The thrill of sensationalism

Imagine yourself standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and you see two newspapers. The headline on one newspaper reads, “Presidential infidelity and abuse scandal: shocking details inside!” The other headline reads, “President a faithful husband, caring father.” Be honest with yourself now, which are you more likely to reach for? I know I would tend to want to read the story about the president’s fling and his malicious behavior toward his kids. Not because I celebrate mistresses or child abuse but because that story is interesting. That headline has shock value. It has sex appeal. “What bleeds, leads” in the journalism industry and that’s because readers will pay for blood and guts, even metaphorically.

The thrill of sensationalism is what inspires people to accept, or at least seriously entertain, all kinds of conspiracy theories as well. Consider the following.

  • The technological marvel of sending humans to the moon is beyond merely impressive, but how much better is the story that NASA never actually sent men to the moon, but faked the whole thing?
  • The horror of 9/11 still hits home for any morally sane human being, but how much more horrific and juicy is the story that it was really the American government who staged the whole thing as an excuse to start a war?
  • The mystery and intrigue of what kind of leading edge aerospace technology might hide behind the tight security at Area 51 is nowhere near as enticing as imagining what kind of downed alien spacecraft might reside in those infamous hangars.

They say truth is stranger than fiction, but often it seems we yearn for the ficticious because the truth just isn’t as enticing. Why is that? I have some theories about that, and I’ll breeze over them quickly. First, whatever is sensational is interesting, by definition. It gets talked about. Second, there is a bizarre and widespread inherent mistrust of any kind of authority figure. I say this is bizarre because in one sense we ought to mistrust everybody, not just authorities, but a lot of these consipracy theorists will blindly trust some random stranger on the street who claims to have seen something but will not trust the government, the church, NASA or other such authority figure that claims something different and actually provide evidence to back up their claim. Lastly, there is an attraction to being at the “leading edge” of human knowledge; whatever is trendy or viral. C. S. Lewis put it well in the Screwtape Letters when describing how a hypothetical demon ought to deceive his “patient,”

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

This tendency to be drawn toward whatever is sensational, though our reasons may vary, is innate to all of us, but is something we have to keep an eye on if we wish to keep our beliefs grounded in reality instead of fantasy. The desire to believe the sensational has also raised its deceptive head numerous times in the past with respect to the Christian faith. Here are some examples.

  • The early church actively sought out and destroyed competing Gospels. The real story is far less interesting; the early church read the obviously late forgeries, shrugged their shoulders in collective disinterest and ignored them. Without a significant enough following the other “gospels” simply slipped into obscurity and eventually all but disappeared on their own.
  • Jesus never existed. This theory is still held as a plausible option by many people, even though scholars in the field (many of whom are not Christians, I should point out) will hardly give it the time of day.
  • Jesus’ tomb was discovered with his bones still in it. Suffice it to say the evidence was underwhelming.

What these examples attempt to do is undermine, overturn, and rewrite Christianity. If true, the very fabric of Christianity would in some cases be completely unwoven. In other cases the face of Christianity would look so different as to be virtually unrecognizable from its present form. And, like the claims of 9/11 and the faked moon landings, the element of sensationalism is attractive to some people. So attractive that caution and sober analysis get thrown to the wind in favour of the latest trendy theories.

There was a media storm recently about another supposed discovery from antiquity that would overturn established consensus, uproot centuries-old traditions, and completely rewrite our understanding of Christianity. Perhaps you heard of the recently discovered “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” The tiny document makes reference to Jesus’ wife; a claim which would certainly transform our understanding of who Jesus is, and frankly our confidence in the Biblical record of his life. The discovery was splashed on headlines around the globe. For many people with only a passing interest in matters such as these, that would be the end of it. The story is sensational. It overturns previously held dogmas and is cutting edge. It deflates some perceived authority figure (in this case the church). No further questions are really necessary or likely to be asked.

If you’ve read my book, Arguing with Friends, then you already know my take on sensationalist claims like these. I describe the need to refine and improve our “spidey senses” with respect to larger-than-life claims. Our spidey senses will not be 100% accurate, and it would be unreasonable to expect that our gut-reaction will always be right, but any time something sounds too remarkable to be true it probably is. Probably, but not certainly. Homework still needs to be done, but in the mean time let’s reign in our tendency to automatically assume the newpaper with the headline about the president’s infidelity and child abuse is the one telling the truth.

So, what about that discovery? Is it for real? Was Jesus married? The short answer is that we should lean toward the opinion expressed by the very person who discovered it, “King [the discoverer of the papyrus] has cautioned that the new discovery should not be taken as proof that Jesus was actually married.” That should definitely give us pause to reconsider any dramatic conclusions. Many other people have weighed in with a variety of thoughts on the subject (many of which are summarized here), and one scholar has already gone on record as saying it is almost certainly a fake, copied from another late “gospel.”

The jury is still out on exactly what to make of this discovery, but the careful analysis that scholars are engaged in right now is what we need if we want to embrace truth and avoid error. Give it time and we will see what the real story is. If Jesus did have a wife then certainly we will need to do some very serious reconsideration of some of the pillars of Christianity, like how can we trust the Gospels if they missed such an important detail? Did he have kids? Was Dan Brown, and his book the DaVinci Code, actually right?!?!

If, on the other hand, this cannot be trusted as a record of Jesus’ life (as the discoverer even claims) then it’s back to business as usual. The president did not cheat on his wife. 9/11 was not an inside job. There are no alien spacecraft at Area 51. Jesus really did exist. Once again scholarship will have shown us that truth is fascinating enough in its own right and we should not always trust the headlines.

Update (2012-09-28): I’m not the only one thinking media sensationalism needs to settle down just a bit!


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