Bob Smietana, a religion news writer and president of the Religion Newswriters Association, has an admittedly bad habit — using his smartphone in church during sermons, much to the role-reversed embarrassment of his teenage daughter. But his intentions are good: He’s checking the preacher’s facts, statistics and history nuggets.
What he’s finding in “the Church of St. Google,” however, is not so good. He wrote about the problem of sorting truth from fiction in weekly sermons recently for FaithStreet.com. Here, he answers our questions about the reaction and more insights on that post.
What has been the response to your blog post, “You Might Want to Fact-Check Your Pastor’s Sermon” — especially from your pastor, other pastors and your daughter?
SMIETANA: The response was mostly positive. Some pastors, friends and at least one seminary professor thanked me for the blog and passed it along to their friends. I think they are aware that preachers sometimes get careless with facts. A few readers have asked for advice on how to fact-check sermons and other information sources. That’s a hopeful sign. I don’t think my pastor has seen it yet. I’m sure we’ll have an interesting chat at some point.
My daughter – who’s 16 – rolled her eyes. She’s good at keeping me honest and reminding me that there’s more to life than what is on my smart phone.
Many efforts have been made to “fact check” the Bible. Considering your ingrained reporter instincts, have you also been tempted to do that? Or is that a fraught exercise?
SMIETANA: Short of having a time machine, I’m not sure there’s a way for a journalist to “fact-check” the Bible. There’s no cellphone video of Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus walking on the water, for example. Even if we had some kind of empirical evidence about events in the Bible, people would still disagree about what happened and what it mean. That’s human nature, I suppose.
On the other hand, as a religion writer, I’m fascinated by the work of archeologists and historians who can help us understand the ancient world. That helps us understand the context for the Bible and other ancient writings.
Do you have any insight on why pastors use these “urban myths” as spiritual lessons? Are they spending too much time on Facebook?
SMIETANA: Look – pastors are human beings. They want to find stories and statistics that reinforce their view of the world. In some ways they are like op-ed writers. They’ve got a point to make and are always on the look out for stories and statistics to reinforce their message. They also understand the emotional power of storytelling, which is something we reporters forget. A good story can change the world. A list of facts lacks that kind of “wonder working power.”
The downside is that they are vulnerable to confirmation bias. If something sounds true, they’re more likely to believe it, because it fits their view of the world.
Fables about Winston Churchill are one thing. What about incorrect information about government and politics delivered from the pulpit?
SMIETANA: I think it’s a problem in American culture in general, not just in pulpits. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a great piece on the “toxic tidal wave” of bad facts and misleading information in political campaigns. Things have only gotten worse since then.
Google is fallible, just like pastors and all the rest of us. As a journalist, do you have any good tips or favorite online sources for those who wish to check their pastors’ sermons?
SMIETANA: I think we need more curiosity and more skepticism. Here’s the question that more of us need to ask, when we hear something on the Internet or from the pulpit: “How do you know that?” That’s a good starting point. If someone quotes a statistic, ask where it came from, and then use Google to track down the original study. If you’re ambitious, email the researchers and ask them if the statistics is true. They’re usually more than willing to help.
If someone quotes from a newspaper or magazine, go back and look at the original story. That’s actually pretty easy to do. Most public libraries have online subscriptions to newspapers and other journal that are free to subscribers.
Snopes.com is great as well–they’ve usually done all the homework of tracking down urban legends.