Brian Williams, Preaching, and “Everyone Loves a Good Story”

Brian Williams is the cautionary tale of the week. As you probably know, he’s taken himself off the air and has admitted to being untruthful in his accounts such as his helicopter being shot down while he was covering the war in Iraq. Many of his other stories are now under suspicion as well and it’s likely going to be a long year for him. And of course, when you are found out today, you get made fun all over cable and flogged on social media.

There’s a lot in this story for me. One his actions represent to me why we cannot take the media to be a reliable source of information and truth. At best, it’s a system of partial half-truths. The news business is compromised with its competition for ratings, advertising dollars, reputations, status and more. In a world uncontrolled by business and status, could we get better news? I believe so but the question still remains, how well we can actually know something?

This of course sends me back to the posts from last week, “I don’t know what to believe” from the significant to the trivial, to current events, to the spiritual, etc. I used to think if I just had the right data, I could arrive to reliable conclusions. If I applied the right hermeneutics, and prayed just enough, I could understand this particular passage of Scripture. The experience of life has taught me (and probably you), that this is not a reliable strategy and being Spirit-led is more for the journey than the occasion. 

Back in college, there was this guest preacher who came and gave these messages filled with some amazing stories. On this particular night following the chapel service, the campus pastor invited me and a couple other students to have dinner (at the off campus favorite Shakers!) with the guest preacher. I remember him starting off the meal drained and tired so we all kept our distance. But through the meal, he lightened up, and we started joking around. Then the conversation moved to advise for young preachers. I asked him a follow up question to one of the stories he shared, it was one of those, “Whatever happened to this person?” It was here he mentioned in a very casual tone that it was his friend’s story actually, and had no idea if it was true “but it preaches” and he was “using it for God’s glory.” A look of shock must have appeared on my face because he immediately said, “You’ll see when you start giving the word.”

This is a very true story.

Though it was another piece that cast further disillusionment to the Christian institution and also to a brand of Christian expression that I could not deal with, it also served me well as a student of teaching/preaching.

So my cynicism rises a bit with all of this. But this scandal with Brian Williams brings another personal application for me – I too, like to tell stories  and two, I too, am prone to exaggeration.

Everyone loves a good story, and there’s this balance of boring people with the details and moving the story along. And first-person stories are better than third-person and so there’s this balance of making this story too much about you and trying to make a story represent what happens to all of us. “The other day, I was driving and out of nowhere, this crazy driver …” There’s a balance of taking a short cut to make your point and plagiarizing a scene out of one of the Fast & Furious movies. Well to plagiarize Fast & Furious would be stupid, you’d have to plagiarize an old Dukes of Hazard or Knight Rider scene. ;)

This Brian Williams scandal is like the modern day Ananias and Sapphira story. It’s one of those under-mentioned stories in the Bible that we don’t really know what to do with. Here this married couple sold a piece of property and lied when they said they gave the entire sale to the church. Peter even says, you could have kept whatever you wanted, but you didn’t have to lie. And as the Scriptures record, they fell dead (full story here).

When I sit around with other preachers/teachers I mention that in light of Ananias and Sapphira, I try to be really careful when I preach. A preacher getting struck dead from behind the pulpit – yeah that will sting for a while. But aside from avoiding “getting struck,” tells us something else: Ananias and Sapphire is a cautionary tale because it’s a story of false humility and overt deception to appear more loving, sacrificial, and godly. I haven’t lied to any apostles recently, but I know that temptation to appear more saintly or sound more profound.

We all know what it’s like to want to tell a good story. Ever get in the middle of an account, feel everyone’s expectation and suddently realize, you’re about to disappoint everyone with this really mediocre story that you got everyone invested in? “And then what?? What did you say?” Umm nothing, “I just drove away” pales in comparison of “Well, I got out of my car and walked up to his window and …”

How do we avoid such lies, exaggerations, missteps?

It feels we need to become people who are committed to authenticity and seeking truth, beauty and meaning. It seems to me that when we lose our sense of identity, we are prone to carrying and sharing the lies that become convenient to carry and give.

These days, there is this self-check process I spend time on when I’m preparing to teach or preach or fill any moment of influence really. How many people were actually there? What did I really say? How did he/she really react? Was it really that amazing? sad? crucial? close? I’ve also learned the more valuable moment is sometimes to say, “Now looking back on it, I wish I would have said …” People relate to that too.

Still, I do change certain elements of my stories. The most common is to protect the privacy of former youth group students. There are times when I will change their name, gender, and various other details but the point of the story remains true – There really was a youth group student who really hated youth group, hated me, hated the concept of God and then this happened and everything changed.”

Life and ministry will bring you stories: I have had a gun-scare, issues of abuse, violence, youth group drama, dysfunctional volunteer leaders, leadership and parental conflicts (which can feel like riding in a Black Hawk and it suddenly being shot down). Because of all this, I tend to hold ont to the old adage, “The truth is stranger than fiction.”

And it’s here where I sympathize for Brian Williams. Because I too have exaggerated. I too have tried to make something mediocre sound amazing. Maybe you have also.

I close with what Anne Lamott said yesterday which is what prompted this post:

Brian Williams is our new Old Testament goat. It’s like being the new It Girl, although of course, not quite as festive. And I’m caught up in it, too. It’s hard to turn away, and a part of me, the dark part of me with bad self esteem, is cheered. The handsomest, richest, most perfect guy turned out to have truthiness issues; and it was good.

He’s our sin offering. Wow, how often do I get to type those words? Not nearly often enough! It’s exhilarating. It’s Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery.” Each worsening detail is like a self-esteem ATM.

I’m watching talking heads on the biggest news stations come down on him, and I know some of these most famous men to have been unfaithful, and worse–way worse, with children. They’re in the delicious throes of schadenfreude, which part of me is, too. The sweeter part of me, the child, the girl in her little blue kilt, the mom, the nana, the black-belt co-dependent, wants to shake her fist at the bullies. Who here doesn’t lie, emebellish, exaggerate? (I’m reminded of the old joke about Jesus telling the crowd who is stoning the adulteress, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Suddenly a woman throws a rock at the adulturess. Jesus looks up, and says, “Oh for Pete’s sake, Mother.”)

No one, not one single person, has stood up for him. I would, but I’m a lying liar, too–well, maybe not as egregious as Brian Williams. I don’t tell people “I looked down the tube of an RPG”. Well, maybe that one time I did. But that was just so people would like me more.

I would stand with Mr. Williams, because he’s family. There’s a scene in Small Victories where I was giving a writing workshop to the prisoners in San Quentin, with my friend Neshama, and she told them. “I’m human. You’re human. Let’s be in our humanness together for a little while.” So yes, I stand with him.

But my solidarity wouldn’t mean all that much. My son rolls his eyes sometimes at family gatherings, because the story I’ve just told has changed from its last telling. But then again, so has his.

The sober people I know began sobriety by minimizing how bad their drinking and drug use was; by the end of the first year, they’re copping to the most graphic, disgusting behavior you can imagine. This was definitely my case; I started out mentioning that maybe I had a few too many a couple times a week, to the truth, which was that I was insane, trying to buy opiates, guys, the random RPG.

(Of course, Brian Williams did not do nearly as socially repellant things as my addict brothers and sisters did. In our defense, though, we rarely said we had been struck by RPG’s. So it’s sort of a wash.)

The truth eventually set me free. It’s the “eventually” that gets ya. But it did. I hurt a lot of people, mostly other women, but with a lot of help and solidarity, I told my truth, and there was great healing, for them and me; and what I did still sucked. Sometimes, they still do.

Take, for instance, the words for which I am probably most semi-famous, besides “shitty first drafts” and that my bad thoughts make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. The words were not even mine: it was my wild Jesuit friend Tom Weston’s word who actually said that you can tell you’ve created God in your own image when He hates the same people you do. Father Tom said it in a lecture 23 years ago, at a small gathering. The first few times I quoted it–probably at Salon, and possibly in Bird by Bird–I attributed it to him. Then the next few times, I didn’t. I just shoe-horned it into conversation, as if I’d just thought of it that minute; brilliant daring me

And not exactly “conversation.” More like, “While being interviewed.”

Then, it got picked up, and it was everywhere, and I started trying to correct the lie–at a big public level. In print, and on Kurt Andersen’s gigantic show, Studio 360 on WNYC, New York City’s NPR. It was the childhood dream of going to school naked. But I did it.

The line is frequently quoted, as mine. It’s a great line; it says it all. But I’m sick of cringing and saying I borrowed it. Okay–stole it. Fine.

Me, and one of our greatest historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin, right? Do we say, as people are saying now about Mr Williams, “Well, we wouldn’t be able to trust Goodwin after she plagarized.” No. We absolutely trust her. We decided to. She earned our trust back.

The point is, we are gigantically flawed. Oh, my God, such screw-ups. We can be such total asshats. And if you’re in the public eye, like Brian Williams, or in the public baby toe, like me, it goes viral.

We do the best we can. Sigh. Some days go better than others. We get to start our new 24 hours every time we remember. I’m also remembering the old wisdom story about the elder who tells a young girl that inside him, inside all humans, are two dogs, a good dog and an aggressive dog. They’re always at war. The girl asks him which dog usually wins. He thinks about it, and says, “The one I feed the most.” So I am going to feed my kinder side, forgive and trust Brian Williams, me, and, sight unseen, you. His story will to play out however it does, almost entirely based on NBC’s financial considerations. In the meantime, we can wish him and his family well.”

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