The information age is full of both plusses and minuses, especially during a time of national crisis. Among the blessings we should count is the ability of many of us to work from home, and the ability to stay in touch with people we cannot visit. Another, at least in my line of work, is that so many more of the teachers contributing to our virtual Truth, Love, Together event now know how to use Zoom.
The main minus, though certainly not the only one, is the constant flow of news, headlines, and social media posts, some true and some false, some helpful and some very unhelpful and even misleading. Information comes at us in waves, with conjecture in the place of facts and assertions in the place of arguments.
Even before the coronavirus was given the name pandemic, misinformation was passed on by both major media outlets and personal social media accounts. In most of these cases, political ideology masqueraded as certainty about things that were, at the time, unknown, such as how deadly Covid-19 would be, whether or not it was like the flu, and whether scientists and experts were misleading us.
Misleading voices on both the left and the right confidently asserted the virus really wasn’t that bad. More than one conservative talk show host, motivated to keep the President’s wins front and center, compared Covid-19 to the common cold or seasonal flu. And more than a few liberal voices also downplayed the seriousness of Covid-19, apparently hoping to seize an opportunity to portray Trump’s travel restrictions to China as racist or otherwise misguided.
Having now mostly pivoted on the seriousness of the virus across the board, many of the same voices continue with speculations, assertions, and analysis that are proclaimed with all the undeserved confidence as before. After Samaritan’s Purse set up a temporary hospital in Central Park to treat coronavirus patients, The Daily Beast ran a hit-piece warning of “sub-standard care and “discrimination,” chiding the Christian ministry and its president, Franklin Graham, for their allegedly “spotty record.”
Given the actual record of Samaritan’s Purse, the article was pure fear-mongering. Still, it paled in comparison to a horrendous op-ed by Katherine Stewart in the New York Times which blamed evangelicals for “paving the way to coronavirus hell” by “denying science.” She also accused us of looking to faith-healers and miracle cures instead of medical experts. It was vicious, historically ignorant slander, and published in America’s newspaper-of-record.
The Times’ decision to publish such a ridiculous article was not only poor, it’s ironic, given the paper’s commitment to expose fake news and conspiracy theories about the virus. They keep a full list: Covid-19 is caused by 5G cell phone towers. It’s a foreign attack. It’s a plot by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. All ridiculous claims, of course, but no more ridiculous than the Nero-like claim that evangelicals are to blame for this pandemic.
Brad Littlejohn made a key point over at Mere Orthodoxy, “This virus has surely come as a judgment on our divided, post-truth society. Judgment does not merely punish,” he points out, “it reveals…what Covid-19 has revealed in America is a society that has reached a point of crippling mutual incomprehension and distrust…that runs so deep that it leaves few if any shared handholds for common knowledge informing common action.”
At all times, but especially during a pandemic, some degree of common knowledge and common action are essential for a society. How can Christians, people who are to be committed to truth, navigate this (mis)information age? Who is right, who is not, and how do we know? And, how can we be catalysts toward the renewal of a critical national resource: trust?
An essential part of the answer, and an essential part of a Christian worldview, is discernment. According to Paul’s prayer for the church at Philippi, love “abounds” best when accompanied by truth and discernment. And in an information age, discernment is the only true antidote to deception.
Eighteenth century British author Samuel Johnson called discernment “the supreme end of education,” before offering the best definition I know of discernment: “the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.”
In other words, discernment involves both wisdom and will. The wisdom to evaluate truth claims, and the will to understand the reality of our fallen world, which includes evaluating truth claims beyond whether or not it will make our side look good and their side look bad. Bearing false witness is a sin, and truth must take precedent over wanting something to be so or not wanting it to be so.
And finally, a necessary ingredient of Christian discernment is confidence in God’s sovereignty. Fear, on the other hand, often spoils discernment.
Discernment won’t end put an end to misinformation overnight, but it can slow its infection rate. And as with the actual pandemic, that could make a world of difference.