Every once and a while I read a book that provides one of those genuine (and rare) light bulb moments. It’s not so much that the book changes the way you think about the world, but rather it explains why the world works the way it does. And in our ever-more-confusing world, that can be a game-changer.
One such book is Tom Nichol’s, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Oxford, 2018).
Everyone’s An Expert
In this intriguing volume, Nichols catalogs how technological changes have provided the average person with unprecedented access to information. Through the internet, blogs, and the 24-hour news cycle, we can learn about a variety of complex issues in a very short span of time.
Now, in many ways, this is a positive development. With a quick Google search, we can discover everything from how to tie a bow tie to the history of apartheid in South Africa, and everything in between.
However, as with other forms of technology, there are also substantial downsides. Such unprecedented access to information, argues Nichols, has created a culture where people can begin to think they are an expert on everything. They think they can diagnose their own health problems by poking around WebMD, or that they can pick stocks as well as the Wall Street gurus by just tuning into CNBC.
Consequently, the claims of the average citizens are now seen as equally valid as the claims of genuine experts. The internet has “democratized” knowledge, so that every opinion out there is just as valid as every other.
Unfortunately, argues Nichols, this sort of internet education has not created a healthier, more well-rounded society. Instead, it has created a culture of angry, entitled people who are skeptical of all truth claims, all authorities, and think they always know best.
Now, there’s much more that could be said about Nichol’s book, but I want to relate his findings to pastoral ministry today. How would his book help those who are in pastoral ministry? I think it should provide both an encouragement, and a challenge.
An Encouragement to Pastors
As an encouragement, this book reminds us that the church, like other institutions, also needs real experts. Leaders with deep theological training—the kind of training that could rightly make one an “expert” of sorts in the biblical text—are critical for the health of the church.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the average parishioner always realizes such a need. Given the theme of Nichols’ book, many Christians today might think they are an expert theologian simply because they read a couple of books from R.C. Sproul and keep up with their favorite podcasts. Who needs a trained pastor when a quick Google search can reveal the “right” theological views?
But, reading a few books is not the same thing as having a robust seminary education. Despite this culture of skepticism, pastors should be encouraged to press on. Their training and their experience really is needed, even when people don’t recognize it.
A Challenge to Pastors
But Nichols book can also provide an important challenge to pastors. Pastors too need to realize they are not experts in everything. Yes, they have been trained in theology, bible, church history, etc. But that does not make a pastor an expert on immigration policy, epidemiology, or tax reform.
This is a critical point because it seems that some pastors want to be an expert in everything. In recent years, more and more pastors operate like professional pundits, offering regular commentary—through blogs or social media—on every socio-cultural issue that passes through the news cycle.
Part of this expectation is driven, I think, by a misunderstanding of biblical authority. Since the pastor is trained in the Bible, and the Bible is the highest authority, then some have mistakenly concluded that whoever is trained in the Bible must have all the answers.
But being an expert in the Bible does not make one an expert on everything. Yes, the biblical worldview is the foundation for all knowledge. But that is not the same thing as saying you can read the Bible and learn quantum mechanics or what we should pay school teachers.
When pastors become professional pundits, two things tend to happen—and neither are good. First, some parishioners will think that their pastor’s view must be the only right view of that particular hot topic. Most people give a lot of weight to their pastor’s words, even when he’s not an expert on the subject at hand. They just might start thinking that their pastor’s view must be God’s view.
But there’s a second (and opposite) danger. Some parishioners may be profoundly bothered by their pastor’s persistent commentary. Maybe they disagree with their pastor’s view on the hot topic of the day. And when a pastor is always making his views of such things known, then it can be a hindrance to his preaching. It may be harder for a church member to listen to a pastor on Sundays when the rest of the week they find themselves disagreeing over socio-cultural issues.
In short, it is not always helpful for the congregation to know a pastor’s view on everything.
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
Years ago, Mark Noll wrote the now-famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, where he traced certain anti-intellectual trends in evangelicalism. Rather than well-balanced, intellectual rigor, evangelicals too often settle for trite, surface-level analysis of the issues of the day.
Nichol’s volume has shown that social media has not helped evangelicals solve their anti-intellectual tendencies. On the contrary, it has simply allowed for more surface-level analysis rather than deep intellectual engagement.
Here’s the point: if the church wants to pursue an intellectually rigorous Christian faith, it will not be achieved by insisting we know everything about everything. Instead, intellectual rigor begins with intellectual humility. It’s understanding where we are experts, and where we are not.
Perhaps the first step to really knowing something is knowing what you don’t know.