On Bullshit and Truth

(This is an edited version of a paper I wrote in seminary.)

1.  On Bullshit and On Truth

Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit develops “a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.”[1]  He argues that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”[2]  What distinguishes bullshit from other forms of misrepresentation is that bullshit is not concerned with the truth.  A liar is someone who intentionally promotes falsehood while knowing the truth.  A bullshitter, on the other hand, has no regard for the truth at all.  Frankfurt contends, “bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all.”[3]  Bullshitters communicate in order to produce a desired effect in their audience, regardless of the truthfulness of the information they convey.

Frankfurt’s book On Truth examines “why truth actually is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it.”[4]  On Bullshit aims to demonstrate the insidious nature of bullshit, and On Truth analyzes why it is desirable for us to seek truth in the first place.  Frankfurt argues in On Truth that “our success or failure in whatever we undertake, and therefore in life altogether, depends on whether we are guided by truth or whether we proceed in ignorance or on the basis of falsehood.”[5]  Truth matters because it determines how we live and what we do.  Frankfurt adds, “individuals require truths in order to negotiate their way effectively through the thicket of hazards and opportunities that all people invariably confront in going about their lives.”[6]

Truth matters on the societal level as well.  In order to “establish and to sustain an advanced culture, we need to avoid being debilitated either by error or by ignorance.”[7]  Truth matters because it directly impacts everything we do in life and whether we can produce and cultivate an advanced society.  Anyone surrounded by bullshit is in the perilous position of being unable to recognize the truth since bullshit tends to “unfit a person for telling the truth.”[8]  Subsequently, any culture which cannot tell or recognize the truth is in no “position to be guided authoritatively in [its] conduct by the character of reality itself.”[9]  To be mired in bullshit is to be out of touch with reality.

2.  The Christian’s Concern for the Truth

Three important implications can be drawn from Frankfurt’s discussions of bullshit and truth.  First, Christians should be concerned with the truth.  For the Christian, truth is of utmost concern because Jesus Christ is the truth (cf. John 14:6).[10]  Furthermore, the law of God is true (Psalm 119:142; cf. John 17:17).  If we are concerned with the Word of God, we must be concerned with the truth.  As David Wells says, “authoritative truth lies at the heart of Christian life and practice, for this is what it means to live under the authority of Scripture.”[11]    To be a Christian means to be concerned with the truth.  Moreover, if we are to be obedient to Christ’s command to love God with all our mind (Matthew 22:37), we must pursue truth.

However, it simply is not the case that many Christians today are concerned with the truth.  As Mark Noll famously writes, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”[12]  There is an uphill battle for the Christian thinker-writer in our contemporary situation.  David Wells’ book No Place for Truth argues that the church is not principally concerned with the truth.  Apathy toward truth must be combatted by a renewed sense of its importance and relevance to our lives.

But there is also a lack of concern for truth outside the church.  The opening line of On Bullshit is “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”[13]  One needs only refer to contemporary political discourse to confirm this to be true.  Yet Christians should not only seek the truth, we should also be aware that truth-seeking is not particularly popular either in the church or in the surrounding culture.

3.  The Christian’s Concern with Clear Communication

Second, Christians should be concerned with communicating clearly.  We should communicate clearly because we care about the truth.  In Colossians 1:5, Paul says that the gospel is “the word of truth.”  It is insufficient to be concerned with truth if we are not also concerned with communicating that truth clearly.  The goal of the Christian thinker-writer is to increase our audience’s knowledge of God.  Therefore, we must communicate clearly so that our ideas are received.  Like the Preacher from Ecclesiastes, we too must teach “the people knowledge” and “write words of truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10).  Genuine teaching cannot take place without clear communication.

Ironically, Frankfurt’s books are not entirely helpful on this point.  The goal of the books is to plainly demonstrate the nature of bullshit and the usefulness of truth.  Yet occasionally, Frankfurt writes lengthy sentences which place an unwarranted tax on the mind of the reader.[14]  Some of the sentences he employs incorporate multiple parenthetical asides,[15] something which distracts from his original point and overall purpose.  But this is not an indictment against complex writing.  It is only to say that the point of writing is to communicate clearly.  Using unnecessarily cumbersome language or confusing grammar obscures the message we seek to communicate and therefore defeats the purpose for which we write.

What Christians can take from this discussion is the importance of writing simply, though not simplistically or lazily.  Because we are concerned to communicate the truth with clarity, we should strive to communicate as simply as is necessary.  This does not mean, however, that Christians must be simplistic in either our writing or our thinking.  On the contrary, we are called to think deeply of both God and the world.  Yet we must also learn to communicate with simplicity and clarity so that our audience can understand the truth we seek to communicate.  It takes valuable time and energy to think about how to communicate simply, but the alternative is a world without the clear proclamation of the truthfulness of the Christian faith.

4.  Thinking and Writing for the Glory of God

Third, Christians should think and write well in order to glorify God.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  Even more specifically, Christians are to “do everything, in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).  The general truth from 1 Corinthians 10:31 is then explicitly applied in Colossians 3:17 to the very words we employ.  So Christians are to have a concern for the truth, a drive to communicate that truth clearly, and a passion for communicating for the glory of God.

This means that we do not ultimately write for ourselves or even for others; rather, we write “for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).  In this way, we will not only demonstrate our commitment to truth, and consequently to Jesus Christ and his Word, but we will also avoid bullshit.  If Frankfurt is to be believed, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”[16]  This means that bullshit is an enemy of Jesus Christ.  As his soldiers, then, let us put on our “belts of truth” (Ephesians 6:14), and “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), doing all of this for the glory of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31).

5.  Final Thoughts

Harry Frankfurt’s books On Bullshit and On Truth explore several important areas regarding the importance of truth and clear communication.  Christians can take much from Frankfurt’s work, even if we might disagree with some of his secondary points.  Part of what it means to be a human is to be concerned with the truth, and Christians should care even more about that same truth.  After all, truth always points to and confirms the veracity of the Christian faith.  Therefore, we should work to communicate clearly so that our audience understands the reality of God.  May God grant us this ability and in doing so glorify Himself.


Endnotes

[1] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Truth (Knopf, 2006), 3.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 35-36.

[6] Ibid., 34-35.

[7] Ibid., 34.

[8] Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 60.

[9] Frankfurt, On Truth, 55.

[10] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

[11] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 99.

[12] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[13] Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 1.

[14] For example, see On Truth, 35.

[15] Cf. On Truth, 65-66.

[16] Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 61.


Recommended Reading

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

––––––––––. On Truth. New York: Knopf, 2006.

Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009 reprint.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Wells, David F. No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.


Thanks for reading.  Any additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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