Thus Saith Google

The volume had fallen behind a row of books in one of my office bookcases–I must have set it on top of a row of books and, at some point, it had gotten knocked to the back of the bookcase. That’s where I found it laying on its spine, a distinct layer of dust covering the edges of its yellowed pages. The volume is my copy of The 1979 Hammond Almanac, which during my freshman year of high school I had received free of charge after signing up for a three-year subscription to Time magazine. Throughout high school, college, seminary, and even during the first few years of being a pastor, I referenced this handy almanac with some frequency. At just over 1,000 pages long, it contains a wealth of history, facts, maps, lists, charts.

Today my daughter, in her freshman year of college, would find this book to be a useless relic from a pre-digital age. Why consult a book like this when Wikipedia is updated constantly (and is anyway easier to search than the index of this fusty old almanac)? People no longer look things up, they Google them. Fact checking has never been easier. Of course, I agree with that–as just noted, my once-useful 1979 almanac, undisturbed for the longest time, had been gathering dust. Now that I have rediscovered it, there is really no good reason to keep it. The last U.S. president it lists is Jimmy Carter, for goodness sake. And anyway, I, too, am on Google daily to locate whatever I need to know.

Today more people have access to the universe of information that Google makes available than ever owned almanacs or encyclopedias. But despite this democratization of information, we are now hearing with great frequency the line attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan that asserts that while everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, no one is entitled to his or her own facts. (I am pretty sure it was Moynihan who said that: I just Googled it to be sure.) Given how easy it is to look up facts, however, you would think that disagreements over what constitutes a fact would be on the verge of extinction.

Alas, no. Time and again, in the course of the push-and-pull and thrust-and-parry of debate in our highly polarized society, someone throws in an alleged piece of information that is labeled as “fact” but that turns out to be either just an opinion or a piece of misinformation (a mistake masquerading as a fact). And so someone then quotes Moynihan on the assumption that his commonsense observation on the difference between opinion and fact will settle the matter.

But it seldom does. As often as not, the “fact” that is called into question was something someone read somewhere on the web or had heard from some political candidate or officeholder or pundit (which likewise had found its way onto the internet). For some, that web presence is itself more than sufficient cause to cling to the disputed “fact” and even defend it. And anyway, the reason this “fact” had been thrown into the debate to begin with was because it propped up someone’s larger worldview–there is no “fact” so compelling as a convenient fact.

As all reasonably well-read people know, I am not the first to point this out, but it does seem that the internet has made us less informed, even sometimes flat out more ignorant. Or perhaps better said: it’s not that the internet has made people more ignorant as it has provided comfort and aid (and cover) to those who wish to remain entrenched in their beliefs. If what I already believe is out there anywhere on the web and/or on the lips of some political pundit, then I am confirmed in my beliefs such that nothing anyone else could say will change my mind. Moynihan was wrong: in a world where this is now no ability to distinguish fact from opinion from loopy theory, people are entitled to their own facts. They prove as much every day.

Because I spend the shank of my days thinking about preaching, I wonder how this ethos affects pastors as well as how it is shaping my students who are aspiring to be preachers. On the one hand, I tell my students that the internet is a wonderful gift to preachers. It’s never been easier or quicker to look up information and illustrations–the very material that can really liven up a sermon. On the other hand, however, that same internet has created a crop of skeptical listeners even inside church sanctuaries. The Apostle Paul once warned that the day would come when people would find ways to resist the truth and would “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). Substitute the word “websites” for “teachers” in that passage and Paul starts to look more than a little prophetic.

Are preachers today able to assert implications and claims of the gospel in ways that will pierce people’s hearts? Or is the preacher’s voice just one among many such that if a certain contingent of the congregation can find some other online source that might assert a different gospel implication, will that be more than sufficient to impugn the authority (and the learning and the study and the prayerfulness) of their own pastor? Worse, if a preacher senses this is the case already, will she pull her punches, holding back on getting too specific on account of just not having the energy (or the stomach) to fight with those in the congregation who the preacher knows will disagree with her in case she gets too specific on some socio-economic or political issue?

One would like to think that Christians–steeped as they are in worshiping the One who at Christmas was incarnated as the epitome of “grace and truth”–would be immune to our culture’s infatuation with fact production. But more than a few polls reveal that some of the stranger myths that exist in the cultural ether are embraced as readily by church-going folks as by anyone else.

Once pastors could say with some modicum of well-earned authority, “Thus saith the Lord” when they preached. Today many seem inclined to respond to that by replying, “We’ll see about that” and then Googling their way to “facts” that fall in more pleasant places.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.