The Next Story by Tim Challies (Authority and Truth)

The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital ExplosionTakeaway: Conceptions of Authority and Truth are changing, the question is are they changing because of culture or technology. And if they are changing, is it a bad thing?

My general review of The Next Story: Life and Faith After The Digital Explosion is basically very positive.  I do not want to distract from the fact that in general I think this was a very helpful book and one that many people would benefit from reading.  But the parts that I most disagreed with revolved around Challies understanding of truth and authority.

Initially, Challies has a discussion of Russell Ackoff‘s DIKW model.  Ackoff suggests that we move from Data (simple description) to Information (answers basic questions like who, what, where, when) to Knowledge (information that has been owned and processed so a person can interact with other types of information) and finally to Wisdom (the application of knowledge, life experience to make good decisions).  Data and information about about the accumulation.  Knowledge is about the comparisons.  And wisdom is about the application.

Challies makes the very useful progression a focus of how our use of education has changed.  Rote memory is much less important because the basic facts are always available. The problems according to Challies, Nicholas Carr and others is that we are in a race to accumulate data and information and do not seem to spend much time with knowledge and wisdom.  Part of this is availability of information.  If a person only has access to dozens of books you will think much more about the individual books and ideas within the books.  If you have access to virtually unlimited data then the inclination is to spend less time on any particular idea.  In many ways, I think this is true partially.  Many people know lots about a little.  But increased specialization also means that people have more time, and are rewarded because they know a lot about a few things.  So while I think that for the average person, there might be a temptation toward data/information and not knowledge/wisdom, I do not think this true of society as a whole.

Where I think Challies makes a mistake is in his chapter on Authority.  His central comparison for this chapter is the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.  Britannica is written by experts and curated by professionals in order to bring authority to any particular subject.  Wikipedia is all volunteer labor, the authors may or may not have any real expertise and may or may not be who their bios suggest they really are. For Challies this is a example of a move toward ‘radical egalitarianism’. While Challies admits that in general, there is not much difference in the accuracy of the average article, he is very concerned that Truth becomes a matter of consensus and not a matter of authority. My first issue at this point is that he seems to be confusing information and truth. Wikipedia is not about revealing truth (the deeper matters of why), it is about revealing information.  So I think his comparison is off right from the bat. (He says he uses Wikipedia, but only as a starting point and only in areas where he wants a basic idea of something. If he wants something detailed he goes to other types of sources.  But that would be true of Encyclopedia Britannica as well, it is the nature of the encyclopedia, not the nature of Wikipedia to provide a fairly shallow overview of many subjects.)

He then explores truth (all truth is God’s truth) and how truth is related to growing in Christ.  “Growth in knowledge is part of the process of becoming more like God or becoming creatures who are more fully in God’s image. Paul tells us that we have put on the ‘new nature’ which, he says, ‘is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’ Col 3:10.”  I do not want to play games with his words. But the knowledge that Paul is talking about here is the deeper matters of faith, not what year JFK died. Challies wants to fight for the role of authority in matters of basic information. I think that basic information is rarely disputed. And when it is, time usually solves the problem. Interpretation of information (knowledge) has a lot of disputes. But by my understanding, the point where God’s truth really comes to play is Wisdom, the final stage and the stage where an active response is part of Ackoff’s definition.

Where I think Challies most mis-understands the subject is his insistence that post-modern conception of truth is about consensus, and that consensus is a lower form of authority. I find his insistence on hierarchical authority an odd position as a protestant. Protestants left the Roman Catholic church because they believed that the priesthood of the individual believer was more important than the authority of the church. Authority as a Protestant is always in Scripture and the Holy Spirit primarily. Tradition is important, but not for the sake of tradition, instead for the sake of supporting Orthodox belief.

Challies is conservative in the best form of the word. He is reluctant to allow any change to a system of knowledge and belief, regardless of the need for change. He admits that many of the changes in the knowledge system are positive. Many bloggers are just as skilled and professional journalists.  Many home chefs can create a meal as beautiful and delicious as a professional chef.  My perspective is that when there is a need for change, the church needs to be on willing to change, maybe not on the forefront, but at least not antagonistic to needed change.

I do not intend this next point as a slight, but as an illustration. Challies, in a chapter about the importance of authority, which he seems to mean, a reliance on the professional, the skilled and the degreed, he made a minor mistake (probably a typo). He talked about the rise of conspiracy theories around 9/11 and describes the plane that went down in Pennsylvania as Flight 95.  I heard it in the audiobook and went back and confirmed it in the kindle version. It was actually Flight 93. I knew that as soon as I heard it. In a Wikipedia world, that mistake would have been identified and corrected quickly. But in Challies’ world as a professional writer, with a traditional book contract, and real publishers and editors this small mistakes slipped through.

In the end, I am not concerned about authority in regard to pieces of information. My concern is authority in faith, which is based on the Holy Spirit’s confirmation and mediated person of Jesus Christ coming to earth as a human.

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One Comment

Good review, Adam.

My two cents? I think our collective “lack of wisdom” has nothing to do with emerging technologies. In every age, “lack of wisdom” has been the rule rather than the exception. Technology is, in one sense, simply a parabolic mirror — an “amplifier” of the human condition. We are beginning to recognize our collective faults more clearly, faster, via increasingly efficient “feedback loops.” In electronics, we use feedback loops to reduce distortion — to increase signal integrity and reduce noise.

These rapidly emerging forms of interpersonal connection (vs. dying forms of centralized / monolithic information control) are allowing (perhaps forcing) humanity to recreate itself. Technology is moving us out of the era of institutional mandate (e.g., recent changes in middle-Eastern states) and into a more global focus — people less defined by political borders and tribalism, and increasingly defined by a shared and common humanity.

In this way, technology becomes a catalyst for wisdom – an accelerator towards the best aspects of our shared wisdom traditions (such as love, love of enemy, mercy, compassion, reconciliation, charity, perpetual forgiveness, and good will to all) and a feedback amplifier which allows us to better identify (and gently move away from) old and arrogant forms of tribal and religious thinking that are no longer helpful for a globally-connected humanity.

If Jesus were here today, perhaps he would see the Internet as an antithesis to institutional / expert-oriented religion. The way I read my NT, authentic spirituality isn’t about having the highest IQ, or having all the right propositional arguments and facts (alas, Jesus seemed to get angry with this kind of religion). It seems more about a changed heart — that grows in love for God, and for others – and not just love for those in our belief-tribe, but for all people. Technology is showing us that we have far more to share and learn from one another, heart to heart, and millennia of tribal-religious / institutional barriers to shake free of.

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