On October 30, 1938 a national radio program playing dance music was interrupted with a special news bulletin. The announcer heralded news of a massive meteor, which had crashed near Princeton, New Jersey. The reporter urged evacuation of the city as he anxiously described the unfolding scene: Strange creatures were emerging from the meteor armed with deadly rays and poisonous gases.
The infamous broadcast, which caused panic throughout the country and mayhem all over New York and New Jersey, was made by Orson Welles, a 23-year old actor giving a dramatic presentation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. His compelling performance created traffic jams and tied up phone lines, interrupted religious services and altered bus routes. Several times in the program a statement was made regarding the broadcast’s fictional nature. Still, many Americans were convinced that Martians had really landed. One man insisted he had heard the President Roosevelt’s voice over the radio advising all citizens to leave their cities. Another, on the phone with a patrolman, cried in alarm, “I heard it on the radio. Then I went to the roof and I could see the smoke from the bombs, drifting over toward New York. What shall I do?”(1)
The War of the Worlds broadcast will perhaps forever remain one of the most telling examples of the power of context, and in more ways than one. Whether listeners tuned in after the introduction or happened to miss the declaimers, the convincing portrayal was enough to send waves of fear across the entire country. In the context of breaking news, fiction appeared alarmingly factual.
But also, I think it is fair to ask whether such a reaction could have even taken place outside of the context in which this “breaking news” was heard. In 1938, the global situation was such that an unfolding crisis, and subsequent radio interruption, was not altogether implausible. Furthermore, radio was at that time the primary source for news and information. Nowadays, if we heard troubling news on the radio, the first thing we would do is check it out further on the Internet or television. We are much too cynical to be taken in by such a tale today.
But herein lies an interesting attitude. When thinking about such an incredible example of hoax and gullibility, I suspect many of us have a similar outlook: We are much less vulnerable to fallacy masquerading itself as truth in today’s day and age. But could this not also be a false and dangerous assumption? The War of the Worlds broadcast might no longer fool us, but are we really so much closer to recognizing fact from fallacy?
Just because we reject stories, suspect history, and are well aware that reality television is not reality hardly means that we are less susceptible to deception. When we live cynically yet choose our beliefs by preference, there is deception in our approach to truth itself, which is just as hazardous as believing in Martians because you heard it over the radio. In the words of the prophet Amos, we have fled from a lion only to meet a bear.
From context to context, the tests of truth do not change and must be employed. For regardless of context, the effects of believing a lie are always injurious to life. As Ravi Zacharias notes, “To be handcuffed by a lie is the worst of all imprisonments.” Whether we are claiming Martians landed in 1938 or making the truth claim that there is no such thing as truth, reason leads us to check the correspondence of a claim with reality, and the coherence of the assertions. Our truth claims must be tested before they are believed—and subsequently, they must be lived out.
Jesus, whom Christians profess as one who has come near, made some tremendous truth claims about himself. The reassuring thing is that he also asked us to test these claims and not simply take him at his word: “Who do you say that I am?” In this breaking news might we approach his question willing to respond fairly, knowing there are certain responses that are just not left open to us, and ready to fully live the truth we proclaim. The good news is that the Gospel is also in-breaking news, proclaiming the one who not only entered this world, but is faithfully about the work of making all things new even now.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1938