Why Fake News Is a Good Thing

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Hello again, everyone! It has been a long time since I have posted a blog. I have to admit that dissertation writing has consumed a lot of my time and left me with little inspiration to write blog posts as well. However, I do hope to get back into the blogging habit over the coming months.

Today, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wanted to write a post about everyone’s favorite topic: Fake News. This has been a trend over the last several months, especially surrounding the 2016 Election. Many people have been duped by fake stories circulating on various websites, especially Facebook.

There was a New York Times article posted just yesterday about the creator of the fake news website ChristianTimesNewspaper and how he made a fair bit of money by posting extreme news stories which he made up. This guy, Cameron Harris, garnered a lot of clicks after posting a story about Hillary Clinton allegedly stuffing ballot boxes. Harris took advantage of a statement by President-elect Trump in which Trump noted a potential for the election to be rigged.

Harris’s website is just one among many out there posting fake stories. I myself have seen friends buy in to headlines and stories about the election, or about other “news” which seemed to be fishy to me. I would then go to Snopes.com and check into these headlines. Often, there would an article debunking these stories which had been shared many times on Facebook. I would post the link to the article from Snopes in the comments, but sometimes would get the push-back, “Snopes is not an unbiased authority! You need to not trust it as a factual site! It’s fake news!” Even the anti-fake news websites were getting branded as untrustworthy. Biased journalism was everywhere! Either news sources were too liberally-biased in favor of Hillary Clinton or they were too conservatively-biased in favor of Donald Trump. Nothing could be trusted. Both sides claimed theirs was the “truth.”

So why can the Fake News phenomenon be a good thing? I have spent way too many years in school working towards my degree. Over these past several years, I feel as though I have gained a valuable tool: how to critically think about sources. I feel like one of the most beneficial things about pursuing a college education, or degree of some type, is learning how to do correct research. I have also been working as an adjunct history professor recently at an undergraduate institution. One of the things I always have to address is how to research proper websites and proper authorities. This usually includes talking about Wikipedia, or other online sources which allow anyone to edit entries.

One thing that Fake News has taught us recently is to be skeptical of certain bold statements. For example, people want to simply attach “BREAKING NEWS!” to a random story in order to get clicks and website visits. This is logical, since like Mr. Harris mentioned above, website visits and clicks actually translate into real-world, literal money and revenue. Sometimes people are trying to become the next Onion.com, a wildly successful satirical website (one of my favorite recent imitators of the Onion is the BabylonBee). These comedic sites are usually looked at for entertainment purposes and people often know when visiting them or when seeing these websites’ articles shared on Facebook that the articles are fake and supposed to be funny. The problem arises when a website is unfamiliar or contains words in the title that make it seem legit. The title ChristianTimesNewspaper, mentioned above, could appear to be addressing actual world news from a Christian perspective. I have seen others with similar titles sharing fake stories with the purpose of seeing End Times type events in “the news.”

But the fact that Fake News has become a buzzword(s), including a popular hashtag on Twitter, has allowed people to be more skeptical when encountering headlines. This is a good thing. Critical thinking is a good thing. Reading a story or article with an eyebrow raised can be helpful and make readers wonder if the story they have just read is fake, real, or at the very least, unverified. One major thing I have learned in my years of research is how to check sources, which sources are typically more trustworthy, etc. For example, picking up a monograph from Oxford University Press that is filled with footnotes and sources is much different than reading a source which has no notes or bibliography and is self-published on Amazon. Both might be good sources, but you need to do more digging with the second book.

I’m curious what you all think. Is Fake News a bad thing? Or, like I have mentioned here, can it be helpful? Can we “trust” any news sources anymore? Who has the time to chase down all sources for an article that someone shared on Facebook? There are positives and negatives, but I think overall Fake News has created more critical thinkers.

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A Godly Gladiator: The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a Fragrant Offering

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I want to continue my series on the Apostolic Fathers this week with a foray into the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is an intriguing tale of the arrest, trial, death, and aftermath of Polycarp’s martyrdom. Martyr tales are very interesting works, especially from the early church: see my post about Perpetua and Felicity. Often there are hagiographical elements within them, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp is no exception, as we will see below. I wanted to focus on this text because of some of the statements Polycarp makes prior to being executed. I have titled this post “A Godly Gladiator” because Polycarp’s martyrdom occurred in the arena, as did many Christian martyrdoms in the early Church. The text is probably from 155-160 AD (Holmes, 301), therefore it is a relatively early martyrdom account.

One part that I truly love about this text occurs in chapter 9 (as before, I am using the Holmes translation here). In Martyrdom 9.3, a dialogue is preserved: “When the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear an oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?'”

Polycarp shows great courage and faithfulness in the face of adversity, and likely impending death. Also the sheer fact that he has served Christ for 86 years baffles me. I am about 17 years into my life as a Christian and that makes me roughly 70 years short of Polycarp. SEVENTY years! Amazing and humbling to say the least. I can only imagine the wisdom, and faithfulness Polycarp would have exuded to all who encountered him with such a long faith journey. We see an instance of such faithfulness in another passage below:

“So the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he [Polycarp] said: ‘Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness.’ Then he said to him again: ‘I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish'” (Martyrdom, 11:1-2).

Now, I ask that you let me be a bit honest and graphic for a minute. There are two ways of dying (drowning be the third) that I would basically choose to avoid if I had my say: those are being burned alive and being ripped apart by hungry wild animals. So many times we read in these martyrdom accounts that Christians were faithful in the face of such threats, even going into battle with wild beasts (see my post on Perpetua and Felicity linked above for another instance of this). I think when we read these accounts we are often focusing on the literary devices and the grand statements of faithfulness by these martyrs (as well we should), but I also sometimes think we miss just how scary and awful the situations were in which they found themselves. The wild beasts and the pyre are two very real, very present threats for these martyrs, and yet they not only go willingly to their deaths, but these punishments don’t always work the way they are supposed to.

I want to close by examining one last aspect from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It comes from two passages which I will link below:

The author of the text (presumably one of Polycarp’s associates since there is a great amount of detail about what happens after Polycarp’s death) describes Polycarp as “a splendid ram chosen from a great flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering prepared and acceptable to God” (14:1); and notes that “the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant aroma, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice” (15:2).

Clearly this is a comment on the acceptability of Polycarp’s willing sacrifice for his faith. He chose to stay true to God, and God accepted this fragrant offering so much so that the people present observed a pleasing aroma. Now, one can say that this is simply an editorial on the part of the author in an effort to praise Polycarp and contribute to his legacy. Further evidence of this occurs in Chapter 16 when one of the guards had to stab Polycarp (since the fire wasn’t working) and a dove flew out of his chest as well as enough blood to extinguish the fire (16:1). Clearly the latter is an example of hagiographical writing. While some might believe that a literal dove flew out of his chest, most will attribute this to the author trying to show how peacefully Polycarp’s willing sacrifice was.

I want to close this blog by noting how this text has two impactful aspects to me, despite the debatable historical details. The first is that Polycarp is a very old man that likely had not long to live, yet he willingly endured tortures and execution for his faith. He did not hide or run away from the authorities (7:1). One final element of interest from the text occurs in chapter 16 as the author notes that Polycarp’s death shows the difference between the unbelievers and the elect (16:1). Such a statement implies that one can only see whether or not someone is elect after their death. Throughout all of Polycarp’s faithful statements and actions in the Martyrdom, the author only makes the claim that “this man was certainly one of the elect” (16:2) after he died.

How do you read martyrdom accounts like this? Are they historical? Fictional? Somewhere in between? What about theological statements such as that noted above concerning “the elect?” Should we put stock in such theology even if it’s attached to a text that has questionable historical details?