One of my favorite writers for the Washington Post is actually their humorist and opinion columnist, Alexandra Petri. I first discovered her witty and poignant commentary during the Republican presidential debates earlier this year. I appreciate her blend of millennial culture and clever comedy to reflect the truth of a situation, sometimes more accurately and more effectively than the historic paper’s news section (and coming from me, a devoted WaPo Online fangirl, that means a lot).
However, even I was taken by surprise when she wrote this in an already-brilliant column from the US to the UK regarding the cause and results of the Brexit vote:
Look, I understand that experts are sometimes wrong, and sometimes they are in the pocket of big something, but do we honestly think our odds are better getting advice from people who explicitly don’t know what they’re talking about? This isn’t the Protestant Reformation, for crying out loud. It’s not like we can all stare at the same text and draw our own conclusions, Martin Luther-style, and decide that grace alone is sufficient. That’s not how you run the IMF.
As an editor at a highly regarded and long-running Protestant publication, this struck me as more insightful about our society than perhaps even Petri knows.
See, we love independence. Generally, that’s a great thing. Give me a choice between depending on others and independence, and I’ll choose the latter every time. The problem comes when I’m actually not that great at doing things by myself.
Those who have attempted a home renovation understand this well. It looks so easy on TV, but then you realize you don’t have an HGTV celebrity and their team to help you (I see you, Facebook friends in houses). The marketing for Home Depot and Lowe’s are often targeted to those who have already figured it out: it’s hard to know when you can really do things by yourself and save money, or when an authority needs to step in and tell you how to get it done. (Or sometimes, “no, this really isn’t a good idea.”)
So if we’re going for a national DIY as Americans (or international for my British readers), where do we start? Some might say we need a new reformation. That’s where we run into some issues.
The Protestant Reformation, in short
Good thing: People have access to God’s Word and read it for themselves.
Bad thing: People don’t really understand what they are reading.
Good thing: Trained experts help them understand it. This has led to various forms of Christian education, from VBS to seminaries to certain Christian publications, like the one where I make my living.
Kinda bad thing: These experts are humans. Sinful, imperfect, selfish, limited, biased humans. Even if we have the best and purest of intentions, we all come at the Bible with tinted “reading glasses”: our point of view and experiences and race and gender and personality type and motivations and childhood, plus affection for those who passed on their own biases and metaphorical lens tint to us. That’s a lot of layers to work through. Most of us hit this bump somewhere between our teens and early 30s. Check out the memoirs I write about on this blog for how some of us have worked through that.
Good thing: We learn to discern which authorities to listen to and which are selling snake oil. This is a life-long process and we don’t always get it right, but generally, humans work out how to feel empathy and compassion and say sorry for things like mass genocide and slavery. Not always, but sometimes.
So what happens when experts and institutions and authorities with relevant experience are viewed with not just healthy skepticism, but dismissed precisely because of their credentials that make them trustworthy?
Well, as we’re seeing in the UK and the US, side effects include: isolationism, a culture of fear, anger, distrust, blindly following the most charismatic leader, and critical decisions and voting based on rumor and propaganda. Do not ingest if you have a family history of xenophobia, racism, imperialism, sexism, and bigotry.
Now, I’m far from the type of person who cheers for the establishment simply because the Titanic is too big to sink, as you all know. Corporations have gotten it massively wrong even just in my lifetime, and simply because someone is in authority is not at all a reason to trust them.
But a huge part of my job is as an editor is also being a fact-checker. Ethical, true media organizations don’t just get man-on-the-street quotes. They also verify that the information they are reporting is as accurate as possible. But how?
Experts. People who have devoted their lives to studying a subject I’ve only known about for the duration of editing the article. We depend on these authorities to get it right, to help us be truth-tellers instead of gossip rags, and to correct us honestly when we have it wrong.
And if you read that about the media and scoffed, perhaps you are part of the problem.
Yes, so many media organizations are corrupt or lazy or have a political agenda or put profit above the truth or just serve the god of speed in the 24/7 newscycle world. Just look at the Daily Mail’s record of blatant lies regarding the EU if you need proof. And the other side isn’t innocent either.
But there are those of us who are working to get it right.
And discounting the “evil media” because you can’t discern trustworthy sources of information from non-trustworthy ones isn’t going to make America great again. It’s going to set us back a few hundred years.
Maybe worse. Is it better to have no printing press or only trust the “press” that supports your already-biased worldview and brags about its disregard for experts as a defining characteristic?
I suppose that’s the truest reason this isn’t the Protestant Reformation. Not only does it “not work that way” to trust the @AverageJoeOnTwitter over those who actually know what they are talking about, but entitlement and the devaluing of the free press in favor of sensationalism and screaming heads (because little sensible talking happens on cable “news,” let’s be honest) has led us here.
Sure, social media and television are just neutral tools where both inflammatory rhetoric and fruitful conversation are equally possible.
But again, we are humans. And as a species, we don’t default to logic and sensible dialogue because trust and vulnerability are a lot more difficult than blame, shame, judgment, name-calling, anger, fear and hate.
Which is why what we need now isn’t a Protestant Reformation, but a Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. (The one idealized in our textbooks, not the gruesome reality of the 18th century, just so we are clear.) It was supposedly in this environment that liberty was reborn. It was this era that inspired the political convictions of the Founding Fathers, and the art and music of the Classical masters. We wouldn’t have the experiential religion of John Wesley and his quadrilateral for discernment if it weren’t for the roots of the intellectualism of the Enlightenment. It was also the rise of mass media consumption.
Now, objectivity was not exactly the virtue of the day in journalism ethics of the era, to say nothing of the huge flaws in cultural norms and the limits of these benefits to rich, educated white men, but what if we developed a better Enlightenment without such restrictions, retaining the underlying respect for logic, order, education, the scientific method, and a broadening worldview?
A revitalization of this era would also aid solutions to the concern that the common man and woman is not being heard with its examination of the sources of authority, separation of powers, and government by the people. But it ultimately rests in reason.
How does this apply to faith and its fruits of hope, love, empathy, joy, etc.?
I like this quote from a fellow Bear in Pulse, Baylor’s academic journal, regarding Wesley’s “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” a title so meta, it reeks of Enlightment influence.
“The very structure of Wesley’s sermon illustrates the necessity of reason in learning and explicating Scripturally-derived theological truths, just as he uses these truths to illumine the limitations of the reason he employs.”
In an age of emotional manipulation, power plays in tweet form, misinformation intentionally spread, and the rise of the fearful and undereducated as a voting body, may we reject the pride of anti-intellectualism and instead embrace the hope of a future shaped by well-informed empathy. May we rebel against the rebellion. May we question every line we are fed that would have us believe reason is just too much effort. And may we know when we are foolish to claim independence when what we really need is an expert authority to help us conquer our national home renovation.
P.S. Brene Brown posted these five observations in light of the Sandy Hook shooting, but I believe they apply to the broader context of this conversation so well:
Prayer and activism are not mutually exclusive.
For many of us they are inextricably connected. We don’t need to criticize those who are praying. You don’t have to pray or even believe in prayer, but be respectful (or at least quiet).
Politics is easier than grief.
To skip over feeling and rush to policy-making dehumanizes the process and weakens policy.
Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort.
It has nothing to do with accountability. Accountability requires long, difficult, respectful conversations. Blame fizzles out with rage, where accountability is in for the long haul.
Self-righteousness is a sign of fear and uncertainty.
It has nothing to do with activism or change. The loudest and most vitriolic among us are often the most afraid. As my friend Harriet Lerner says, “Change requires listening with same level of passion that we feel when we speak.”
You can’t shame a nation into changing any more than you can shame a person into changing.
Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, violent behaviors than it is to be the cure. We need courage, vulnerability, hard work, empathy, integrity (and a little grace wouldn’t hurt).