If you hold to a traditional marriage, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, wants you to know that he is not interested in your business. On the other side of America pastor Tim Keller says, no problem, you can be a Christian and believe that gay marriage is perfectly acceptable. These are two things you may have read in the news or in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks. Both made headlines, but both were based on at least some misinformation and on ignoring crucial context. Both illustrate an urgent concern.
We can all agree that in this digital age we are inundated with news and information. We live in a constant flow of facts, figures and headlines. For most of human history information has been a scarce resource, but today it has become abundant and over-abundant. We no longer have to go looking for information; rather, we have to find ways of better filtering and prioritizing the unending glut of information we are subjected to day-by-day.
One of the ways we are adapting to the glut of information at our disposal is to skim, to glance at the thousands of pieces of information to look for the very few bits that are most urgent and relevant. It is a necessary skill if we are to avoid drowning. Yet there is a cost to our skimming. The more we skim, the more we become people who prefer to skim, people who would rather skim than read patiently and deeply. As we continue down this path, we become increasingly comfortable looking no further than a headline and comfortable drawing our conclusions from just a few words. Instead of looking to sources and verifying facts, we skim, draw our conclusions, and move on. Or worse, we skim, draw our conclusions, and then hit one of the ever-present “share” buttons, using social media to share a lie or to “like” a lie. This is exactly what many Christians did with Howard Schultz and Tim Keller.
We can go all the way back to 1563 to find a corrective. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks brilliantly to the ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness. It challenges us not only to avoid lying, but to be people who speak the truth and who are as horrified by deceit and misinformation as we are with outright lying. It gives us no leeway when we speak (or blog or tweet) rashly. Here is its answer to the question, What is required in the ninth commandment?
That I bear false witness against no man,
nor falsify any man’s words;
that I be no backbiter, nor slanderer;
that I do not judge, nor join in condemning any man rashly, or unheard;
but that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit, as the proper works of the devil,
unless I would bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God;
likewise, that in judgment and all other dealings
I love the truth, speak it uprightly and confess it;
also that I defend and promote, as much as I am able,
the honor and good character of my neighbor.
Whatever Howard Schultz said, and no matter how much we may disagree with what he said, we do nothing for our cause when we “condemn him rashly, or unheard,” to use the Catechism’s phrasing.
In actual fact, Schultz was not telling advocates of a traditional view of marriage to shop elsewhere, but saying, in the words of this blogger, “This is where we stand. If you are investing in this company and do not agree with this stance, you are welcomed to invest elsewhere.” Of course this may compel many coffee drinkers to purchase their lattes elsewhere, but at the very least they should do so based on accurate rather than inaccurate information. We owe it to Schultz to speak truthfully of what he said and what he meant. Even while we may vehemently disagree with many of his stances, we are still obliged to “defend and promote his honor and good character.”
Meanwhile, Tim Keller was the subject of an article at the Huffington Post. Headlines soon screamed that Keller believed that the Bible gave room to embrace gay marriage. However, he soon clarified: “In explaining the Anabaptist tradition, I was quoted saying, ‘You can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.’ I did say that—but it was purely a statement of fact. It is possible to hold that position, though it isn’t my position, nor was I promoting or endorsing the position. I was simply reporting on the growth of that view.” This would have been clear to those who fact-checked beyond Huffington’s article. Sadly, though, too few looked beyond the headline, even though it appeared on a site known to be regularly and openly antagonistic toward Evangelicals.
The ninth commandment forbids us from lying, but it does far more than that. It demands that we deliberately seek out the truth. Even in an age of skimming, in an age in which we are drowning in a glut of information, it demands that we pursue the whole truth rather than risk promoting a lie. It demands that we resist the lazy temptation to have our views shaped by a skim and that we instead do the hard work of pursuing facts. For as the Catechism warns us, we are in danger of doing the work of the devil.