-John 18:37-38 (NIV)
How do we know what we think we know?
If that sounds to you like one of those out-of-touch-with-reality questions that preachers and theologians sometimes ask to introduce pointless meanderings about fine points, well — maybe you aren’t paying attention.
I don’t spend a lot of time with social media: I post a few times a week. Check Twitter and Facebook more or less daily, but not for very long. And in that relatively small engagement I have with social media, even I see frequent sharing and retweeting and liking and loving of information that’s misunderstood, or decontextualized, or misapplied, or just downright false.
And I see that some of those doing the sharing and retweeting and liking and loving are Christians.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’ve seen the conspiracy theories and discredited (and even retracted) “news” stories and satire that gets spread around the internet as real news. Maybe you’ve seen the commentary and opinion pieces that take on the weight of “truth” simply because they have names that people trust or admire attached to them. Maybe you’re familiar with the memes that are never really attributed to anyone but seem to just bubble up from the muddy undercurrents of the internet?
Especially for a believer, passing on an untruth — even if you didn’t know it was untrue at the time — ought to set off alarm bells. This is especially so if it involves slandering a person, a human being created by God and for whom Christ died — which is what most of the false information populating social media and news feeds is created to do, in fact.
If you’re aware of that, then I circle back to my initial question: How do we know what we think we know?
Let’s be more specific: as Christians, people who follow “the truth that is in Jesus,” the one who was born and came into the world to testify to the truth, how do we know what’s true in our world? And how do we keep from passing on falsehood — probably meaning well, but contributing to the fog of untruth that seems to fill our world right now?
Maybe you’ve guessed by now that I have a few suggestions.
Let’s start with this, something that goes back to New Testament times: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” It’s right at that moment where we’re just sure, just absolutely positive that we’ve found a smoking gun or are exposing a big lie, that we often make a mistake. Certainty about everything is not a Christian virtue. Paul reminds us that knowledges puffs up, but love builds up. You can have knowledge that isn’t related to truth in the slightest. And you can be acquainted with truth that doesn’t answer all your questions. Too often we’re certain about things that don’t warrant certainty, and we’re doubtful of basic facts.
My second suggestion is an application of the mandate placed on all doctors: “First, do no harm.” Don’t be a part of the problem. If you think you’d like to pass something along in social media or email, or even clip it out of a magazine and send it to your grandkids, maybe do a little research first. Don’t assume the original poster has done the research; countless false conspiracy theories and fake news stories are widely circulated every day because no one bothers to check them out. And once they’re out, it’s hard to get them back in. Don’t be part of the problem; before you repost, retweet, share, or send, research. And not just in media outlets that specialize in news you like. You know those social media posts that start with “The mainstream media won’t tell you this”? Most of the time, there’s a simple reason for that: It isn’t true.
Third, ask yourself whether this story is worth your time. Paul says we ought to be “very careful” how we live, because we're supposed to be “children of light” who set our minds on pleasing God and staying away from darkness. We’re supposed to “[make] the most of every opportunity” and understand God’s will for us and live by the Spirit instead of wasting our time with foolishness. Much of what passes for “news” — even if it’s true — doesn’t fit many of those categories. It’s hard to imagine how passing on stories of dubious validity and even more dubious value could possibly help us to set our minds on pleasing God, living by the Spirit, and making the most of every opportunity.
My fourth suggestion is to be aware of what and who instructs you. I was reminded of this when I saw a quote by Daniel Darling, who is a pastor and the senior vice president of National Religious Broadcasters. Darling says that this problem of Christians passing on lies, slander, and manipulative ideology has been caused by the fact that “many [Christians] are catechized more by their favorite niche political podcast and pundits and politicians” than by the Bible. I would add “preachers” to that list, because some propagate false information from their pulpits. Maybe you’ve heard that word catechized in its noun form, catechism, and are tempted to disregard it because we don’t use a catechism. You’d be mistaken about that, though. The word comes from Greek, and it just means “to instruct.” And of course we use a catechism: our catechism is Jesus, and the Scriptures, and the church. Paul reminded the church in Ephesus of how they “learned Christ” and the difference that should make in their lives. Luke says his gospel is intended to validate the certainty of his readers’ “instruction” — katechethes in Greek. Apollos is said to be a man who “had been instructed (katechemenos) in the way of the Lord.”
Darling fears that too many Christians are being instructed more in the way of their favorite news channel celebrities than in the way of the Lord. He fears that too many of us are learning Trump or Biden instead of Christ. He thinks that we might be more certain of the things taught to us by our news feeds and social media accounts than we are of the gospel. It’s hard to disagree, since it seems that many of us spend far more time with those instructors than we do with Jesus. That shouldn’t be. We still believe, don’t we, that Jesus testifies to truth? We should be learning from him, and learning him, and then we’ll have a proper filter through which to hear and process everything else.
Remember: When we like, click on, retweet, share anything, algorithms deliver us more of that kind of content and less of the stuff with which we don’t engage. So our timelines become increasingly filled with content that reinforce our perspectives — whether it’s true or not. And that doesn’t even take into account bad actors who produce much social media contact in order to manipulate you, not share truth.
Social media can be a wonderful servant. It makes a terrible master, and a terrible teacher.
Look to Jesus for truth: truth about what’s factual, but even more importantly, truth about how to live. Look at him for the final word about the truth of what you think you know, and what you tell others is true.