White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Data and Discernment

Published Monday, April 8, 2019 By Hannah Anderson

It began with one of those time-lapse videos, the ones that record a process from start to finish, like a chick emerging from an egg or a flower opening.  This particular video showed how to decorate pies by cutting and shaping the top crust.  Under a perfectly positioned camera, a pair of perfectly manicured hands manipulated a perfectly round ball of dough on a perfectly flourless butcher block countertop.  A pinch here, a twist there, a few cuts, and you have a thing of beauty.

The first time I’d seen hands roll out a pie crust was over three decades earlier when I watched my grandmother use a glass rolling pin to roll them out on her laminate kitchen table.  She’d been raised in the Appalachian Mountains where pie was both necessity and art, the understood measure of a woman.  When her siblings gathered for a reunion each summer, we’d eat pie—butterscotch, blackberry, cherry, rhubarb, and chocolate custard.

About two hundred miles south of where I live now, cake is more the order of the day.  My husband, Nathan, shares the regional preference (though he has yet to turn down a piece of pie when I offer it).  Still, knowing that his heart (and tongue) have been trained to prefer cake, making pie has become something of a personal venture, a skill I curate for the sake of memory and good taste.  When I saw a video promising ‘8 WOW-Worthy Pie Hacks’, I bookmarked it for a rainy day.  One Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I pulled up the video on my computer and set to work.  Within a few minutes, the dough had come together, and I began work on the top crusts.  I cut out decorated shapes and formed small masterpieces, the whole time relishing the sensory nostalgia of bits of dough wedged beneath my fingernails.  Soon the pies were ready for the oven.

And that’s when the trouble started.

In the video, the step of baking has been reduced to a single screenshot consisting of bold white letters ‘B  A  K  E’ superimposed over the image of a pie.  Easy enough—form your pie and put it in the oven.  But when I checked on them less than thirty minutes later, I discovered that my perfectly sculpted, perfectly pricked, perfectly Pinterest pies had browned in the wrong places.  The bottom crusts remained the pale sickly white of raw dough; the filling that was supposed to peek through the whimsical cutouts had boiled up into a blistering flow of fruit lava.  What I saw in my oven looked nothing like what I had seen on the video, and it was bad.

À La Mode

This wasn’t the first time I’d be frustrated by something online.  In fact, whenever I logged on, it increasingly felt like I was navigating a netherworld, uncertain of where the next click would take me or whether it would deliver on its promise.  Links to heartwarming stories turn out to be ploys to garner page views.  News articles are often nothing more than partisan commentary disguised as journalism.  And when I search for treatment for common health problems, the results leave me with more questions than answers.

When I was a young stay-at-home mom, the internet was a lifeline.  From the comfort (and isolation) of my kitchen table, I’d read the news headlines, keep in touch with friends, browse online stores, and discover better ways of tackling my chores.  When Nathan’s work took us overseas, email helped us close the gap between our parents and their granddaughter.  Eventually, the connectivity of digital infrastructure opened doors for me to work from home.

But as technology has advanced and become incorporated into almost every moment of my life, a funny thing has happened.  Instead of making life simpler, it often makes it more complicated.  Instead of choosing to get online, I now have to go out of my way to unplug.  I have to disable notifications on apps, unsubscribe from email lists, and take digital fasts.  ‘Social’ media has become decidedly antisocial, the joy of connecting with friends dampened by the inevitable political debates, clickbait headlines, and pop-up ads that dominate my feed.  In a single day, I encounter more data, more opinions, and more ideas than my grandmother did in a lifetime.

Most of the time, my frustration with the digital world is as ethereal as the radio waves that bring it to me: a niggling irritation, mental and emotional fatigue.  But sometimes, it has real-world consequences, as when I tried to make my WOW-worthy pies.  Or the time I rearranged my week’s schedule after a friend posted a weather report predicting eight to twelve inches of snow—a report that was a year old.

In the past, the possibility of changing my plans due to an outdated weather bulleting was relatively low.  Forecasts came from a select number of sources: local television and radio stations, newspapers, and for those old enough to remember, telephoning Time and Weather.  And while none of these sources could guarantee the outcome of their predictions, I didn’t have to question the timeliness or integrity of them.

But over the last decade, smartphones and social media have dramatically changed how we access and share information.  Today’s digital experience relies heavily on average people like you and me to produce and distribute content.  Every Facebook post, Instagram photo, tweet, and YouTube video adds to the information that’s available to other users.  Multiply that by an estimated three billion users worldwide, and what was once a welcome source of connectivity and information has become a muddy, torrential flood, sweeping us along with it.  As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin observes, “Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting.”

The conflict, confusion, and exhaustion you feel when you log on is the challenge of having to constantly make choices about who to listen to and who to mute, of figure out which news outlets are reliable and which are driven by partisan agendas.  It’s the challenge of knowing which of your hundreds (or thousands) of ‘friends’ are true and trustworthy.  It’s the challenge of needing to realize before you invest precious time and energy that a three-minute video probably won’t be enough to prepare you to make WOW-worthy pies.

Becoming Wise

Although we experience this informational overload in the context of the digital age, the need to sort through data is not unique to it.  New technologies have certainly complicated and altered how we receive and engage with information, but at root, we’re facing the same questions humans have faced since the Garden of Eden: How can I know who and what to believe?  How can I make choices that lead to a successful life?  How can I avoid mistakes?  How can I know what is good?

And since the garden, philosophers from Socrates to Hypatia to Gandhi have been trying to answer those questions; to make sense of a world that is often chaotic, manipulative, and overwhelming.  One of the most famous of these ‘lovers of wisdom’ was Solomon, a king who ruled over the nation of Israel during the 10th century BC.  According to scriptural narrative, Solomon encountered his own crisis of knowledge shortly after inheriting the kingdom from his father, David.  Facing political and social unrest—including defending his throne against rival claimants—he also had to navigate relationships with neighboring countries and gain the trust of a nation composed of fiercely independent tribes.

Soon after Solomon became king, Jehovah appeared to him in a dream, telling him to ask for whatever he wanted.  Foremost on Solomon’s mind was his inability to make good decisions.  “Lord my God,” he replied, “give your servant a receptive heart to judge your people and discern between good and evil.  For who is able to judge this great people of yours?”  Surprisingly, Solomon does not ask for sustainable peace or for the challenges of leadership to go away.  He did not ask for a long, prosperous reign.  He asked for the ability to weigh the challenges he would face and make wise decisions.  He asked for the ability to know the difference between good and evil.  He asked for discernment.

Broadly speaking, discernment is the ability to sort between a host of options and pick what is good.  It carries the idea of judging the merits of something, being able to distinguish between good and bad and what is best.  Discernment does not change the challenges we face; it changes our ability to face them.

When I think of how quickly the world is shifting around me, I know that I am unable to keep up with it.  While I don’t have the responsibility of governing a nation, I understand the weight Solomon felt.  I also ask, Who is able to do this?  Who among us can sort through all the noise?  Who can survive the waves of new information, new data, and new decisions crashing over us every moment of every day?

But like Solomon, I also know that I can’t escape the context I’ve been placed in.  Even if I were to unplug, move off grid, and somehow attempt to isolate myself from the modern world, the modern world would still find me.  And when it did, I would be ill-equipped to deal with it.  There’s no going back to a simpler time, no escaping the world we live in.  So we must become people who can face it.  We must become people who have insight, who can recognize justice and equity, and who can make good decisions.  We must become people who can spot goodness when we see it.

Need To Know

But to do this, we first have to acknowledge how much we don’t know.  And this is where our modern context does present a unique hurdle to developing discernment.  Of all its benefits, one of the drawbacks of the digital age is how easily we mistake information for knowledge.  Because we can find the answer to most of our questions, we begin to believe we are smarter than we actually are.  Because we can find an instructional video to help us perform just about any task, we can begin to believe we can actually perform these tasks.  But tips and tricks are not skill and expertise.  Information and data are not wisdom and knowledge.  And knowing about something is not the same as knowing how to do it or whether you even should.

If I’m honest, I can’t blame a three-minute video for how my pies turned out.  Sure, the video oversimplified the process of pastry making, presenting an edited version of reality, but I can’t escape the fact that I should have known better.  I’d baked enough pies to know that you have to watch them carefully. I know you have to rotate them while they’re baking and shield the crust to prevent it from burning.  I know that any slight change to a recipe—even a change to the shape and design of a crust—can alter the process entirely.  I couldn’t blame the video.  The problem was that I wanted the process to be as easy as it appeared to be online.  I wanted to believe that life could be so simple, that all I had to do was follow a few easy steps and everything would be beautiful.  I wanted to hack my way to a perfect pie.  In this sense, my desire for a simple solution to a complicated process revealed more about my own simplicity than anything else.

Here’s the difficult truth: there are no shortcuts to skill and expertise.  The ability to produce beautiful pies requires more than information—it requires practice and learned proficiency.  A video may be able to show me how to do something, but it can’t make me a person who can actually do it.  Similarly, there are no hacks to discernment; no three easy steps to follow, no lists, tricks or tips to ensure that you’ll be able to make good decisions when you need to.  In order to make good decisions, you must become a discerning person, skilled in wisdom and goodness itself.

To be these kinds of people, we must be humble enough to be willing to learn.  This is why Solomon continues in Proverbs 2 by calling us to listen “closely to wisdom…[to] call out to insight…[to] seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure.”  This is why he tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; [but] fools despise wisdom and discipline.”  People who don’t think they have anything to learn, won’t.  People who are confident in their own ability to make good decisions shouldn’t be.  People who refuse to humble themselves before the One who is wisdom Himself will never become wise.

But to those who, like Solomon, cry out for understanding, God makes this promise: if you acknowledge your need, recognize your inability, and commit to the process, you will be changed.  You will become a person who can face the challenges of this world with clarity, purpose, and confidence, because this is what God does when people ask him for discernment—he gives it.

Solomon describes God’s promise of discernment, saying, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.  He stores up success for the upright; He is a shield for those who live with integrity.”  The New Testament writer James confirms this: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him.”  He will not chide you; he will not shame you for all you don’t know or laugh at your mistakes.  This God, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, will teach you what you need to know and show you the way of goodness.

Hannah Anderson is the author of Made For More and Humble Roots.  She regularly writes and speaks on faith, culture, and spiritual formation at https://www.sometimesalight.com/blog.  The above excerpt was adapted from All That’s Good: Recovering The Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson ©2018 and is re-published here by kind permission of Moody Publishers. 

  • Hannah Anderson