Text: Luke 1:26-56 (the miraculous conception of Jesus)
Churches like Mill Woods United spend a lot of time disseminating news. We maintain a website and a presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We send out a weekly e-newsletter called “What’s the Buzz.” We produce the Morning Messenger news bulletin every week. We advertise in The Mill Woods Mosaic. In our Sunday morning gatherings, we share both encouraging news and concerns.
Beyond this local communication, our prime mandate is to proclaim the Good News of God as revealed in the stories of Jesus Christ. Like all other churches, we are agents of Good News with a capital “G” and a capital “N.”
This morning, I remind us that churches are news agencies to introduce one of this year’s hot topics: fake news. Last month, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its 2016 word of the year was post-truth. It defined post-truth as a time “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
In a post-truth world, it no longer matters if our leaders tell lies. The only thing that matters is whether their speech fits with the fears and prejudices of their subjects.
Fake news comes from a variety of sources: entrepreneurs who make money by providing “click-bait” to partisan audiences; fraudulent research institutions that are created by industries under siege like Big Tobacco; political activists who spread slanders; and mainstream publishers that emphasize sensationalism over reporting in the face of declining ad revenue.
This week, I listened to a CBC radio discussion about fake news. One of the creators of the CBC satirical news show “This Is That” said that the spread of non-satirical fake news on social media platforms like Facebook has made it more difficult for satirists like him to practice their comedy.
In September “This is That” aired a story about a condo residence in Toronto that had been built without any bathrooms. After a link to this satirical story was loaded onto the show’s website, it was shared on Facebook by people who used it to spark discussion about the negative consequences of the condo construction boom in Toronto and Vancouver.
To the comedians at “This is That,” the story seemed like a perfectly harmless and ridiculous one. But it was treated by others as a source of outrage.
One of my favourite websites, Religion News Service, also tackled the subject of fake news last week. RNS is an award-winning site affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism.
In discussing the efforts of Facebook to weed out fake news, a satirical article on the site listed headlines from recent RNS articles that might not make the cut including “Roman Catholic Church certifies Mother Teresa’s miracles ahead of being named a saint,” and “Is Ebola a curse from God? Some African Christian leaders think so” and others from an evangelical publication “The Christian Post” including “Do freshwater pools found near the Dead Sea fulfill the Bible’s End Times Prophecy?”
This piece reminds us that much of what is presented as news by churches looks like made-up nonsense to people outside the church.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a story that strikes many people as made up — the virginal conception of Jesus. Taken at face value, the story violates our faith in the shared reality revealed to us by science. Nevertheless, many of us cherish it because of the mystery it can lend to our preparations for Christmas.
This morning we also heard Mary’s reaction to the news that she will give birth to the Messiah. She sings that God has “deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. [God] has filled the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.”
To think of this song as something other than a literary creation can stretch our credulity. Mary would have sung this song as a 15-year old illiterate peasant. Luke wrote it down more than 90 years later. Like much of the rest of the first chapter of Luke, Mary’s song is patterned after the story of Hannah and her miracle child Samuel from the Hebrew Bible. But even if we believe it is a literary creation, many of us love Mary’s song because it has given voice to the hopes and dreams of generations of poor and oppressed people.
And what about the Good News that may be contained in Luke’s account of the angel Gabriel, Mary, and the conception of Jesus?
I embrace Good News when it fits the path of death and resurrection revealed by the Way of Jesus. For me, this means the death of illusions in national glory and in gods who favour one tribe over another and the resurrection of universal love and healing on the ashes of these illusions.
I reject any so-called Good News that is not universal, which means that I reject a lot of what is proclaimed by various religious groups.
Such universalism does not demand that we abandon our traditions. In the case of today’s reading, I assume Mary’s Song is a literary creation while seeing our own dreams for peace with justice reflected in it.
Today on the second Sunday of Advent, the church calls us to look for peace. Many elements can flow together to create peace in our hearts and in the world. For me, one of them is commitment to facts shared by people of different cultural backgrounds. Another element is cherishing the dreams contained in ancient stories like the one we heard today about the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary.
Each Advent, we proclaim God’s Good News of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Our ability to do so is facilitated by ancient stories like those about Mary, but it is not dependent on them. We believe that the stories in the Bible are just one path among many to enlightenment. We also know that the guarantee found in Mary’s song is not a guarantee of peace in our time. It is a guarantee that joy and love can be found by working with others for the dream of peace with justice.
As we prepare for the birth of Jesus this Advent, may we stand against fake news. May we use our critical faculties to discern together what is factual and what is propaganda. And may we also continue to work for the dream of peace of which Mary sings.
Searching for shared truth can bring us closer to the Good News of the Peace and Love that shines even in the darkest Advent and which lights our way to the dreams of Christmas Eve.
May it be so.