Media theorist Neil Postman did not live long enough to see the invention of the smartphone or social media, but he predicted our current crisis of truth.
In his 1988 book Technopoly, Postman describes the trajectory of technological development within a society. Although societies would first embrace technology as mere tool, he predicted technology would come to exert “a totalizing force.” Every problem would be considered technological. Every proposed solution would be technological.
When a culture had reached this third stage, Postman foresaw three problems particularly relevant to our current battle for truth: problems like “information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.”
Postman anticipated the contentiousness of our moment: with too much news to consume, too little context for making sense of that news, and too few social institutions to provide the “defense” mechanisms necessary for discerning truth. He was prescient, but certainly no more prophetic than the Bible.
More Than Information
According to the wisdom literature of the Bible, which includes books like Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes and psalms like Psalm 1, truth is more than information, and wisdom more than the capacity for being “right.”
Truth is more than information, and wisdom more than the capacity for being ‘right.’
Becoming wise, according to the Bible, is a matter of formation. It’s a lifelong apprenticeship that—first—involves a right relationship to God: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7a). According to the biblical tradition of wisdom, there are only two parties: the wise and the foolish, and “Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7b).
In the biblical tradition, wisdom is less like a philosophy seminar and more like shop class. It’s not about pontificating but life practice. In his commentary on Proverbs, Derek Kidner argues that this wisdom book asks us to consider “what a person is like to live with, or to employ; how he manages his affairs, his time, and himself.”
Elsewhere, Kidner states it like this: “Goodness and wisdom are not two separable qualities, but two aspects of a single whole.” Wisdom, in other words, involves moral participation and moral commitment. Much like faith without deeds, wisdom is dead.
I think about this wisdom tradition when I come to a passage like Philippians 4:8–9. Paul gives us a list of qualities that encompasses the single whole of goodness and wisdom: that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise. Think about these things, he says. Practice these things, he insists.
Truth is the first quality Paul names in this list, and much like love among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23, it serves as a fountainhead. Just as there is no patience or self-control apart from love, there is nothing lovely or excellent apart from the true.
Just as there is no patience or self-control apart from love, there is nothing lovely or excellent apart from the true.
It’s here we arrive at a fuller understanding of the true in the Bible. What is true is more than what is verifiable. What is true is what is real, what is morally coherent, what is good. It’s why God is true and idols are false.
It’s why Jesus’s critics affirmed his “truth,” not as a measure of his empirically verifiable “rightness” but by the integrity of his character: “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God” (Mark 12:14).
To be true after the manner of God himself is what Paul describes in 2 Corinthians, when he defends his ministry: “We behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor. 1:12). Truth is the clear and gracious water of a godly life. There is no duplicity in truth.
As everyone clamors to recover truth, Christians can begin recovering a fuller understanding of what this means. We don’t simply want to know truth; we want to be true. This involves submitting to practices that shape a wise and virtuous life: first of all, putting our nose in God’s Word.
But very importantly, according to the Bible, wisdom is a tradition. It’s a communal work, a work across generations. This is to say that one person’s experience is insufficient. We will need teachers.
Truth is slow work. Truth is hard work. There aren’t shortcuts, at least not in making a true life.