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.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Christian,
     In the beginning was the word….Jesus said “Moses and the prophets they testify of me”, and “If they will not believe Moses they will not believe even though one returns from the dead”. That word was not ta-da, it was every intent of our creator, those recorded by Moses and the prophets,  and rejected in the flesh by the world in Christ.
     To clear up the misunderstandings about religion, church, and the Bible, read Foxes book of Martyrs:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22400/22400-h/22400-h.htm

  • aspiechristian

    Funny, I guess I never thought of the Word as being “a” word, but Ta-Da, or it’s Greek equivalent, is better than “Sit,” “Heel,” or “Roll Over.”

  • Mjohnson32

    It is heartening and fitting to know that you as a good Christian theologian uphold the truth, and nothing but the truth. And we are blessed that an athiest, like Jon Krakauer can bring to light the fallacies and falsehoods of a professed Christian like Greg Mortenson, who certainly God will condemn to burn in hell.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Susan-Hale-Whitmore/1634448888 Susan Hale Whitmore

      Mjohnson32
      I am staggered to read that someone who gives the appearance of valuing truth (1) so readily believes (2) a single accuser who (3) chose to get his accusations broadcast worldwide (4) before the broadcaster bothered to confirm his findings and (5) much of whose evidence has now been proven wrong.

      I am very interested in learning what informational digging you have done personally that causes you to wish another human condemned to the worst fate you can imagine. Will you share with us what you have learned independently of Mr. Krakauer’s broadcast and booklet? It could be of great benefit to the rest of us.

      Thank you.

  • Paul Shindler

    I doubt the writer of this piece has one millionth of the good in the world Greg Mortenson has.

  • Shibui

    The most important things we “know” or “believe” often cannot be told about straight on: They have to be contained in the bowl of a story.  That’s why the parables are so important; they capture meaning and import that could not just be stated, and they “get through” to people, at least those who have ears to hear.

    The parables.  The Bible itself.  The old, old stories we tell our children.  The stories speakers tell to illustrate a presentation.  Are they true?  And is that the most important thing about them?

    As the seminary president said, “ as is sometimes the case with fiction, it still [and perhaps especially] stimulates the imagination!”

    I believe what the Rev. Bill Dols, long-time head of the Bible Workbench program, has quoted, that “Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”


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