Mike Daisey, This American Life and the truest story ever told

My dogs know most things through their noses. You might say that smelling is their epistemology. Their sense of smell has always been keener than their eyesight or hearing and is even more so now that those senses are diminishing with age.

The human race is a little less constant, epistemologically speaking. In ancient days, divine revelation was the greatest authority for human knowledge, whether that revelation came in the form of myth, superstition or the inspired Word of God.

But then came the Enlightenment and with it a shift that gave revelation second place, until kicking it out of the game altogether. In Enlightenment thinking, the most reliable source of knowledge is the human mind or the human senses; in other words, empirical evidence or logical reasoning. Such an approach to knowledge is delightfully satirized by Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, in the character of the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Decades after Dickens, the great shift came:  “If the facts don’t fit the theory,” said Albert Einstein, discoverer of the theory of relativity, “change the facts.” The end of modern epistemology came with the realization that truth contains facts, but facts cannot contain the fullness of human experience or universal truth.   

So, just as revealed truth was replaced by empirical truth, empirical truth has, in the postmodern age, been replaced by narrative truth - the truth of story. Truth is now the embodiment of facts. It is facts fleshed out.

Naturally, as with all things of the flesh, this makes matters of truth a bit messier.

Take the recent controversy at NPR’s “This American Life,” which recently aired a segment with Mike Daisey, an entertainer who had supposedly uncovered abuses in Chinese factories where Apple computer products are manufactured. When NPR discovered that Daisey had lied about important details of his investigation, it retracted the story. Daisey has now admitted to violating his own artistic standards and has apologized, saying that “story should always be subordinate to the truth.” For Daisey, a dramatist not a journalist, the trouble lay in blurring the boundaries between facts and fiction.  But boundary blurring didn’t begin with Daisey.

A similar case from a few years ago caught Oprah Winfrey unaware when her book club selection, James Frey’s alleged autobiography A Million Little Pieces, was found to have been largely made up. Some readers who’d been inspired and moved by Frey’s self-help tale were outraged; others felt the book’s transformative power didn’t depend on whether or not the story was true.

But art, in order to be good, must, like good journalism, be honest to its form. Indeed, Daisey has admitted that his lapse in truth resulted in “worse art.”

Nevertheless, faith in facts alone is clearly dead.

While this complicates things for Christians (not to mention journalists, NPR and Oprah), it’s not the end of the world.

For one thing, the fact that playing loose with the facts resulted in a national controversy, a retraction and an apology indicates that the line between truth and lies is still important to most of us.

Furthermore, an Enlightenment mindset that emphasizes facts alone is least likely to accept the doctrines of Christianity, grounded as they are in mystery and miracles. The incalculable way that facts play out in our lives - the incarnation of those facts - is more important than the modernists led us to believe. This truth is at the heart of the Gospel (which, of course, means “good story”) and the entire Biblical narrative, the truest story ever told.

Ultimately, I suspect human knowledge - our myths, our facts, our categories and systems, and even our stories – is, in comparison to the omniscience of God, but a trifle more than what my dog knows through her nose.

Comments (8)

Leave a Comment

a) I had to look up the word “epistemology”.

b) Story really is powerful, isn’t it? You’ve hit the right note pointing out that good story contains truth, and the best story of all is Truth. We all like story, and anyone who’s given it any thought knows that even fiction can teach truth. On the other hand, as Daisey and Frey learned, no one wants to be bamboozled along the way; that’s no way to be truthful.

Nice job, Karen.


Well thank the good Lord and Samuel Johnson for dictionaries, Tim. :) (Sorry about that!)

I love how you put it: bamboozling is not acceptable in any form.

Oh my, you’ve got us all up into the facts v narrative dilemma that any serious student of the gospel accounts can’t avoid. We run into it with Adam and Eve and genetics, with the flood and modern geology, and then in Holy Week with whether Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (Matt and Mark) or Ps 31 (Luke) or both, etc.

What a lovely illustration with Mike Daisey, you laid it out so beautifully but I can’t help feel that you punted on your conclusion. Are we not too far from the other TC piece I read this AM on Atheists appropriating the technique of religion in order to receive it’s deliverable goods apart from metaphysical assertions of “fact”? 

We must get our hands dirty with both facts and narrative yet we are necessarily (and happily so) masters of neither. We are witnesses of, heirs and participants in this world with truths to large for our short little arms.

The experiential payload is in the narrative and but it’s hollow without the concreteness of the fact, as Paul presses in 1 Cor 15.

Thanks for a delightful piece and a terrific topic. pvk

Thank you so much for the kind words. Please tell me where you think I punted; from what you post here my conclusion is the same as yours. I love the facts—and story, too. But I think we are still “seeing in a glass darkly” with both.

It’s probably a constraint of the format. I know Josh is always riding me to make it shorter (which is helpful). :)

I would have liked to see that dynamic of narrative truth and factuality more fleshed out. I though this case is a brilliant way into the conversation. Daisey fabricated stories to get attention and the conveyors of the story lost credibility when the fabrication was discovered. Yet, there is a sneaking suspicion that despite the fabrication the relationship between those of us hooked on our magic electronics and the means employed by our favorite manufacturer of dreams speaks a crueler word than the glowing promotional videos relay. Apple is making life nice for those who can pay to some degree on the backs of the weak. Can a lie speak the truth?

Did “Inherit the Wind” really communicate what was going on at “the monkey trial” or was it laying down another narrative? Does it matter if Jonah was a story or a parable? Does it matter if Lazarus and the rich man was a story or a parable? This is the ground that the modernist/fundamentalist war was waged and it seems that war isn’t finished with us yet.

Maybe my expectations were more than a 700 word post can provide. I thought, however, that using Mike Daisey as the way in was brilliant. I just want it resolved, probably something that we can’t quite do right now. :)

Case in point. Just reading Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek take on Christianity: ” In Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Augustine Thompson cuts through the legends and apocryphal prayers to describe Saint Francis as he truly lived. ” http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/04/01/andrew-sullivan-christianity-in-crisis.html

“truly lived” is of course the key phrase. Pilate asked “what is truth”, and the question lives on. :) pvk

Agreed. Truth be told, I did send a panicky email to Josh asking what the absolute maximum number of words was. :) Pilate’s question was in a draft, too, but didn’t make the cut. I did have so much to say but ultimately had to stick with using the case to open the question, particularly for any readers for whom the question might be new. Still figuring out that audience thing. I’ll settle for a brilliant question if not a brilliant answer. :) Thanks.

And I will look for opportunties for a post (or posts) that might privide more brilliant answers. :)

Loading More Comments


Leave a comment, Guest

You are welcome to leave a comment, guest. Please note, all comments are moderated by our staff. Your name and email address are required fields.
You are encouraged to create an account for additional benefits.

Why create an account?
* denotes required field.
Image Type: jpg, gif, or png.
Max file size: 50kb. Max dimensions: 100px by 100px.

See the latest in: