Whatsoever Things Are True

January 20, 2016

I know this comes as no surprise, but information is everywhere.

You can’t check your email or social media without seeing headlines about technology’s latest breakthrough or a politician’s bold claim. With a few keystrokes and a click, you can access details about everything from how to slice a pineapple to how to read a key signature.

Personally, I love having such easy access to information. I love being able to quickly research when to use who versus whom or how to arrange my hair into that totally cute hairstyle—or whatever else happens to be the question of the day. The downside of having access to so much information is that all too often, we aren’t cautious about the information we receive. Like Eve in the Garden, we are easily deceived and misled.

Many years ago, I was assigned to write a children’s nonfiction article for a writing class. While brainstorming a topic, I remembered learning in high school that people in medieval times rarely, if ever, bathed. So I chose to write an article about the Middle Ages. After all, what could be more interesting to a ten-year-old boy than a world where no one has to take baths?

After spending days poring over library books and scouring the Internet, I was surprised—and disappointed—to find nothing to back up a claim that people in the Middle Ages rarely bathed. In fact, several references stated that those in medieval times bathed more frequently than you might think. Though it didn’t make as sensational a story, I used the information I’d gathered to craft a snapshot of life in the Middle Ages.

The goal of the class was publication, so I was required to have a professional fact-check my article. Not knowing a whole lot of medieval-era experts, I sent the article to my old history teacher — yes, the same one who’d taught me that medieval people never bathed! I guess I figured that by now he surely knew better . . . Or that maybe my impressive bibliography would sway his views.

Not so!

While he was generally complimentary, he said I should reconsider what I’d written about medieval hygiene: a few of his students had just completed a project about medieval life, and as was shown in the essay they’d written that he was forwarding to me, people in the medieval era rarely bathed.

As I looked over his students’ essay, I began to get the feeling I’d read it before. I pulled copies of my research and found it: a printout from a website debunking myths about the Middle Ages. The students, in their zeal to finish the assignment, had apparently missed the headline identifying the information as a myth (probably because their teacher was teaching it as truth!), copied the section word for word, and presented it as fact for their assignment.

I never said anything about it to my high school teacher; I just thanked him for his time. But suddenly, everything I’d ever learned throughout my school years was suspect. (Does pi really go forever into infinity? Is it really i before e except after c?!)

A few high school students hurrying through an assignment didn’t bother me so much (though the plagiarism was somewhat disconcerting); what disturbed me was that a teacher would use material he hadn’t fact-checked to instruct others–just because he liked how it sounded.

Then, as usual, I had to take an introspective look at myself.

It’s easy to shake our heads at those who fall prey to sensationalism. But how often are we guilty of doing the same thing? We’ll forward the Facebook article because it affirms our views—never realizing it’s actually satire. Or we’ll hear a juicy piece of gossip about an acquaintance and—even though we (hopefully!) don’t share it—we never consider that some of the details were likely altered in the translation. Or maybe we habitually choose our own truth: we choose to believe only the things that sound good and feel good, and we never fact-check them against the ultimate authority on truth: the Bible.

Our goal is to live intentionally, to invest our moments and days and weeks in worthy pursuits, to create a life that’s full of meaning and purpose. Let’s also be intentional about truth — about loving it, living it, spreading it, and believing it.

Photo Courtesy of KB Photography