In the last decade or so of my years as an editor, I often wrote about the power of media and the need for careful discernment about the use of social media. Now Bonnie Kristian, a seasoned journalist, has written a book that addresses those concerns.
Kristian, who identifies as Anabaptist and has spent most of her adult life in a Mennonite church, calls our information environment “the most pressing and unprecedented challenge of discipleship in the American church.”
The first three-quarters of Untrustworthy describes the challenge, which Kristian calls an “epistemic crisis.” This relates to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that asks, What do we know? How do we know it? What’s the difference between knowledge, opinion and conjecture?
“In the span of a few decades,” she writes, “we massively increased the quantity of information the average person encounters daily, much of which makes or assumes major truth claims.” However, we aren’t equipped to handle that much information and sort out what is truthful.
Kristian discusses the political, social and faith implications of this crisis and concludes, “Falling into a knowledge crisis risks grave damage to our church communities, our public witness and our individual faith.”
She begins her analysis by looking at media. She considers bias, the pressure to make a profit and entertain, the need for speed, the presence of “fake news.” (One test: Does the site ever publish corrections?) She then presents four ways social media fosters epistemic confusion: 1) “It encourages distraction and uncritical content consumption,” mixing “serious content with memes, ads and personal posts.” 2) The content on social media “is tailored by algorithms to set our lizard brains on fire.” 3) Social media “radically modifies existing types of social network interactions.” It reaches many people quickly. 4) “Our use of social media solidifies our own views and makes us partly responsible for the views others adopt.”
In the chapter “Mob,” Kristian looks at public shaming and counters with Christ’s command of forgiveness. In “Schemes,” she considers QAnon and other conspiracy theories and how they have infected the church. She offers three steps against conspiracism: Don’t argue, look at the fruit, don’t seek fake security. In “Skepticism,” she observes the growing skepticism toward experts. Part of this is due to contradictory or confusing advice from experts, and part is due to nonexperts having so much access to information they think they are experts. What is needed all around is humility.
In “Emotion,” Kristian considers the place of feeling in knowledge. She writes, “Our epistemic crisis, which is as much an emotional problem as an intellectual and spiritual one, a matter of fear and grievance as much as mental doubt, makes feeling all the more needful.” Emotion and reason are both needed in a helpful balance.
In “Experience,” she questions what she calls “identitarian deference.” She writes, “Identity is given a place of honor in our search for truth, sometimes at the expense of free inquiry and good faith conversation among people with different experiences, beliefs and expertise.” She argues, quoting journalist Jonathan Rauch, that discovery of knowledge in a free society runs on two rules: 1) “No one gets the final say,” and 2) “No one has personal authority.” However, rejecting identitarian deference, writes Kristian, “doesn’t mean rejecting those questions and insights. It means using them to open new lines of exploration and communication instead of using them to estrange, isolate or mute.”
To address the challenge, Kristian offers three virtues: studiousness, intellectual honesty and wisdom. She adds the need for love to temper our pursuit of knowledge. And, drawing on her Anabaptism, she calls for a hermeneutic of obedience, acting on the knowledge we gain.
Kristian argues for developing good habits for our consumption of media: taking a sabbath; reading Scripture before using phone, tablet, laptop or television; eschewing distraction. She recommends “eliminating all television news from your life, because the medium is simply not suited for nuanced reporting.” Regarding social media, she says to take important conversations offline, be wary of mixing the personal and the political, avoid useless worries and don’t argue.
Kristian includes Scripture references to bolster her arguments. She is confessional, noting her own over-indulgence in social media.
Please put aside your device for a while and read this helpful book.
Gordon Houser of North Newton, Kan., is a former editor of The Mennonite author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality.