Naming the Lie in a Naked World
It’s likely we’re all familiar with the phrase, “the emperor has no clothes.” It’s a loose translation of a line from Hans Christian Andersen‘s children’s story called, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Even though most all of us know the famous line, I wonder how many of us have actually read the story? Well, I did, and I was surprised with what I found. Embedded in this children’s story is not only a great moral lesson about the power of lies and deceit, but also a direct reference to what it looks like when those of us who are followers of Jesus choose to perpetuate a lie rather than speak the truth. Here’s the plot and the surprise embedded in it.
There is a certain emperor who, driven by his remarkable vanity, is consumed with a passion for fine clothes. Because of his singular addiction to having the finest of things to wear, he is ripe pickings for a scam. And right on cue, along come two “swindlers”, as Andersen describes them. They make the most audacious claim. They convince the emperor that they have created a new kind of cloth that is not only the finest in the land, but carries the magical quality of only being able to be seen by those who are worthy of the position they hold in the society. Put negatively, if someone is a charlatan or a fraud, they will not be able to see the cloth.
The only reason this rather absurd ruse works is the depth of vanity of the emperor. He buys it hook, line and sinker. And so, he gives money and the finest of cloth and thread to the weavers and puts them in a closed room to create the magical fabric.
Two things then happened that set the scene for the rest of the story. First, the news of this magical fabric is told throughout the land. Everyone is aware that these weavers are making the special cloth and they know the price that would be paid by anyone who was not able to see it. Secondly, the emperor realizes that he, too, is a great risk of losing his leadership position if he were unable to see the cloth.
Time passes and the looms are heard furiously working away behind closed doors. The emperor grows impatient and wants to know how the progress is coming and what the cloth looks like. However, he is too terrified to look himself, so he calls on someone in whom he has the confidence to tell him the truth. And here is the surprise. He looks to an old minister.
“I’ll send my honest old minister to the weavers,” the Emperor decided. “He’ll be the best one to tell me how the material looks, for he’s a sensible man and no one does his duty better.”
That’s right, he goes to a pastor, a man of the cloth, a man of great integrity who certainly would tell him the truth. And this is where the story gets very interesting for us. We don’t know why Hans Christian Andersen chose to embed a minister in the midst of the story, other than perhaps to take a shot at the hypocrisy of the church of his day. But here we have the trusted pastor who is sent into the room to be the first one in the whole kingdom to view this magical cloth. Perhaps surprisingly, the minister is terrified. He understands clearly the dilemma that he is in. If he sees no cloth on the loom, he would be proven a fraud. So, he enters the room with great anxiety and to his horror, the weavers display the cloth they have been working on for all this time, and he sees absolutely nothing. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing there to see. What is the minister to do?
Let’s flash forward from Andersen’s 19th century children’s fable to the challenges of our world in 2021. What do we do, as followers of Jesus, when faced with the dilemma of calling out an absolute absurdity, an untruth, an allusion that is being foisted on our culture, recognizing that by calling it out we will be seen as incompetent and unworthy of the roles that we play? This dilemma faced by the old minister in Andersen’s fairytale should sound uncomfortably familiar. We live in a time when there is a radical narcissistic agenda that is calling into question every foundational belief of the Christian faith. This societal self-idolization has created a soft totalitarianism that seeks to destroy the reputation and work of anyone who would challenge even the most absurd truths it seeks to propagate. What do we do when the truth is so clear, the lie so obvious, the deception so unequivocal and yet the price of naming it so high? That is the growing reality in our world today, and in it we face the existential dilemma the old minister faced himself.
How did he respond?
He couldn’t see anything, because there was nothing to see. “Heaven have mercy,” he thought. “Can it be that I’m a fool? I’d have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be the minister? It would never do to let on that I can’t see the cloth.”
His choice to set aside the truth to save his own skin allowed the distortion to take deeper root in the minds and spirits of the people of his town. Surely if the minister said he saw the cloth, it was true, as was the cost of not seeing it. The rest of the story unfolds along similar lines. A second confidant also chooses to perpetuate the lie rather than be caught out. This all leads to the emperor parading around town completely naked, believing that he must be wearing clothes if everyone else can see them. It takes the innocence of a little boy to speak the truth into the situation. “But he hasn’t got anything on.” Without the risk of losing face, the little boy names truth. And the entire sham seems to fall apart. But the surprising ending to Hans Christian Andersen‘s children’s story is that the emperor continues on, even when called out, even when the truth is proclaimed, even when the lie is exposed. Refusing to give in, he prances down the street fully exposed in his shame, unwilling to accept the level to which he has been duped.
We live in a moment when lies, distortions and denial of truth are the national ideology. Things that 20 years ago were absolutely absurd to even consider are today’s unquestionable cultural norms. Along with the lies comes a direct confrontation of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When God‘s truth confronts the denial of all truth and the most absurd deceptions imaginable, how are we to respond? Even further, when the soft totalitarianism of our day threatens our very livelihood, identity, reputation and work, will we still stand firm? Will we name the truth as we see it? Will we choose not to go along even when those in authority and the broader cross-section of our society are buying the lie? Will we look at empty looms and be willing to say, “there’s nothing there, it’s a lie, it’s a sham, it’s a deceit”? Will we have the courage to say that the emperor is not wearing any clothes?
As stewards of God’s truth, may we not find ourselves in solidarity with the old minister who was so convinced by the deception of his day that he lied to save his skin and perpetuated the distortion. May we instead say what needs to be said, name what needs to be named, and call our culture back to the truth we have in Jesus Christ.