We live in the self-proclaimed Information Age. Give me an hour and a decent internet connection and I can be an expert on anything. If I don’t know it, I’ll Google it or Wikipedia it (two verbs that weren’t verbs just a few years ago). If I know it but can’t prove it, I’ll go find ten clever arguments in my favor, probably not listed in order of importance (or veracity). I’m a 21st-century man. I will find it, I will glance at it, and then I will know it.
But will I?
Jumping from blog to blog and title to title on your GoogleReader is certainly convenient, and skimming the headlines and reading parts of articles on DrudgeReport and FoxNews and CNN and even DesiringGod might seem enlightening, but are you really learning in ways that stick and sink in and matter? Do we know people better after spending an hour clicking indiscriminately from profile to profile on Facebook?
I’m not decrying the online world. I use it and am bettered by it, every day. I don’t have it out for the Information Age or promote only months of monkish meditation. But we have to be careful.
Mainstream political roundtables are fueled by the soundbyte and the barb. You don’t have to be wise or balanced or even right. You just have to be quick and clever. No need to navigate strategically through the issue. Just run roughshod over it with the tanktread of wit.
Blog-comment discussions are often saturated with unnecessary sarcasm, satire, and caustic remarks often lacking as much in grounds as they do in grace. They often turn into de-personalized verbal battles where hobby-horses and undocumented factoids trample meaningful, reasonable dialogue (which is why I’m thankful that this blog doesn’t generate many comments, and the few it does generate are typically thoughtful and cordial; maybe I’m not controversial enough).
Sports reporting is necessarily driven by the highlight. Admittedly important flashes of activity become the very definition of sport. We train ourselves to believe that the sixty-yard pass play was more due to the lightning-quick wideout than the offensive line (much less the coach’s play-calling and the months spent in practice). Because highlights can’t show you context and perspective and development.
Online communities are defined by the avatar, the profile-picture, the screenname, and the self-description. Toss me a few carefully-crafted tidbits of personal information, your favorite customized picture of yourself, and a nifty (but not so nifty it’s cheesy) screenname, I’ll do the same, and voila, we know each other!
But do we?
I realize the attraction of water-skiing through life. You take in a lot of scenery, you feel the wind on your face, and it only requires a minimal amount of training, skill, and gear. It’s harder to go deep in meditation and study. The training is arduous, the necessary skill-level is demanding, and the gear is heavy and inconvenient. It’s unnerving to descend into an unknown world where visibility is limited and your senses are heightened. It’s painful to experience the mental bends as you attempt to take what you’ve learned and apply it to life at the surface. But the world below the surface — the color, the life, the beauty, and the danger — is real, even if it’s not often seen.
I know that there are countless areas of knowledge in my life that are shallow and uninformed, not due to time-constraints or mental inability or lack of opportunity and resources, but due to simple laziness. This is not to say that a decade of diligence would’ve left me omniscient and infallible. Only that a single year of humbly exercising mental diligence and careful contemplation makes one incalculably wiser than ten years of lazily microwaving knowledge. Yet microwaved education is just so… easy.
So perhaps it would be appropriate to slap a warning label on the TV dinners of knowledge. In this vein, what are some of the perils of contenting ourselves with shallow knowledge?
(1) We lose the ability to meditate or engage in any long-term concentration. I don’t know how this works physiologically and mentally, but it’s impossible to deny that consistent exposure to our highlight-driven, sound-byte filled, quick-moving forms of reporting slowly handicaps us from thinking long and hard about meaningful and complex things. We simply find it increasingly difficult to sit still and think well about worthy things.
(2) We undermine the ability to distinguish between significance and insignificance. The headlines implicitly tell us that stock markets, celebrity marriages, and psychotic murders all carry the same level of societal importance. Tabloidesque dramas take their place right next to geopolitical jaw-droppers. Most importantly, the centrality and supremacy of God is absent from most of our public sources of knowledge. If we mindlessly buy into this implied value system, we undermine our ability to think carefully about the relative weight of various issues.
(3) We forfeit the self-control necessary to discern between assumption and fact, between speculation and established reality. The seasoned sage warned us long ago: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). Therefore, “He who answers before listening — that is his folly and shame” (Prov 18:13). The quicker we acquire knowledge, the more potential exists for harmful one-sidedness. The less time we give to listening and pondering, the more we will fall into the folly of hasty answers.
(4) We fuel our fleshly tendency to make quick judgments about people and conflicts and complicated issues. Much of the news today is filled with unfounded accusations, mid-trial reports, overhyped predictions, inexcusable rumors, and Photoshopped pictures presented out of context. It’s very hard to be objective, restrained, and impartial in this environment. Next time you visit your online news source, observe the pervasiveness of bitter gossip, uncertified reports, political posturing, unwarranted accusations, suggestions and speculations masquerading as proven facts, and unnamed slanderers “speaking on condition of anonymity.” Indeed, “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Prov 18:8; 26:22). Contenting ourselves with shallow knowledge about people and circumstances opens the door for all kinds of assumptions, speculations, misconceptions, and partiality.
(5) We cultivate an atmosphere where meaningful and productive discussion of important issues is increasingly difficult because someone somewhere said something that supports every conceivable position. The more we pool our ignorance, the murkier the pool gets. What’s really dangerous is that over time, we start to think that the pool is murky not because we all dumped in our muddy ignorance but because knowledge itself is murky and indiscernable. This is where postmodernism is ultimately leading us.
(6) We feed a mentality that deemphasizes or even disregards appropriate authorities. Everyone has something to say. It becomes a temptation to think that everyone’s words carry equal value and veracity. But this is manifestly untrue. The weight and accuracy of someone’s words depend on some significant variables like character, experience, provenness, study, wisdom, perspective, and balance. If we aren’t careful, we will diminish the value of credibility.
(7) We subtly learn to treat the Father’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ as simply another bare fact that deserves doctrinal memorization and educational regurgitation instead of a lifetime of dedicated thought and increasing astonishment. Paul prayed that the Ephesian believers “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:18-19). He longed for the Colossian church “to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:1-3). This confronts head-on my fleshly desires for microwaveable nuggets of knowledge that demand no effort and offer only perceived nutrition. You cannot plumb the depths of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God through Wikipedia, CliffNotes, or even BibleGateway. Remembering the alliterated outline from the sermon is good, but this is only the beginning of a lifetime of wonder.
I don’t want to be an instant expert or live in the self-deception of knowledgeable naivete. I don’t want to know what I know quickly and shallowly. I want it to be deep and weathered and seasoned and scarred. I want it to be thorough though it’s finite, balanced though it’s tainted with sin. I think it’s fair to assume that most of us, on our better days, desire this kind of knowledge. Yet increasingly, much of what we know is still learned through the soundbyte, the highlight, the Google search, the rumor, and the five-minute devotional. Still, we know through Scripture and experience that knowledge is like wine — it’s better with age.
So may the Lord grant us newfound grace and strength to dig more deeply than we find comfortable, and may He stir in us proper affections for all the beautiful things we find.