Learn to Discern

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Sports Illustrated is a magazine that is famous for breaking big stories.
One of the biggest was a feature that rocked SI’s pages early in April 1985.
George Plimpton introduced the world to the most exciting baseball prospect in a generation.  He was Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, a young man who could throw a fastball an astonishing 168 mph. To provide a bit of perspective, the fastest pitch ever recorded in a baseball game is just a tick over 105 mph. 
Plimpton’s article sizzled with fascinating details.  Finch had grown up in an English orphanage, been adopted by an archeologist, and spent years in Tibet, where he had learned “yogic mastery of mind-body.”  He wore only one shoe when he pitched, and that was a hiking boot on his right foot.  Somehow a scout for the New York Mets stumbled upon this young man, and now the long-suffering Mets were about to unleash the greatest fireballer of all time upon Major League Baseball.  The article included a picture of Finch standing alongside smiling Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyer.
The rookie, however, who was desperately shy, was hesitant.  He was torn between playing baseball and playing the French horn.  Would he actually appear on the mound on Opening Day 1985? 
The response to the article was extraordinary.  Delirious Mets fans believed they had won the Lottery.  Reporters from every major TV network and sports journal raced to New York to catch a glimpse of Finch.  It seemed too amazing to be true.
That’s because it was too amazing to be true.
Only a few readers had noticed the subhead of Plimpton’s article: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse.  Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd’s deciding about yoga – and his future in baseball.”  What do you get if you put all the first letters together?  “Happy April Fools’ Day – a(h) fib.”  That edition of Sports Illustrated just happened to be dated – you guessed it – April 1. 
George Plimpton had produced the greatest nugget of fake news in the history of sports, and millions of people were taken in.  I was one of them. 
As a rule, most of us are cautious on April 1 about stories that seem wild, improbable, or too good to be true.  If only we were just as vigilant every other day of the year.
Tara Susman-Pena, a digital media expert with IREX’s Center for Applied Learning, reminds us that we need to “learn to discern.”  This century’s social media explosion, coupled with the decline of traditional information sources like newspapers, has left most of wondering what to believe and who we can trust. 
It’s amazingly easy to be manipulated by linguistic tricks. 
Just this week I was drawn to an eye-catching headline: “NASA Calculates that Major Asteroid Could Strike the Earth.”  Well, that could possibly affect the way I choose to spend the rest of my day.  Before I even had time to wonder if NASA still has Bruce Willis on speed-dial, however, I had read far enough to learn that astronomers believe there is a small chance (they used the word “miniscule”) that a particular asteroid might pass near the Earth 159 years from now.  False alarm.
Then there’s, “Man Approaches Yellowstone Geyser, You Won’t Believe What Happens Next.”  Would you be tempted to click on that link?  Or how about headlines like, “Five Secrets to True Happiness,” “Only People with a High IQ Can Solve This Puzzle,” or any story that begins with the words, “The Shocking Reason Why…” 
Such teasers are called “click bait.”  More clicks generate more ad revenues.  So the managers of those sites will do anything they can to appeal to your hope, fear, vanity, or perhaps your morbid curiosity about such things as “the horrifying video that shows lightning disrupting a family picnic.” 
Susman-Pena points out that even supposedly reliable sources frequently write headlines that provoke us, move us, amaze us, or simply shut down our brains for a few moments instead of inspiring lucid thought.
The great danger is that we end up paying attention to things that don’t deserve our attention, and fail to pay attention to things that do.  Worse yet, we may lose our ability tell the difference.
In our current context – a world inundated by unending information and opinion – we can’t afford to be gullible.  We simply cannot take at face value everything we see and hear.  The need of the hour is a healthy skepticism.  We must “learn to discern.”  But that doesn’t mean cynicism.  The cynic is convinced that there’s no way to tell good news from bad news from fake news, and it doesn’t matter anyways.
But it does matter.  Everyone agrees that truth is in short supply in the public square.  And that threatens the possibility of collective action, which is key to helping people on the margins and sustaining democracy itself.
The consequences may not be severe if we’re taken in by the fable of Sidd Finch, or if we momentarily get excited about someone’s claim that scientists have created a pill from brussels sprouts that can cure cancer.
But we cannot afford to be wrong about truth claims concerning the meaning of life.  Our lives almost literally hang in the balance.
We know that spiritual truth matters.  But how can we learn to discern what is truly true?
Followers of Jesus have always founded their confidence on the Word – 66 accounts in the Old and New Testaments of what ordinary people have seen and heard from God, and what they have experienced in their own efforts – often faltering – to be his representatives on earth.  Those narratives, prophecies, and words of wisdom have always been received as authoritative.  To put it simply, they are considered true.
But what’s missing for so many of us is a personal experience of that truth.  It’s one thing to read a dozen glowing reviews of a new restaurant.  It’s quite another thing to go there and order dinner for ourselves. 
Jesus not only claimed to be the living embodiment of Truth (John 14:6) but categorically stated that people who come to him earnestly seeking what is true will not be disappointed: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). 
In other words, Jesus says that when we cry out into the void, there is Someone there who will answer. 
There’s only one way to find out if that’s really so.    
We may fear that, once again, we’re just being fooled.
But on the other hand, we don’t want to end up being the biggest fools in the world because we didn’t find out for ourselves.