Teaching what to think, rather than how to think has become the new “normal” in our modern world of postmodernism. While postmodernism would have us believe that the concept of “absolute truth” is a quaint and naïve holdover from the 19th century, very few people ever live this way. It may be one thing to say it, but it is a different thing entirely to actually exist in a world of relativism. We tend to surround ourselves with people who believe the same basic things as we do. Although this is a completely natural response, it should never become a crutch that prevents us from being exposed to other views. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening.
In his insightful book, The Late Great Evangelical Church, C. Vaughn Doner writes this:
As New Age individualism undermines church community and authority, all too many of our churches have degenerated from “city on a hill” communities—serving as salt and light in stewarding and leading the community—to thinly disguised marketing organizations attempting to meet the needs of the “me-centered” audience they attract. Concurrently, pastors have been demoted from the role of prophetic voice, community visionary, and biblical worldview teacher to manager, salesman, politician, cheerleader, facilitator, and amateur psychologist. Rather than serving as a base camp to train, equip, and support Christians to engage, serve, and disciple their community, our New Age Evangelical church has become more of a “spiritual service station.” We cruise in, get our oil checked and tank topped off, and we leave. Christianity has become just another part of the Self-help Movement.1
Doner’s assessment of the church is applicable to the broader level of American society as well. What is happening within the church is nothing different from what is happening to the culture at-large. In an editorial called “The Daily Me,” Nicholas Kristof writes, “there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information—but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.”2 In other words, we don’t want to think, or be challenged, or be confronted by opposing viewpoints and ideas. We’re happy in our comfort-zone, thank you very much. Kristof continues:
The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.2
Here we begin to see why Kristof is suspicious of the alternatives to mainstream media sources: he’s part of the mainstream media. Ironically, he adds this statement to the end of his editorial (in fact, all of his editorials have it): “I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.” If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Although he laments the “decline of the traditional news media,” he seems to have no problem becoming a player in the new media, which he believes is contributing to the demise of the traditional media. Kristof is skeptical and worried about your “Daily Me,” but doesn’t seem to mind if you join his. But what is his solution to the plague of the “Daily Me?” He tells us in his closing paragraph:
[P]erhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count. Now excuse me while I go and read The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.2
On the surface this may appear to be pretty healthy advice for the life of the mind. Kristof is right to compare interaction with opposing views to exercise, but he completely misses the point. Approaching other views with this kind of attitude is precisely what leads to the “Daily Me” syndrome. Kristof’s cute statement about reading the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page confirms his own biases. As a political liberal, Kristof knows that he will encounter viewpoints in the WSJ that do not match his own. He is heading into intellectual battle with the certainty that his own worldview—his own assumptions and core beliefs about how the world works—will emerge victorious, no matter what kind of arguments get thrown his way. And this is the heart of the problem: we are not dealing with principles, but particulars. We live in a society that has been brought up to think a certain way, but were never given the reasons why. This is also why postmodernism appears to work, no one is getting any deeper than the particular level. A more recent editorial by Kristof, provides a perfect example of this.
In "Learning How to Think," Kristof makes the point that humans can be quite gullible. He argues that even though so-called experts are often "stunningly poor source[s] of expertise," the majority of people tend to believe them anyway. Citing a pioneering psychological study on the subject of expertise, Kristof maintains that most of us tend to think the way we do about certain topics because we received the information from an "expert." Yet, according to a 20-year study of experts and their expert predictions, Kristof reports that the "predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses—the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board."3
I was encouraged when I saw the title of Kristof’s editorial. I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, Kristof was going to actually shed some light on the topic of thinking. After all, he is a high-profile writer for the New York Times, one of the premier newspapers in the country. I figured that even though I tend to disagree with his liberal views, this is one editorial where we will agree. After his previous editorial, I thought perhaps he might have had a moment of clarity, a shining moment that revealed to him what it truly meant to think. My optimism was quickly crushed.
A friend of mine used to say that when people claim they are thinking, they are really only rearranging their presuppositions. This is a very good way of putting it. Kristof doesn’t seem to get this, even though he is certainly dancing very close to it. Near the end of his editorial, Kristof makes this admission: "I boast about having warned in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq would be a violent mess after we invaded. But I tend to make excuses for my own incorrect forecast in early 2007 that the troop ‘surge’ would fail." Kristof seems to believe that admitting that he has been wrong is a step toward "thinking." He never bothers to tell his audience that his predictions were nothing more than a 50/50 shot. The real reason he made the predictions that he did was because of his political ideology. Although he appears to be humble in his admission of a failed prediction, the fact of the matter is that both of his predictions stemmed from his opposition to the war. In other words, Kristof wasn’t really making predictions based on cold, hard data, he was injecting his own views into a future outcome. This is not predicting, this is wish projecting.
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Kristof supports a system of holding "experts" accountable, a running tally of sorts that would enable people to check the track-record of their favorite experts. He believes that this "public service" would help people to be less dependent on experts for their information, and more dependent on themselves, thinking things through on their own. But Kristof never seems to grasp the concept that thinking is not predicting. Thinking can and should lead to making certain predictions, but the predictions themselves are not a gauge of whether or not the thought process that informed the prediction was valid. For example, if the recent predictions of Michael Spencer about the collapse of evangelicalism do not come to pass in ten years, does this mean that he was wrong about the current sad state of evangelicalism? Absolutely not. Wrong predictions can flow from correct thinking, just as correct predictions can flow from wrong thinking. As William Goldman put it: "Nobody knows anything."
Christians need to learn this lesson, and learn it fast. We are being duped by the media in the same way as everybody else. In order for the church to be the true countercultural change agent that it is called to be, we need to learn how to think from Scripture, not Nicholas Kristof. The Bible begins with the assumption of God’s existence: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). The Bible tells us "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). Our thinking will always flow out of our core assumptions—our presuppositions about how the world works. As long as this principle is drilled into and tattooed on our brains, the particulars will always reflect this.
1 C. Vaughn Doner, The Late Great Evangelical Church (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown Books, 2007), 203.
2 Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Daily Me,” New York Times, March 18, 2009. Online here.
3 Nicholas D. Kristof, “Learning How to Think,” New York Times, March 26, 2009. Online here.