A Research Literacy Primer For Christians: Or, Why Christians Need To Be Skeptical When Looking Up Information

Recently, I looked up a Bible verse online.

That’s really all it was.  A Bible verse.  Only I couldn’t quite remember the chapter and verse, and so I had typed in a few words of the verse verbatim knowing it would bring up the location.

It did.  It also brought up some other stuff: a slew of interpretations (from the sound to the incredibly extreme to the downright bizarre and nonsensical), a lot of material and context and history provided by varying organizations, churches, and pastors (some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn’t), and a series of websites that left me wary.

And this was all on the first page of the Google search results.

I’m fortunate that, on the road to my Ph.D., I was forced to learn a lot about research: how to look things up and where, certainly, but more importantly how and why to be skeptical of information, how to evaluate it, and how to assess its accuracy.  Unfortunately, not every believer gets to take the courses that I took, and I suspect a lot of people go online, click one of the first five links produced by any particular search, and assume that it’s true.

This can be dangerous, not least because a lot of people lean on supplementary material to shape their Christian opinions, their understanding of the Bible, and their Scriptural understanding.  And so I thought it might be worthwhile to offer up this little primer: a series of very basic tips about how to evaluate and assess all that “Christian” information you might stumble across.

  1. Find the author or editor.  Who wrote or edited what you’re reading?  Was it published by a magazine, a journal, a publisher, a particular institution, or a religious group?  If the information you find seems to have no author and it just sort of exists on a website with nothing else to recommend it, it may not be trustworthy – you don’t know where it comes from.   Alternatively, if you find the name of an author, editor, publisher, institution, or religious group, look them up: what do they believe?  What do they promote?  Who are they, and what is their agenda?  Don’t assume that just because someone advertises themselves as a Christian that they really are one, or that they believe the same things that you do.
  2. Look for a date.  When was this written?  Is it recent, or not?  Sometimes very old materials might no longer be accurate or relevant.
  3. Was this vetted or edited?  Articles that go in journals, magazines, newspapers, and published books often have to be vetted or edited for accuracy.  Are you reading an article that someone has vetted or edited, or is this information that someone has randomly tossed up on the internet?
  4. What are the sources?  If an article cites sources, look them up.  What material are they using to make their argument?  Is it valid?   Be wary even of articles that use copious Scriptural support: there are a lot of ways to cherry-pick God’s word and take it out of context, and just because an author quotes a lot of Scripture that does not necessarily make their argument true or their point valid.
  5. Is there an agenda?  Over time, I’ve learned that there are certain buzzwords to watch for when it comes to trends like the prosperity gospel, New Age thought, or even particular schools of theology.  If something is raising red flags, then dig a little deeper.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing for an author to have an agenda, but it’s always better for you – the reader – to know where the author is coming from, what informs their perspective, and what they may be trying to convince you of.
  6. Beware of bad practices.  Bad information almost always has “tells.”  It has no author or deliberately obscures the identity of the author.  It makes wild claims with no real support.  It is unedited, unsourced, and often available only as-is with no way of investigating the “truths” within.  It often cherry-picks, twists, or deliberately misreads Scripture, and occasionally will outright contradict what is plainly stated in the Bible.  It often has an agenda: sometimes it is an attempt to sell you a product, and sometimes it is an attempt to sell you a worldview or a particular doctrine.
  7. Know thyself.  This is more complicated than the other tips, but one of the best ways to identify false or bad information is to know what you believe and why, and that means understanding yourself as well as Scripture.  What are your Scriptural interpretations based on?  What does your denomination believe and how does that influence your views?  What theology are you wary of, or welcoming of?

None of this is going to prevent you from encountering bad information, of course.  But I find that if I go through the practices above and ask myself some simple questions about what the author is trying to do, what informs their viewpoint, and in what ways it diverges from or is similar to mine, I can evaluate material and decide whether or not it is worth reading or if it raises red flags.  It pays to be skeptical when you’re reading supplementary material, and to spend some time thinking about it and what it’s trying to say before you buy into it hook, line, and sinker.

Regardless, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, or even in the Christian section of the bookstore.  Just because it’s there doesn’t make it true, or faultless, or always worth your time.


4 responses to “A Research Literacy Primer For Christians: Or, Why Christians Need To Be Skeptical When Looking Up Information

    • Thanks! I bet you *do* have to teach a fair share of research literacy in your course – and this sort of stuff is really helpful for everyone to know, not just scholars or students!


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