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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Truth with a Capital T

Years before Stephen King was crowned king of literary horror, Shirley Jackson wrote what many readers consider the scariest tale of all. 


“The Lottery,” published in The New Yorker in 1948, vaulted the 32-year-old author into the national spotlight, and has since become required reading for generations of high school and college students.


If you’ve never read “The Lottery,” or could use a refresher, here’s a link to the original publication.  It only takes a few minutes to read: “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson | The New Yorker


The power of Jackson’s story is the unexpected twist at the end.  Now that we’ve provided that official spoiler alert, we can reveal that the story unfolds in an ordinary village somewhere in America’s heartland.  The residents gather on a summer morning to participate in the community’s annual lottery, a ritual that’s been going for longer than anyone can remember.  There are hints that this traditional event is a way to ensure a bountiful harvest. 


“Well, now,” says Mr. Summers, who’s presiding over the formalities, “guess we better get started, get this over with, so’s we can go back to work.”


A representative of each family steps forward.  One by one they reach into a box and draw out a slip of paper.  One of those slips has a black spot.  An undercurrent of apprehension and excitement ripples through the crowd.  “Who is it?” “Who’s got it?”


Bill Hutchinson is holding the black spot.  Now there’s a second drawing.  Each member of the Hutchinson family steps forward.  This time Tessie, wife and mother, draws the spot.  She protests.  But the crowd is already picking up stones, including her own little son.  “Come on, come on, everyone,” says one of the elders of the village.  A stone hits her on the side of the head.


Jackson closes with these words: “’It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”


This is clearly the lottery that no one wants to win. 


For a number of years, Kay Haugaard, a college professor in southern California, asked the students in her creative writing classes (who ranged in age from 18 to 81) to read “The Lottery.”  Then she would make it a centerpiece of class discussion.  Haugaard notes how it’s become increasingly difficult to find something that genuinely shocks contemporary students. 


That came to a head in 1997, as documented in an article she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Suspending Moral Judgment: Students Who Refuse to Condemn the Unthinkable.”


Haugaard sat with her class of twenty-something students and asked for their impressions of “The Lottery.”  Mostly she got shrugs. 


Puzzled at what seemed like emotional indifference, she pressed one of the students for her convictions about the meaning of the story. 


“’Are you asking me if I believe in human sacrifice?’ Beth responded thoughtfully, as though seriously considering all aspects of the question. ‘Well, yes,’ I managed to say.  ‘Do you think that the author approved or disapproved of this ritual?’  I was stunned: This was the woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog.”


“I really don’t know,” Beth responded.  “If it was a religion of long standing…”


Haugaard writes, “For a moment, I couldn’t even respond.  This woman actually couldn’t seem to bring herself to say plainly that she was against human sacrifice.” 


Another student, Richard, cooly suggested that maybe the ritual of killing someone every year was important in the context of this village because it “met a need.” 


Haugaard admits that she tries hard to keep her own opinions out of classroom discussions.  But this was too much.  “I turned to Patricia, a fifty-something, red-headed nurse.  She had always seemed an intelligent person of moderate views.  ‘Well, I teach a course for our hospital personnel in multicultural understanding, and if it is part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge, and if it works for them…’”


If it works for them.  Haugaard found it hard to take in that no one in this class of “ostensibly intelligent individuals” felt shock or discomfort at the end of “The Lottery.”  No one would go out on a limb to oppose human sacrifice. 


Shirley Jackson intended a different response.


The thrust of her story is that people are at their worst when they “go along to get along,” when they perpetuate traditions and behaviors just because “we’ve always done it that way.”  “The Lottery” is a clarion call to raise our voices against whatever is cruel or unjust, even if such behaviors have become public rituals.


We live in a time, unfortunately, when it’s increasingly hard to say, “That’s just flat wrong.” 


The only absolute in our culture is that there are no absolutes.  Philosopher Charles Taylor declares that society’s creed has become, “Let each person do their own thing, and…one shouldn’t criticize the others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do.  The [only] sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.”


If all ideas are equal, then nothing is right.  And nothing is wrong. 


The brightest secular minds – laboring to find a solid foundation for ethics without resorting to the notion of God – have not yet been able to achieve a consensus concerning what, if anything, is inherently good.  Which means there is no consensus as to what is inherently evil, either – including human sacrifice.  


Jesus’ words are startlingly counter-cultural: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). 


Even though there is no punctuation or capitalization in the original Greek text of the New Testament, this is one of those places where we should not hesitate to affirm that Jesus is thinking of Truth with a capital T – a perspective that is light years away from every person cherishing their “own truth,” truth with a lower case “t,” and embracing their own version of Reality.


The good news for this generation, and every generation, is that God is really there.  And God is not silent.


God’s Truth is readily accessible in God’s Word.  Which means we are called to involve and immerse ourselves deeply as students of that Word. 


And what of Kay Haugaard and her students? 


She closed her article with these words: “I was shaken, and I thought that the author [Shirley Jackson], whose story had shocked so many, would be shaken as well.  The class finally ended.  It was a warm night when I walked out to my car after class that evening, but I felt shivery, chilled to the bone.”


May God call us to be students of a different kind.


In the face of injustice and indifference, may we resolve – always with love for God and tender love for others – to be seekers and proclaimers of Truth with a capital T.  



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