This year, there has been a stand-out new genre on streaming services: the scammer show.
These dramatic reconstructions of ‘fake it until you make it’ chart the rise and fall of charismatic individuals who persuaded people to depart with eye-watering sums of money. Among them, Inventing Anna is the story of the fake German heiress Anna Sorokin, WeCrashed tells of the Neumans who raised billions of dollars whilst running at a colossal loss and, in my opinion, the best, The Dropout charts the fall of the biotech company Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes.
Elizabeth Holmes claimed to have developed a way to simplify diagnostic blood testing and raised more than $400 million for her tech firm. However, the technology did not exist, and she was convicted of fraud in January. She is currently awaiting sentencing. Why were people taken in? It is too simplistic to say greed. Money played a part, but it is more complex than that. People wanted to believe the story of the brilliant young woman who would transform health care – the archetypal ‘girl boss’. They wanted to be part of her revolution to change the world and were seduced by her articulate and persuasive personality. They embraced her vision – ‘a world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon’. The media loved her, as did the American elite; Presidents feted her. From Rupert Murdoch to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, influential people were taken in. But it was all image, not substance; lies and half-truths. She had created a brand, not a reality. Her story is a tale as old as time. It is the story of the destructive power of lies.
What is true?
Books, podcasts and dramatisations of scammer stories are big business. Our culture is deeply anxious about lies: what is real and fake in our digital world? What is accurate, and what is half true? If even the most educated elite in the world can be taken in, how can we protect ourselves from deception? As more and more stories are told, we ask ourselves – would we have been taken in too? Who can we trust? What can we trust? The ground beneath our feet is unstable.
The Bible is a story of the destructive power of a lie, but also the redemptive power of the one who is the truth. However, sadly we have heard of churches that have deceived people and abused their trust, and some of their stories fit right into the ‘scammer’ genre.
Do we tell the truth?
It is easy to spot scams coming from the prosperity megachurches, but what about closer to home? Do we manipulate people with our versions of half-truths? How can we protect ourselves from deception? When we talk about our churches, do we tell the truth? Do we exaggerate numbers and so-called ministry ‘success’? Do our websites present the truth or a glossy image?
I know of one church where a ministry trainee was posed talking with an elderly congregation member just for the website; in reality, the generations were segregated by services and did not know one another. Have we turned our churches into products that we market to consumers? Do people come because of an articulate, persuasive leader? Are people being introduced to Jesus or the gospel of (insert name of a local church)? I once heard a talk at a church guest event, and the whole pitch was ‘come to this church’. Our churches are not brands to sell, but we live in such a consumer culture I fear we can’t always understand the difference.
What story do we want people to believe? When we began as a church plant, we were advised to have a story to tell about our origin to attract people. We have a story, but it’s not about us – it is all about Jesus. People desperately need the firm foundation of the gospel. We must renounce secret and shameful ways, and proclaim Jesus; He is the way, the truth and the life. Who can we believe? Jesus! What can we trust? The gospel! Woe to us when we forget this.
Karen Soole is the women’s worker at Trinity Church, Lancaster and the Women’s Ministry Director for Anglican Mission in England.