News Feeds and Itching Ears

Portrait of african businessman shouting and closing ear by his hands on white background

Portrait of african businessman shouting and closing ear by his hands on white background

In recent days there has been a fair amount of attention given to “fake news” and its distribution of the internet. Here are a few examples of the stories which have been circulating lately:

  • The FBI Agent Who Leaked Hillary’s Emails was Found Dead
  • The Pope Endorsed Donald Trump
  • You Can Vote By Text
  • Hillary Clinton is a Satanist

In addition to these stories that are 100% false, our social media news feeds are filled with stories that are (at best) misleading being designed to appeal to our confirmation bias. They might be about politics, science, celebrities, medicine, religion or countless other divisive topics. These stories get shared tens of thousands of times (sometimes millions) not because they have the ring of truth or diligent journalism, but because they scratch our itch.

There is a biblical passage (2 Timothy 4:3-4) that says, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Most often this passage is used to warn listeners to avoid people who would preach a comfortable or watered-down gospel. The minister preaching from this passage often talks about the liberal person-of-faith who has made Christianity into a feel-good religion. In a 2014 article in Charisma, Michael Brown takes this position talking about five signs of ear-tickling preachers.

  1. Ear-tickling preachers bypass self-denial and the cross.
  2. Ear-ticking preachers go light on sin.
  3. Ear-tickling preachers are loved by the world.
  4. Ear-tickling preachers tell the flesh what it wants to hear.
  5. Ear-tickling preachers get away from the Word and give way to myths.

This is a very appealing interpretation of 2 Timothy 4:3 because it draws a convenient line between good Christians (us) and bad Christians (them), and it supports an authoritarian Christian system that demands we follow certain strictures in order to remain a part of the legitimate Christian community. It says I am right, and others are wrong. It says my faith is good because it is difficult. Yours is not good enough, because you don’t work hard enough. This kind of interpretation is ammunition against people we don’t like.

Rarely do we hear 2 Timothy 4:3 interpreted in a way that forces us to challenge ourselves. Perhaps ear-tickling preachers are not the ones who would make Christianity too easy; perhaps they are the ones who would feed us affirmations while hurling poison at the people outside our group. Our ears do not itch for a faith that is easy. Our ears itch for words of praise. Our ears itch for someone to tell us we are right and the people who we don’t like are wrong.

This is why we like fake news. This is why we share fake news. It scratches our itch. It makes us feel good.

This is why we resist when another person shares evidence that we are wrong. Most of us are convinced that our worldview is correct. We are attracted to things that confirm that view, and we reject information that pushes against our view.

Decades ago, when AIDS was considered a gay plague, many people relished that idea, even though people were suffering horrible deaths. It confirmed their view that gay people were sinful and were attracting the wrath of God.

Preachers who prophesy doom and gloom are often simply scratching the itchy ears of their followers who are looking for confirmation of their view that the world is on a slippery slide toward evil.

Facebook readers who share a story about Hillary Clinton worshiping the devil are happy to share confirmation of their view that Hillary is evil.

Wandering Away to Myths

When we allow ourselves to listen to the people who simply confirm our biases, no matter how correct we think we may be, we create a mythological reality for ourselves. This the danger of ear-tickling preachers. They affirm our ideas rather than challenging us to look for a better ideas. Ear-tickling preachers allow us to ignore the truth because it does not make us feel as good as as having our worldview confirmed.

Polarized

Fake news sites, internet prophets, conspiracy theories, and apocalyptic predictions can all be ear-tickling preachers. They pat us on the back, telling us that we are right and others are wrong. Human beings crave this kind of affirmation. It means we are better than others. It also pushes us farther apart from others. It divides. It pushes us to the outer end of our perspective while pushing others to the outer limit of the opposite perspective. It does not allow room for conversation or compromise, because it make the other party into an enemy .

It is uncomfortable, but I would like to propose that we become suspicious of any news, article, teacher, or preacher that makes us feel good by affirming our view and accusing others of evil. That is not the way of God. It is the strategy of satan.

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