Reading with Discernment
In 2014, it was reported that 90% of the world’s data was created within the past two years . The exponential rate in which information is being created not only floods us with options, it surrounds us with content that is extremely recent. Many of us read articles and blogs that are written by authors we’ve never heard of or published by organizations we know little about.
This requires us to develop guidelines to determine what is truthful. As we encounter volumes of new content each day, it is important to develop criteria to assess what we are reading. New is not necessarily better. Not all opinions are equally valid. Choosing to consume information without a critical eye is a recipe for being deceived.
Let’s remember that Jesus called himself "the truth" (John 14:6) and that he was sent into the world to "testify to the truth" (John 18:37). He also highlighted the importance of discernment by warning his followers of being deceived .
- "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them." (Matt 7:15-16a)
- "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (Matt 10:16)
- "Watch out that no one deceives you." (Matt 24:4)
How do the warnings of Jesus apply to our current context?
Let's remember that much of the content we read today is designed to create a following. Individuals with the largest followings are typically regarded as experts, even if their message is Biblically flawed or misleading. Expertise is attributed to those with an established platform, regardless of whether the subject matter has anything to do with that person's actual expertise. The more followers a person has, the more credibility they receive. This is the formula that empowers actors to sell their nutrition books and athletes to rally support for their political campaign. It's not always a bad thing, but it does carry the risk of having questionable content influence many people over a short amount of time.
Every reader should also be quick to consider the source of what they're reading. Considering alternative perspectives can be a fruitful experience, so long as we're reading critically. The danger comes from digesting and adopting whatever we come across without comparing it to Biblical truth and time-tested doctrine.
Here then are my suggestions for reading with discernment:
1. Consider education – what have they studied?
On its own, education does not warrant unquestioned credibility, but it's a significant piece of the equation. It indicates that a person has knowledge within their discipline, has learned how to research and contrast ideas, and has persevered through their academic program. Pay attention to the specific degrees the writer has earned to see if they are writing within their discipline (i.e. I raise my eyebrow when a person with a psychology degree argues for a new interpretation of a Greek word in the New Testament). It can also be helpful to consider the institution they graduated from to further understand who they have studied under and been influenced by.
Keep in mind that the "experts" in Jesus’s day were the teachers of the law and the Pharisees—men with unparalleled knowledge of the law, but who missed the mark with their practice. Jesus once called them "white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matt 23:27). This leads us to the next category.
2. Consider experience – what have they done?
Speaking from experience carries far greater weight than speaking from theory alone. Consider how the person has practiced what they are suggesting and what the impact has been. Give additional credence to suggestions that have been successfully implemented in various settings and over a duration of time. This will help you determine whether their recommendations are based on their convictions and lived-out principles or are ideas in their infancy.
It's often helpful to learn about the writer's life experiences to better understand their perspective and possible biases. For example, has the writer experienced conflict with the church, loss of a loved one, or unique family circumstances? This can be difficult to assess unless a writer discloses their experiences. This leads us to the final category.
3. Consider endorsement – who is standing with them?
Given the context in which we live, I believe this category is the most important one to consider. There's a good chance you'll stumble upon a few blog posts today (you're choosing to read one right now), but this is a small sample compared to the 3 million posts that are reportedly created each day .
There's a good chance you can locate an author's bio which should help you reach some conclusions about the first two categories. But your investigation should go further than this. What organization is the writer is accountable to? Do they report to an academic board, a church council, or a denomination? Or are they sharing their perspective without any form of accountability?
Like you, I come across many books and blog posts that are written by authors with large followings. Most of them are written by gifted writers who use compelling stories and persuasive language to make their point. Most are well educated and experienced. But some of these writers have little accountability. They write their thoughts without much consideration to the implications of deviating from current doctrine. Many fail to provide a Biblical foundation for the basis of their claims nor offer complete interpretations to serve their thesis. Their voice has volume because of the large following they have established and the approval they receive from other thinkers who have often had similar experiences . I place a lot of weight on endorsement because it's becoming increasingly more difficult to know "the fruit" of every author (Matt 7:15-20).
Education, experience, and endorsement are three components that I use to weigh a writer's credibility. What are your thoughts on these three? Would you add another category or disagree with one that I've suggested?
Keith Reed is the Associate Director of MinistryLift at MB Seminary.
1. Daniel Newman, Why Small Brands Need Big Data (Mar 13, 2014): https://fowmedia.com/small-brands-big-data/
2. In addition, identifying false prophets and discerning spirits is a predominant theme in other New Testament passages such as 2 Peter 2, 1 John 4:1-6, and Jude.
3. Worldometers.info (July 26, 2017)
4. See Acts 20:28-31 where Paul tells the elders of Ephesus that men will arise from their own number to distort the truth and draw disciples after them.