We are constantly hearing these days about “fake news.” It’s nauseating how much human effort is being wasted on spinning lies to support positions. We wish that watching or reading the news didn’t demand so much incredulity just to avoid being made a fool. Who would want to repost or retweet the attention-grabbing links that hours later are proven to be deceitful propaganda? Evidently all too many are willing. Fake new goes viral. No matter that it was fake. No matter it keeps coming.
And yet “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). Fake news, lies in support of a position, propaganda. This is nothing new. In his collection of essays about the Reformation era, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, Diarmaid MacCulloch tells a cautionary tale about an Irish pseudo-historian named Robert Ware (1639-1697). He was an intellectual from a long line of intellectuals. But he was a liar. A smart liar. And he was an ardent supporter of the emerging Anglican consensus in Dublin. And so he wrote non-historical history that bolstered the Anglican cause.
Robert Ware made up entire historical accounts, dialogues that never transpired, and conspiracy theories that lumped Protestant dissenters (i.e. Presbyterians) in with Roman Catholic conspirators. MacCulloch provides a couple examples.
In 1547 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer preached a pithy and dramatic sermon at the Coronation of King Edward VI, during the royal youth to renew the scriptural role of young King Josiah of Judah in his own kingdom. In the early 1560s, Queen Elizabeth I berated Dean Alexander Nowell in his own cathedral church of St Paul’s, for subversion of her Protestant religious settlement through his hill-judged gift to her of a presentation copy of the Book of Common Prayer, enriched with devotional pictures. Both events are still repeatedly to be met with in accounts of the English Reformation…but there is one problem: neither of them happened. They are fictions created by Robert Ware.
Robert Ware’s forgeries “pollute the historical pool of sources about English and Irish history.” And so a review of his story becomes a caution about “the preoccupations and temptations to which historians are prone, even in modern historiographical practice.”
The caution isn’t just for historians. It’s for all. Lies masquerading as facts are everywhere, meaning we should all have a healthy sense of incredulity. We should not rush to judgment for or against. In evaluating politically oriented news, we should always recognize that the author is “coming from somewhere,” some angle.
As someone who preaches and teaches regularly, I want to be careful in what information I pass along. If I’m presenting a story or anecdote from history or passing along some information as true, then I want to be reasonably sure that it is indeed true. Check original sources, be sure they are reliable sources, investigate any contrary opinions. If I pass along dubious information, does that not call into question my overall methodology and reliability?