Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Romans 14 in the Age of Fake News

It happened again yesterday. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across an article that I knew right away was "fake". It was posted by a well-meaning friend as well as being liked and shared by several others. The headline was compelling enough that I had to click the link to read what all the fuss was about. Everything written seemed plausible, despite the obvious typo in the headline, but then I reached the end of the article where it read, "source: ufomania.org".

Graphic from CNN.com
Thankfully this happens less now that the heat of the campaign season is behind us. But people are still biting on the bait and getting hooked even if it is with less frequency. Later in the day another friend shared a meme (so it was without any source) making a dubious claim that put down another only to score a political point.

Why do we continue to get sucked in like this? There were numerous articles following the presidential election regarding fake news and how social media has become an echo chamber that only serves to reinforce our opinions. Here are just a couple articles that go behind the scenes. I'm going to summarize what many see as driving this phenomenon.

We desire a validation of our worldview. This isn't limited to politics. It extends to religion, sports, and entertainment. I'm guilty of this- if I watch a move that really gets my wheels turning, one of the first things I do is check reviews to see if anyone else picked up on the same things I did.

We want validation and acceptance. That's why we congregate around like-minded people. That's why it is more joyful to watch sports in a crowd versus alone on your TV (and why tweeting during live events has become so popular- so much so that some sports websites even include a social media frame along with live streaming). This is human nature and why headlines that reinforce our points of view are compelling. We tolerate our own cognitive dissonance because being validated is more important than being right. At the same time seeing news, articles, or memes that fit our preconceptions subliminally convinces us that our opinions are right (thereby making other opinions wrong, which is technically impossible).

We want to believe. Sometimes we think we know something but maybe we lack confidence in its truth. So we cling to anything that builds up our personal lack of faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see" (going with the NIV translation- you can switch out confidence and assurance with "substance" and "evidence" if you'd rather rely on the King James). So faith is inherently confident and is self-reinforcing with its own evidence. This definition of faith then assumes some level of trust.

But we don't apply faith that way. We have faith in things we hope for, but hope is only that. We hope something is true, but we lack confidence or assurance so we seek out evidence. This type of faith is the type that implicitly exclaims, "I told you so!" when we find what we think is proof. So we share articles about NASA scientists that proved the calendar is missing a day because of Joshua making the sun stand still thousands of years ago.

We get sucked in by sensationalist headlines. Did you know that in the mainstream media journalists don't write their own headlines? Did you know that in publishing authors usually don't come up with their own titles? There are professionals whose job is to write the headline that will get the most attention or book titles that will sell the most copies. There is research in the social sciences that takes this as far as identifying the best fonts, verbs, and even the maximum number of words to use. Online we try to maximize our Search Engine Optimization.

Over the weekend I was watching one news program where a journalist was getting grilled about a sensationalist headline that the host then claimed qualified the news as "fake". The journalist tried, with little success, to defend his work by noting that he didn't write the headline. He tried to steer the discussion to make the point that what some are calling "fake news" are simply examples of sensationalism or bias (both of which drive ratings, clicks, and shares).

Yet we're guilty of promoting the sensationalism we're being fed. In the example I opened with, which wasn't a political story at all, the headline was catchy enough to share without even reading the contents of the article. Had the person done so, I suspect she would've noticed the suspicious source being "UFO Mania". But that's not the only example. During the election a friend shared an article about Planned Parenthood based on a headline that seemed to reinforce her worldview. She apparently didn't read the article, because the article made the opposite point she was trying to advance. And this leads me to my last reason...

We have a problem with a lack of discernment. Much was made of the "intelligence gap" or "education gap" identified in polls during the election. But this isn't necessarily a matter of intelligence or education. Discernment is different. A lack of discernment takes things at face value without critical thinking. Discernment is the ability to take information and question its validity, independent of knowledge, information, or opinions you already have. You can be uneducated and have discernment. This is often described as being "street smart". At the same time, you can be highly educated and lack discernment. We see the same thing in church where someone might be described as "so heavenly minded they're no earthly good".

I hate to say it, but the church is guilty of promoting this lack of discernment. We listen to sermons built around verses that are proof-texts for the point that is trying to be made even if taken completely out of context. We do not follow the example of the Bereans who were of "more noble character" for checking whether what Paul was preaching was true (Acts 17:11). Meanwhile we reinforce a leadership structure that assumes a hierarchy of knowledge, holding those with a  DMin or MDiv with special esteem. Even though we have access to more information than ever before, tools that can help us study the Bible with unprecedented depth, we're really not that much different than the peasants who were kept in line by the church by their illiteracy.

If we don't dig deeper on matters of eternal importance, why would we expect to be any different when it comes to the media we consume? We blindly trust what a particular news source has to say the same way we nod our heads and proclaim "amen!" during a sermon that makes a point nowhere to be found in scripture.

Which brings me to Romans 14.

Romans 14 would seem like a non sequitur after the discussion of politics in Romans 13 but then we remember that this also follows the Romans 12 admonishments to "not think of yourself more highly than you ought" (12:3) and "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another" (12:18). Taken in that context, you could consider Romans 13 and 14 as applications of 12.

Interestingly, Paul immediately follows his discussion of politics with a warning to not quarrel over disputable matters, as if anticipating the obvious divisions to come. At the same time, he tells us to "accept the one whose faith is weak" and uses dietary laws and religious feasts as examples. What we sometimes miss when reading this is that these religious duties aren't analogous to whether or not it's ok to watch R-rated movies, rather they are demonstrations of one's own religious identity.

Follow the train of thought Paul is providing us: live at peace with one another, submit to authority because everything is under the authority of God, don't get wrapped up in disputable matters, and don't allow those things to become central to your religious identity. In other words, don't let politics define your religion. Because if you do, it will prevent you from being at peace with others, make you unable to submit to governments whose policies you disagree with, and lead you into useless arguments over matters of opinion (a literal translation of "disputable matters").

Sounds a lot like the state of the church today.

Running through this train of thought is the notion that some will be able to do this easily and others will not. Some will have faith that is "strong", while others will struggle because of their "weak" faith.

It may sound mean to say that those who revel in "fake news" are weak in their faith, but taken in this context it is the truth- they merely lack discernment. That doesn't mean I get to look down on them or mock them (which I am seeing far too often from Christians on the progressive end of the political spectrum). Rather Paul tells me that I need to be patient with them and put aside my own convictions for the sake of their faith.

So what do we do to confront the fake news we see nearly every day? We need to remember that the Kingdom is not a matter of Republican or Democrat (to paraphrase 14:17) and that "anything not done in faith is sin" (14:23). We need to ground our politics in faith- faith has to come first- and practice our convictions with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (the rest of verse 17). We have to be humble enough to set aside our political points of view for the sake of others. Really, if our political discourse is causing someone else to struggle- whatever the reason, whether it is based on fake news, or is argumentative, or devalues the unnamed 'other'- we need to knock it off.

And prayerfully by applying the word we can learn discernment, by having confidence in God's love we can overcome our need for validation, by growing in faith we can increase our confidence in those things that are unseen, and with our eyes fixed on Jesus may we not become distracted by sensationalism because in him alone is Truth. In Christ there is nothing fake.

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