Ragebait, oversimplification, irrationality, and petulance…. Our tribalist and instantly outraged culture has, of course, many causes and few quick solutions. As Charley Warzel noted about one particularly outrageous tweet in a nice piece about the online portrayals of Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Olympic All Around, “Click on it, and you will learn nothing. You might laugh or get angry; You might join in on a dunk. But I promise you’ll actually learn nothing.” (Note: not all his language would be publishable here at TWI!). Bait is bait, and the smart fish swims on by. Careful, nuanced, arguments and discussions rarely make good soundbites; they fail to inflame; they produce low click counts, poor advertising, and weak numbers on our YouTube Creators dashboard.
Beyond that, one can only get so much done in 280 characters, even with the best of intentions. We can take a balanced approach to Twitter, Facebook, and the like, recognizing that they have done tremendous good in some contexts and tremendous harm in others. We don’t have to go full Marshall McLuhan to still recognize that nibbled nuggets of thought cannot convey everything that ought be said. Short discourse so often becomes shallow, both for the reader and the author.
Shallow discourse does not merely characterize the world at large. Sadly, it characterizes the church. Protestant Evangelicalism now has its own nominalism problem. Fundamentalism began as a reaction against the mainline churches, those who proclaimed the name of Jesus but redefined it to match early 20th century intellectual trends, thereby departing from the basics of what had, for almost 2000 years, been considered Christian orthodoxy. When Fundamentalism became a movement that largely withdrew from broader society, Evangelicalism was born as a more culturally-engaged approach that held to the same historical Christian orthodoxy. Evangelicals knew what they stood for – truth and basic Christianity – the doctrines the church had believed for centuries.
Not so today. Consult almost any Barna publication, and you will quickly find evidence of the lack of basic belief or understanding in the American church. Ligonier Ministries found the same in a 2020 survey. For example, sixty percent of American Evangelicals accepted the historical heresy called Arianism, something worthy of excommunication since the 5th century. Even more alarming, nearly one third of American Evangelical respondents did not believe that Jesus was God! Nor is the situation particularly better in the majority world. As Ian Darke writes, “Today it is the evangelical Church that has its own version of ‘popular religiosity,’ in which an evangelical is defined by the radio station he or she listens to and the bumper stickers he or she buys.” A movement that once stood for something – and stood against nominalist faith – now has its own nominalism problem.
Given the multiple causes of our current tribalism and outrage-oriented culture and our current lightweight Christian witness into that world, any solution will likewise be composite, the cumulative impact of many changes.
Simply reading more might be a start. In my work administering vocational assessments, one of my favorites, the Highlands Ability Battery, includes a measure of vocabulary. Many adults are shocked at their low vocabulary scores, and the reason is relatively simple. Vocabulary is a skill. The more one reads, the higher his or her vocabulary, and the less one reads, the lower, in an almost linear relationship. And quite many American adults finish college and basically quit reading.
We might think that simply reading more would lead to informed discourse, a more educated populace, and more effective conversation. Alas, the counter examples are rife. Some of the most egregious tweeters are plenty well educated, products of the best schools, even voracious readers. Our society has often defaulted to the idea that we can educate ourselves out of sin (and make no mistake – much online behavior today is quite simply sin), but we rarely sin because we are dumb. We sin because we want to, because we find it, at least in the moment, gratifying and fun. In fact, reading on its own fixes nothing.
Echo chambers and tribalism are real. Whether our media are written – books, blogs, articles – or video – cable news, online videos, film – our society has quickly embraced separate self-referential echo chambers. As has regularly been noted in the past months, it is as if Americans are living not simply with political divisions, but with two separate epistemic realities, two opposite conceptions of even basic facts, the products of two entirely separate media ecosystems. Simply diving into a good book, with “good” being defined as one that supports everything I already want to believe, only deepens the self-referential hole.
We need to read the other, the author who comes from an entirely different cultural, political, and economic background, the author who has looked deeply at the issue in question and has concluded the opposite of what we are attuned to believe. We need to avoid not simply political tribalism but also religious, economic, and social tribalism. The beginning of the question is to read broadly, including those we find to be way “out there.”
But reading the other is tiring! Reading those who reinforce our preconceived notions is like eating sugar candy – fun, an instant sugar buzz with a nice, reliable mood swing. Reading the other is like biting into an energy bar – packed with nutrition and necessary calories, but it often eats like consuming a condensed wheat field. Reading the other is, quite simply, harder work, and we have become intellectually lazy, both culturally and inside the church. We need to read those with whom we disagree, or we will only deepen our own holes. And remember the first law of holes: “When you’re in one, stop digging.”
Alas, though, even reading our opponents does not end up decreasing polarization. Quite the opposite: a 2018 study showed that following Twitter bots that highlighted the opposite party’s positions in fact deepened partisan divides. Exposure alone can deepen, not heal, our conflicts. Reading broadly, then, is not enough.
More important is how we read. Why does reading our opponents only deepen our divides? Probably because we read for the wrong reasons – we read to see where “they” are wrong – reading as competition. The point is neither growth nor understanding; it is victory. If we read “them” just to own them or dunk on them, we haven’t engaged in anything other than combat, and we remain in our own self-referential hole. Instead, it is high time we all begin reading not to see where “they” are wrong but to consider where we are wrong.
In all my time as a pastor providing marriage counseling, I have yet to have a couple come to me in a fight and say, “Our marriage is a mess. Here’s what I’m doing wrong.” What I hear is instead, “And here’s why he’s made it a mess,” or “And here’s why she’s made it so awful.” Most of us, if not all, have a common human tendency to be able to see what is wrong with other people more easily than what is wrong with ourselves. Whether reading or watching the news, talking politics, or dealing with relationships, we are usually far more adept at knowing what is wrong with “them” than what is wrong with “us.” We quickly discern sin and error in everyone else while remaining startlingly blind to our own failings.
Ariel Sabar’s recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award provides a case study. In Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, Sabar chronicles the “discovery” in a private collection of an explosive fragment of an ancient Coptic document, explosive because it seemingly contained a statement by Jesus which said, “My wife,” implying that some set of early Christians in about the fourth century believed Jesus had been married. Such a claim would, of course, have revolutionized conceptions of early Christianity.
The fragment was presented to Karen King, the esteemed Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, a scholar whose work centers on “alternative gospels,” considerations of documents from the early centuries of the church that were not accepted into the biblical canon. Dr. King’s work focuses particularly on elevating the status of these alternatives, challenging the historical doctrines of the church. The discovery of a fragment that indicated some in the early church believed Jesus had been married would be the find of a lifetime.
The fragment was, unbeknownst to King at the time, a forgery. Initially, her good scholarly instincts prevailed, and she dismissed it as such. Later, though, she returned to the document and began to accept its authenticity. Men and women can be deceived. We all will be, sooner or later, and many of us will end up being conned – whether small or large scale – at some point in life. Scholars, of course, are supposed to be more careful, but King was conned.
At some point in the process, though, King moved from victim to participant. Almost immediately upon her announcement of the find, which she dubbed “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” serious questions were raised. Many in the scholarly guild raised deep concerns, both in print, online, and in direct questions. For a while it seemed the papyrus fragment had been definitively proven a fake. Then, suddenly, it seemed the opposite. King engineered publicity to discredit her opponents, and the newspaper announcements shifted to “Fragment declared authentic!” And yet, the scholarly consensus in the end was nearly unanimous; the document is a forgery. King had used her position and the power of a Harvard professorship to shortcut the scholarly process and defeat her academic enemies…for a time.
Reading Sabar’s chronicle of the whole affair frustrates at many levels: King’s behavior, especially using the power of her faculty rank to distort the scholarly process; her equivocating, caring more about her agenda than the basic question of the truth of the fragment’s origin; her judgment, missing all the warning signs. As Sabar tries to understand King’s approach, he focuses in on the fact that she had, from youth, always been a fighter, at her best when her back was against the wall with forces arrayed against her. As he says several times in his chronicle, King excelled in a fight.
And, sadly, because King was in the fight, she missed all the warning signs. She had concerns early, and she should have stuck with her first reaction. After she announced the existence of the papyrus scrap, peers quickly raised many concerns, but King was quickly into news conference mode. She swatted away the concerns. Even more concerns were raised later, concerns that eventually became determinative – King had been duped. Why was she unable to see the evidence? Sabar seems to judge the situation like this: she was in a fight, so she read to win, not to find the truth.
Writing (and reading) the work of an institute dedicated to the truths of historic Christianity, it probably pleases many to recount King’s excesses and fall, to see a revisionist approach to Christianity discredited in at least one instance, to show that its adherents were as much – or more so – ideological than based on evidence. It might be fun in an institute like The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture to dunk on King. After all, she earned it. To do so would be to miss the point. Karen King was humbled because she read to win, not to find truth. She read her opponents to discredit them, not to learn from them. King sought her agenda, not where she might have been wrong. She read to defend and defeat. She would have done better to read to be proved wrong.
Humility is a virtue rarely mentioned in conjunction with reading, yet it may be the virtue we need most. Conservative faith publications may enjoy bagging on Karen King. But too often we take the same reading strategy. Here we must be more careful. Biblically, the ones among God’s people who think we are in the right are often the most dangerous. In the Old Testament, Israel was convinced that it was God’s people and the Gentiles were merely dogs. Yet the prophets again and again indicted, not justified, Israel and Judah. The beginning of Amos – a little book about a big topic: justice – is illustrative. Amos begins with eight prophecies against injustice in the world, all following the same pattern. Each begins, “Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions…and for four…I will not revoke the punishment.” The first six judgment oracles declare God’s wrath on the surrounding nations because of their behavior in border wars with each other and Israel. The seventh is against Judah, with whom Israel had fought a civil war only a hundred years earlier. The effect of these seven oracles would be to lull Israel into a false sense of security, even to make the Israelites feel God was with them. As Amos’ salvos fall on all their enemies, the Israelite elites in Samaria might begin to like this country boy. He has pronounced God’s judgment on their enemies all around, the enemies that their king Jeroboam II has steadily beaten back, seemingly telling them that God was on their side.
And then, as Alec Motyer memorably put it, “The lion roared.” Amos turns his fire upon the complacent Israelites:
Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined. (Amos 2:6–8, ESV)
Amos suddenly snaps the trap shut, declaring to Israel that their wealth has not bought them favor with God, that they are not better than the other nations, that they deserve judgment just like the other nations they despised. Even more, with Israel Amos expands his oracle formula to its fullness now that he has reached his intended target. Whereas every other oracle included only one illustrious sin, his oracle against Israel includes all four. In other words, Israel was not better than the other nations; it was worse, more deserving of God’s wrath. Israel ought to have been able to see it, but she was so convinced in her prosperity and self-congratulation that she didn’t realize she was on the wrong side of God.
In much the same way, in the New Testament the Scribes and Pharisees lived with a false sense of security regarding their relationship with God. The Pharisees were the “Bible people” of their day, carefully studying the Scriptures, congratulating themselves that they were righteous, certain that they “got it” as far as God was concerned, that they were respectable, solid, upright, godly people. They would regularly pronounce all that was wrong with the sinners and tax collectors, but they were unable to see that their faith had become futile, formalistic, missing the heart of God (Matt. 21:31, Luke 3:7).
The Pharisees represented good, solid, law-abiding people. Or so they thought. But amidst all the temple observance and synagogue worship, they had lost the heart of God. They were able to see the flaws in the Gentile nations and other peoples around them but unable to see their own sin. Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). The Scriptures over which they pored should have shown them Jesus, but they missed the key point. Jesus indicts them in John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” If Israel at Amos’ time was blind to its failings, so were the Pharisees when Jesus came. Instead of being able to see God at work, the Pharisees were so sure of their own rightness in reading the Scriptures that they could not see God, Himself, in the flesh, standing before them.
The Pharisees highlight the true problem for us. The true problem is not that we read tweets, blogs, articles, or even books without humility – though we do. The true problem is that we read the Bible with all the same flaws, looking to support our preconceived positions, to confirm our biases, to justify ourselves, not to be proved wrong, not to be found wanting, not to be corrected and changed by the work of the Holy Spirit. We search the Scriptures for proof texts of our doctrines and verses that will make us feel righteous, for evidence that will show us how all our opponents are wrong, texts that will reinforce our own approaches to life and faith, and in so doing, we neuter those Scriptures. We become blind to what God is telling us, and we so quickly substitute self-righteousness for the correction of God. We miss his heart for the world, justifying ourselves.
Not so the psalmist. Psalm 19:7-14 (ESV):
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
It is a common, sinful human tendency: we tend to read the Scriptures in order to prove ourselves right. We need to read the Bible to see where we are wrong.
Of course, in the long run, the goal is not to read to be wrong. The goal is to read in such a way that our wrongs are exposed, such that we become, in the end, right. But the right we become is no longer our own, preconceived “right.” Instead, we become conformed into the image of Christ, our blind spots exposed, our sins uncovered, our negligence to both God and others revealed, forgiven, and transformed into a new spirit.
So, as we begin this publication year at The Washington Institute, try picking up at least two good books – one being a Bible, and the other being something important – and let’s together consider what reading while humble would look like.