Thursday, February 09, 2017

Fake News and the Bible

I know a lot of people, myself included, are a bit perturbed by the way in which many prominent evangelical Christian have approached Donald Trump and this election. Since the Moral Majority of the 70's, the GOP has teased conservative Christians with aspirations to power and it's been an easy sell. We had thought, at some point, that the "moral" part of Moral Majority might've meant something, but alas, this election cycle has proven it does not.

However, as I've been thinking about the ways in which people approach politics these days, particularly in the area of news coverage, I've come to what should've been a very obvious realization: evangelicals understand the world the same way they understand the Bible. It should not have been a surprise.

When you reject interpretive tools for studying scripture, relying on a "plain sense" reading that amounts to, "what makes sense to me," there's a very small leap - really more of a shuffle - over to viewing the world the same way. No need to research or investigate factual representations, just decide for yourself whether they make sense or not.

This doesn't just apply to Christians or conservatives, of course, we all, as humans, are prone to confirmation bias. We have to work hard to question those things with which we agree. As much as I try to research the sources of anything I read, I'm much quicker to check those conclusions I like over the ones I don't.

I hadn't thought much about the connection to scripture until recently, though. I believe I am more prone to question a news report, because I've had a lot of training in Biblical Studies, where one is challenged to ask about context, perspective, purpose, and meaning. In practice, I have to work hard to make sure that my biases aren't filtering my interpretation of scripture and that I have some evidence to back up the ways I present it to others. It's a learned skepticism - not necessarily of the material in front of me, but of my ability to interpret it correctly.

Life, like scripture, does not provide the easy answers and black/white thinking in which the human mind finds comfort. Forcing ourselves to examine reality, context, and actual evidence usually creates more tension and less clarity. No wonder we shy away from it.

With news or with scripture, the giveaway is a refusal to deal in substance. We might say the media outlet is biased or fake or irresponsible; we might say someone has been brainwashed by education or led astray by the world. In both instances, we fail to address the argument, evidence, or issue on its own terms. This is an ad hominem* attack and it serves as more of a distraction than anything else. It puts the opponent on the defensive and changes the subject of debate.

When it comes to scripture, people are genuinely afraid to get away from that "plain reading," because it moves us from firm ground to shaky. I'd argue that scripture was never intended to be firm ground, but to point us towards a relationship with God, something that is always changing and adapting (the relationship, not necessarily God), because we are changing and adapting. You can't ever have a firm relationship with someone, because none of us are static.

In the same way, I'd argue all our idealism is ever intended to do is form a pathway to dealing with other people. The relationships we have with friends (and enemies) and neighbors necessarily involves us negotiating the chasm of reality. Relationships cannot be static, because we're always changing.

As I said, there is a wider world out there, but, for me at least, this realization, that people are actually being consistent, even if I disagree with their approach, has helped me better deal with those friends and neighbors who've been virtual enigmas the past few months. It may be a gap too difficult to bridge, but at least I believe we have the tools to try.

*The fact that my spell checker suggested "Eminem" might be the word I wanted here probably says more to prove my point than anything in this whole post.

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