I was having a conversation with one of our students a couple of weeks ago in which we were discussing the spiritual growth that has occurred in his life over the last couple of years. God had indeed done a great deal in his life over that period of time. At the end of the conversation we were talking about the need to be consistently sitting under good biblical teaching and the foundation that it is for a believer in their pursuit of Jesus. And then he said this, “You know, two years ago I couldn’t have told you the difference between a good sermon and a bad one.” He was just offering up a word of personal reflection. And yet, it was a clear, accurate, and insightful word on not only his own life, but most that live in this country and the culture that shapes it. We have absolutely no clue how to be discerning, how to discern truth from error, dangerous from safe, healthy from unhealthy, good arguments from bad arguments, a biblical word from a non-biblical word. If something is packaged in a way that appeals and it makes us feel good, then we are all for it. We are consumers to the core. And we are paying a price for it in the church.
This cultural trend obviously effects the religious choices that individuals make. The truth claims of various religions are carrying less and less weight when one is deciding what faith system to embrace. Typically how one feels they fit into the congregation, what kinds of programs the church offers for them and their families, and how the church will provide for their particular needs (whether spiritual or physical) are some of the main priorities in making their faith choices. Not that these things are inherently bad in and of themselves. They are however, poor criteria for evaluating the truthfulness of a faith’s message in and of themselves.
This trend, however, also effects those who are already a part of churches or faiths. Within the evangelical community alone one will find a variety of differences in beliefs regarding many things. Some of these differences are more important than others. Nevertheless we don’t agree on everything (not that we have to either. Unity on the essential, liberty on the non-essential). The danger is not necessarily that we differ (though at times it is indeed). The danger is that most who embrace a particular church’s teaching probably don’t do so because they have thoughtfully and reverently examined the Bible and sought to live in accordance with it. Maybe they grew up in it. Maybe lots of their friends or community were accepting of it; it was the popular way to go. Maybe it looked good to them and it felt right. Whatever the reason, a discerning spirit was most likely not behind their choice. And that is dangerous.
How do we learn to be more discerning? I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how one can be better equipped to evaluate certain things (in this case, biblical truth), so as to live more faithfully in this truth God has revealed to us.
1. Look at more than one perspective. G. K. Chesterton once said that he did not fear the man of many ideas, but the man of only one idea. This is an excellent observation. The man of many ideas has examined the various approaches to something, weighted them, seen the pros and cons, the evidence on each side, and then made a choice. This man will have better reasons for believing what he believes, is less likely to be taken by bad ideas, and will also be better at interacting with others regarding what he believes. The man of one idea is far more likely to be deceived. He is far less likely to be able to defend what he believes. He is also more likely to be abrasive and unloving in his interaction with others on such issues. We must learn to look at other perspectives.
As a side note, if we think in the church that failing to expose our children to other perspectives will ultimately protect them, we are misguided. Would we rather them learn about Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age, Buddhism, evolution, pluralism, etc… from those in the world or from within the faith community? The absence of truth is far more important than the presence of error. We must show them that Christianity stands up to scrutiny and critique. It shows itself a superior way to view the world and to live in it. We should be doing this rather than their college professors and hollywood actors and actresses. If what we believe is true, we must not fear other perspectives. Unfortunately, the problem is usually that those in positions of teaching and influence have never done such examination themselves. And so the cycle continues huh?
2. Learn how to make an argument/defend something. Again, the influence of the culture has hurt us here. If relativism is true, who cares about the pursuit of truth? Who cares about trying to defend what you believe? There really is no need if one is a true relativist (which is impossible for anyone to really be in the first place). Hopefully, however, for those of us in the church who accept the teaching of Scripture (and use common sense), we understand that truth simply cannot be whatever I want it to be. Or what my friends want it to be. Or what my parents want it to be. It is ultimately what God says since He is the source of truth. And He reveals this truth to us in the Bible. So as we go to the Bible to learn truth we must accept that it too doesn’t mean whatever I want it to mean. It is then helpful to learn how to make a case for what one finds in the Bible. Learn how to defend what you believe from the text of Scripture itself. See if you can make a better case than one can make for an opposing view.
This may seem rather elementary to some. Unfortunately, however, it is not. Most of the young people I have worked with through the years have no idea how to do this. And why should they? They really aren’t taught to do this anywhere else. Even in the public school systems learning is about regurgitating the material handed to them. Teachers are often more concerned about test scores than critical thinking (this is not all their fault either. School standards and priorities, along with class sizes leave them little opportunity to oppose this). The bombarbdment of visual media has caused style to be more vauable than substance. It’s not hard to see how we have gotten here. It is hard to envision how we fix it. We must teach people in the church how to let the text be authoritative and how to make arguments from it.
3. Learn how to read. In 1939, at the New York’s World Fair, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered the opening dedication for the event. What made this dedication unique was the fact that it was done in a live broadcast by NBC from atop the Empire State Building. A week earlier the RCA building had been dedicated at the first television news broadcast. The age of the image had come. Reflecting on the impact of television at the time was the fair’s science director, Gerald Wendt. Wendt had this to say, “democracy under the influence of television, is likely to pay inordinate attention to the performer and interpreter rather than to the planner and thinker.” Arthur W. Hunt III, author of “The Vanishing Word,” says this in response to Wendt’s prophetic insight, “This is perhaps the first insight that television would not be a conducive medium for serious discourse. Wendt apparently understood that even if television was used for the “public good,” thinking could never be a performing art.” Wendt and Hunt both clearly saw the impact of visula media on America. Visual media leads away from thoughtful discourse and thinking. it exalts the performer over the the thinker. If this is not an accurate reflection of American culture, I don’t know what is. So what do we do about it? Surely the answer isn’t to get rid of our computers and televisions. No, but we must learn to see the impact they have on us and learn how to minimize the detrimental effects it can have on us (and that may actually mean turning the tv and internet off a little more!). One of the primary ways to do this is to read more. There is probably nothing I could say that would be more unattractive today, but it is worth doing. Reading helps us value thinking far more than television. It is not the whole solution, but I believe it is a step in the right direction.
These are three thoughts that could prove helpful. Other thoughts are welcome. Let us learn to be discerning, that we might know the truth. And let us be students of God’s Word that are filled with same spirit that filled the Berean Christians, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11.