We hear the term “fake news” tossed around so much that we’ve almost become numb to it. It’s unusual to hear the phrase used in a genuine and meaningful way anymore. Now, Pope Francis has decided to weigh in on “fake news” and use it as a metaphor for the sin committed in the Garden of Eden.
The pontiff held forth on disinformation in his statement for the Catholic media conference World Communications Day 2018. He based his statement on John 8:32, where Jesus tells the Pharisees that “the truth will set you free.”
“When we yield to our own pride and selfishness, we can also distort the way we use our ability to communicate,” the pontiff said, describing fake news as “false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”
He went on to say:
Fake news often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings. The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom.
Mediaite’s Lawrence Bonk claims that the pontiff directed his remarks directly at Donald Trump, but — while it might be true — it’s not necessarily the case. “Fake news” happens on both sides of the political aisle so much these days that no one can lay the blame for it at the feet of one person or one side.
The pope also blamed the first sin — the one that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden — on “fake news.”
This was the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news which began the tragic history of human sin. The strategy of this skilled “Father of Lies” (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.
I suppose that using “fake news” to describe Satan’s lie to the first humans is a cute metaphor or object lesson, but to blame the sin on “fake news” doesn’t quite get things right.
You see, the “fake news” was the temptation, and Eve — and later Adam — could have resisted it. But being tempted is not sin. The Westminster Catechism defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” In other words, sin isn’t merely being exposed to temptation; it’s disobeying God’s command.
The first act of sin in Genesis was their disobedience to God, which stemmed from their pride and their unwillingness to see through the serpent’s lie and say no. (Before someone goes splitting hairs, yes, lying is a sin, but in this case, Satan had already fallen, and as he is the “father of lies,” in this case his lie doesn’t count.)
I suppose it’s a natural human trait to blame whoever or whatever is tempting us when we fall. Heck, Adam tried to blame Eve for his sin! But, as Jesus’ brother James writes:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:14-15 (ESV)
To take this idea to the story of Adam and Eve, neither of them can blame the “fake news” for their sin, because their trespass against God’s command was their fault.
It’s easy to see Pope Francis’ underlying point — that lies, disinformation, and manipulation are as old as creation itself — but his characterization of the first sin as “fake news” is sloppy phrasing at best and faulty exegesis at worst. The head of the largest church in the world shouldn’t have any excuse for such a poor representation of one of the most well-known Biblical accounts — especially the one that serves as the catalyst for God’s incredible plan of redemption.