Americans don’t trust the media. According to a Gallup story released in October 2022, American confidence in mass media remains near historically low. The story did document some noteworthy variances. Democrats trust the media more than Republicans, the college-educated have more trust than those who did not finish college, and younger Americans were far less confident in the media than their older peers. Still, the overall picture is bleak. According to Gallup,
Americans’ confidence in the media has been anemic for nearly two decades, and Gallup’s latest findings further document that distrust. The current level of public trust in the media’s full, fair and accurate reporting of the news is the second lowest on record. This new confidence reading follows Gallup’s historically low confidence in both TV news and newspapers in June and a new low in December’s annual rating of the honesty and ethics of television reporters. Newspaper reporters received similarly low ratings in the same poll.
Bonnie Kristian is well aware of this absence of trust. As a journalist, it frustrates her. As a Christian, she laments this cultural turn. In her new book Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (Brazos, 2022), Kristian frames the situation as arguably “the most pressing and unprecedented challenge of discipleship in the American church” (p. 1). While she is especially sensitive to the situation because of her vocation, I don’t think she is exaggerating. I’m not a journalist, but I’ve seen the damage the knowledge crisis has done to friendships, families, and even local churches.
The language of “knowledge crisis” is important because Kristian argues persuasively that the root problem in our culture is epistemological. Simply put, we aren’t sure whom we can trust. She spends much of the book cataloging various phenomena that contribute to the knowledge crisis, including fake news, cancel culture, mistrust of experts, and elevating the role of emotions and experience in our understanding. Each of these phenomena are aggravated to varying degrees by a combination of craven individuals, corrupt movements, problematic worldview assumptions, and predatory algorithms. In defining and assessing these trends, she draws upon insights from Scripture and the Christian tradition, as well as the fields of communication, social psychology, and philosophy. She shows that the deck is stacked against the virtuous pursuit of knowledge and the confidence that often follows.
Kristian is an equal opportunity critic, pushing back against both the conspiratorial hucksters among conservatives and the dishonest opportunists among progressives. Some readers may wish she was more partisan, but that is not her aim. Kristian isn’t interested in carrying the water for any particular faction in our culture wars. Her concern is for Christians to cultivate epistemic virtue, to have meaningful conversations rooted in authentic relationships rather than rancorous arguments, and to exercise greater discernment when consuming media. Also, Kristian wants Christians to watch far less cable news and spend significantly less time on social media.
Untrustworthy makes a compelling case that Christians should play a key role in the path forward out of the knowledge crisis, for the health of the church and the flourishing of American society. Not content to merely be a critic, she offers sound advice throughout. My copy of the book is filled with underlined phrases and notes in the margins.
Pastors seeking to navigate our present knowledge crisis faithfully will find Untrustworthy a helpful resource. The book will help many of them better diagnose the disease behind some of the symptoms manifesting within their congregations. This book would also be an excellent supplemental text for courses in journalism or the relationship between faith and culture, particularly at evangelical colleges and universities.
Also, Kristian engages with a lot of helpful books in her own volume. I want to close by recommending one in particular as a good complement to her work, especially for pastors and other ministry leaders: Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (IVP Academic, 2021).
Nathan Finn, Provost and Dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University, is a historical and systematic theologian who writes and speaks widely on Baptist history and thought, leadership, and Christian higher education. He serves as a Research Fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He frequently preaches and teaches for local churches, ministry leadership conferences, Bible conferences, and other similar events.