Three Cups of Lies: How Much Do Facts Matter?

Greg Mortenson's bestselling book, "Three Cups of Tea," made tremendous waves when it hit bookshelves. The heartening stories of reaching across cultural and national lines to give hope to Pakistani children in the form of new schools was the stuff of Hollywood screenplays. Mortenson became a celebrity.

Unfortunately, recent light has been shed on some gross manipulation of facts in the book, much in Mortenson's own personal favor. Though there are grains of truth throughout the book, investigative journalists like Jon Krakauer revealed numerous outright lies, many of which Mortenson repeated over and again at fundraisers. Krakauer, himself a donor to Mortenson's nonprofit, recorded the disquieting details of Mortenson's dishonesty in his own book, "Three Cups of Deceit."

I was emailing back and forth with a friend of mine, who happens to be the president of a seminary, about some positions I took in a recent article about graduate education. Gracious in his responses, he helped contextualize some of my fairly strong claims that graduate-level education was an inherently colonial system that served the privileged in Western culture due to its essential structure and history.

One of his responses in particular about making education more accessible to the less privilege struck me. "I was deeply touched in reading Mortensen's 'Three Cups of Tea,'" he wrote, "and the effort to make education available to girls long denied. I am not sure how much help seminaries will be in doing something similar with educating Christians in the U.S and elsewhere."

The cynic in me emerged and I sent back the following reply: "I highly recommend the short e-book, 'Three Cups of Deceit' by Jon Krakauer about Mortensen and his proclivity for self-aggrandizing fiction. It is an inspiring story, but it turns out a lot of it was just that and little more."

I'm still not sure why I felt so compelled to expose the fallacies in Mortenson's stories, but I expect it has to do with my own personal grudges against people who are less than honest. In general, I can forgive nearly any past transgression, but if you lie about it to me, I tend to want little to do with you.

His response caused me more than a moment of pause to reflect on my own biases. "I know the charge that Mortensen created a self serving fiction," he said. "And, as is sometimes the case with fiction, it still stimulates the imagination! And the concept of overcoming barriers to knowledge that might be liberating knowledge inspires me."

We're obsessed in today's world with facts. Every syllable uttered by people in positions of power is put under a microscope, and we, the general public, love nothing more than to have subterfuge reveal in the media spotlight. I count myself among this group who sometimes finds satisfaction in the downfall of liars, like in the case of James Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces." Frey was raked over the coals on the Oprah Winfrey show for fabricating much of his memoir about emerging from addiction. I'll admit my share of schadenfreude in watching him be humiliated for his deception.

But has it always been this way? Consider Biblical scripture, and particularly the culture in which it was written. The obsession with literal fact is a relatively modern, western phenomenon, traced back to Greece's Plato. The dualistic thought that emerged from Platonism created a more binary way of looking at the world: either it's black or white, right or wrong.

We can see this either/or value system today in the more fundamental strains for Christianity. Either you believe Jesus died for your sins and you accept him as lord and savior, or you go to hell forever, or some variation of that. The practice of Bilblical literalism leans on the same sort of paradigm, asserting that every word in scripture is the literal word of God, handed down verbatim from the Divine to human hands that recorded it without error.

Aside from the host of logistical and linguistic problems this presents, it betrays the culture and value system in which the Bible was written. Even Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, spoke often in parable. We know this, and yet, when we look at stories like that of Adam and Eve or the flood story in Genesis, to name only a few, many assume they must be literal accounts of factual events.

Then, of course, we spend as much time and energy as Mortenson is trying to retroactively fit fact into the story we have. But given the cultural reality in which Biblical authors lived, this seems to be missing the point entirely.

Speaker and author Fred Craddock is renowned internationally for his preaching skills. He is particularly well known for his storytelling. I've heard him bemoan, more than once, the inevitable moment after one of his stories when someone confronts him with the question: Did all of that really happen?

Allowing ourselves to be inspired by story, regardless of its grounding in fact, is a gift. This is the case not only with regard to religious practice, but in our daily experience in the world as well. Does this mean that liars should not be held to account? Hardly. But to find good that breathes creative life into the world in spite of the deception is, in my estimation at the heart of the message of the first verse in the Gospel According to John:

In the Beginning was the Word.

If you notice, there's never any mention of what the word was. Maybe it was "Ta Da!" or "Oops," but it would be nice to know. But the point is that it doesn't matter. Inspiration begets inspiration. Imagination gives birth to imagination. It's viral, a little bit wild and hard to contain. Some Christians might call the phenomenon "Pentecostal."

I owe a debt of thanks to my seminary friend for reminding me of our God-given permission to be inspired at every turn, fact or fiction.