnerships and length of investigation come quickly to mind – not to mention all the interoffice romance. And let’s face it: Fox Mulder told us for years that the truth is out there, but that clearly didn’t apply to the X-Files. (I mean, does anyone really believe that the Smoking Man wouldn’t kill Mulder for fear of “turning one man’s cause into a crusade?”)
How about movies based on books, based on reality? Michael Ohr, the talented defensive lineman whose story is told in The Blind Side, says he was not happy that Hollywood producers depicted him as a boy who needed to be taught how to play football by his adoptive white mama. In both the book, THE BLIND SIDE, and Michael’s memoir, I BEAT THE ODDS, it’s clear that Ohr studied and played football for years, even before attending the private school where he connected with the Tuohys. But do we care that Hollywood detracted from Michael’s skill set; the ability and determination that were innate, even before they were encouraged? Does it bother us that truth was distorted because greater odds add up to a bigger box office?
More recently, THREE CUPS OF TEA author Greg Mortenson has come under fire for stretching, abbreviating and compressing the truth in his personal tale about building schools in Pakistan. The allegations are disheartening. I loved that book; I wanted to believe it was true. So now I find myself wondering what Mortenson thinks about truth in the first place; what he has thought all along. Did he willfully lie, his eye on book sales and fattened bank accounts? Or did he sleep easy at night, convincing himself that the liberties he took were inconsequential when compared to the underlying truth, and to the overall good he had done?
So then, is truth absolute? And what variables make aberration acceptable?
The answer may lie in the heart of the believer or skeptic. Sometimes people are eager to accept “truth” without question (I’m sure you get e-mails from them) – others follow my granddad’s advice: Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.
In WICKED, the Wizard sings a song about believers and skeptics called Wonderful: “Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true,” he says. “We call it ‘history’.”
My granddad and the Wizard were both clearly using hyperbole, but their cynicism is understandable. We have to believe some things, so how do we decide where to draw the line? Must we investigate everything for ourselves?
In the bestselling book of all time, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” just as he was about to literally wash his hands of Jesus’s murder. But don’t imagine that this means Pilate was eager to learn at the Master’s feet, or even concerned with investigating the politics that had brought Jesus to his door. Context suggests that Pilate wasn’t asking a question at all; he was sneering. (And please read it in context – every atrocity ever committed in the name of religion has its root in someone neglectfully or intentionally taking something in the Bible out of context.) Pilate was a cynical, self-serving leader suggesting that there is no such thing as absolute truth, only propaganda.
And with that, I’m back to the WIZARD OF OZ – because WICKED made me examine the original story more closely. I am amazed to find odd truths I have ignored. In the first place, the story isn’t named after the heroine, is it? It’s named after the Wizard. And did you notice that even I’ve been meddling with the truth by truncated the title? The book is actually called THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. But was the Wizard wonderful? No. He was a fraud. He pretended to be something he wasn’t, duping people for years for the sake, I suppose, of his own ego and power. Baum tells us all this, but we still close the book with fairly benign feelings about the man behind the curtain.
Where’s the outrage? Where are the Dorothy enthusiasts?
It’s just a novel, you might say. You’re right, but we do the exact same thing with nonfiction. Ever heard of a book called ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES by Charles Darwin, a man known far and wide as the father of evolution? That’s the book’s title, according to Goodreads. On Amazon, you have to go down to the eighth listing to read the original title of Darwin’s book: ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION; OR, THE PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE.
What? Favored races? That makes Darwin sound like a racist!
Um, yeah. My guess would be that’s why his book got a new, shorter title.
So do you believe anything I’ve written today? Or am I just another in a long line of spin doctors?
That’s the irony. You’ll have to weigh what you know about me with the truth you investigate for yourself. Pilate’s view of truth, or Mortenson’s or Darwin’s or mine is irrelevant. The truth belongs to God. One person’s perspective might influence our opinions on truth, but it doesn’t change truth itself.