WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with writer, Brett McCracken.
Brett McCracken has emerged as an important voice in evangelical Christianity, especially among a younger generation that is culturally savvy, but which also embraces historic Christianity. McCracken’s 2010 book Hipster Christianity put him on the evangelical map, so to speak, with his smart and readable assessment of what happens when – as the book’s subtitle says, Church and Cool Collide.
Other well received books followed, including his 2017 book Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, a book that earned him his first visit to Listening In.
Brett McCracken is back with a new book. It’s called The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World. That’s the book we’ll be discussing today.
Brett McCracken is a senior editor at The Gospel Coalition. In addition to writing books, Brett has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and CNN.com, among many other publications. He also speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches and conferences.
Brett McCracken, welcome back to the program. It’s great to have you on again. You were on the program a few years ago when your book Uncomfortable came out. So, I’m delighted to have you to talk about your new book, The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World. And, Brett, I’ve got to ask you even before we get started, who’s Jeff McCracken?
BRETT MCCRACKEN, GUEST: Who is Jeff McCracken, well, thank you Warren, for having me back. It’s always great to chat with you. Jeff is my dad. Jeff McCracken is my father. So, I dedicate the book to him.
SMITH: Yeah, you did dedicate the book to him. He was the guy that kind of turned you onto some of the ideas that you unpack in this book, sounds like.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. You know, I think wisdom is in large part something that we learned by models of it in our lives. Right? I mean, so much of learning is that way, just by imitation. And I think maybe it’s especially true of wisdom. It’s something that you just pick up by looking at wise people and surrounding yourself with wise people. And it’s just always a blessing when God puts those people in your path. And I’m so fortunate to have grown up with a dad who was just very godly and very wise and lived the wisdom pyramid. So, each of the categories of the wisdom pyramid I think he valued. And I’ve kind of learned to value by virtue of being his son.
SMITH: Well, since the name of the book is The Wisdom Pyramid, and since you’ve already introduced the idea in the conversation here, tell us what the wisdom pyramid is and how you came up with it.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah, so it originated as a visual aid for a conference presentation that I was giving back in 2017. And I was asked to speak on kind of the fake news, like post-truth landscape that we’re living in and how do we find joy as Christians? How do we find wisdom? And so I thought about the food pyramid from my childhood and how that was such a helpful rubric, kind of visual aid for guiding us to healthy sources of food groups for a diet that would make us physically healthy. And so I thought, what if I played off of that to create like a wisdom pyramid that functioned in the same way, by pointing people to sources—in this case—sources of information or knowledge that are conducive to a healthy spiritual life. So I basically scratched it out on a napkin and kind of how I would create a wisdom pyramid if I were to do that. And I had a designer friend of mine, graphic designer make it look nice. And so, yeah, I used it as a visual aid for this conference presentation, and people really responded to it and kind of went viral on social media, ironically, given that social media is the fats, oils, and sweets category of the wisdom pyramid. So that’s where it started.
SMITH: Well, we’re going to talk a little bit more about the—if I can put it this way, Brett, to kind of traffic on your metaphor—the various food groups that we as Christians need to be consuming. But before we get to the solution to the healthy diet, let’s look a little bit at the unhealthy diet that has gotten us to the place that we are. You say, basically that today we eat too much, we eat too fast, and we eat only what tastes good to us. You call that information gluttony, kind of the three of those combined is information gluttony. Can you say a little bit more about this idea of information gluttony and how eating too much too fast and only what we like is a problem?
MCCRACKEN: Yeah, I mean, I was helped throughout this book as I wrote it with just thinking through this parallel to eating food and our physical health and different ways that bad eating habits make us sick. And I think there’s actually some pretty close parallels to bad habits of information intake that also make us sick in similar ways to eating habits. So the gluttony piece is, you know, obviously when you eat too much food, when you’re a glutton with food, you’re going to get sick. It’s going to be bad for your health. And the same is true with information. And we live in an age of just an insane amount of information. It’s really mind boggling how much information is at our fingertips, literally. You pull out your smartphone and you have access to the entire accumulated knowledge of human civilization, basically.
And while that may seem like it would be helpful for our wisdom, I don’t think that it actually has been. And I think most of us would probably say that as there has been more and more information at our fingertips, we’ve actually as a society by enlarge become less wise. And why is that? Well, I think there’s a few things about the too much information problem that work against our wisdom. One of the things I talk about in the book is just like a physical burden on our brains. And there’s neuroscience that’s showing kind of that this is happening in the digital age. Our brains are bombarded with so much stimulation, so many ideas and tweets and facts coming out our brains at any given hour of any given day. And our brains are so taxed by that they’re depleted of the nutrition, literally like the glucose, the energy that they need to do the deeper reflective work of synthesis and thinking critically kind of those faculties of the brain that we need in order to be wise. We don’t have them as effectively in the digital age, because our brains are just too spent. They’re too exhausted by the triage that they have to play every given moment. So that’s one aspect of the “too much” problem.
Another aspect that I talk about is that in a world of infinite information and an infinite space where any idea, any kind of niche community, any conspiracy theory, can kind of thrive and flourish and create a little bubble. That works against truth because suddenly nothing is shared. There’s no consensus because all you have to do is Google what you want to believe and there’s like a hundred results on Google that backup what you want to believe. In a space of infinite information, you can easily start to build your own reality. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in our culture, where people are living in these really intense bubbles that are totally different from each other. And we’re losing any shared sense of truth or that that is even a possibility that there could be one reality and one truth that is out there. And so that’s kind of what’s creating this cultural sickness, this epistemological instability.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, Brett, you used a couple of words whenever you were discussing too much information that really resonated with me and seems to be a summary of what you’re talking about. You talk about the issue of discoverability. In other words, when you’ve got all this information, discovering the right information, what is true? What is wise becomes much, much more difficult. And the second word—if discoverability is that first word—the second one is credibility. And you’ve already kind of alluded to that, just the process that we have to go through whenever we have multiple choices of deciding which one is true and which one is not true. Who can we trust? Who can we not trust? What can we believe? What can we not believe? And I think as a consequence of that, even though eating food too fast and eating stuff that’s not good for us are also big problems. And we’ll talk about those a little bit, but you kind of suggest that this too much information problem is maybe the biggest of the three.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah, I think so. And it’s hard to know how it’s going to get any better, right? Like if you read the book in the chapter on information and gluttony, I talk about the size of the information that’s on the internet currently, which is it’s already mind boggling, but in five years they estimate that it’s going to be exponentially bigger. And I forget what I say in terms of the amount, but it’s mind-boggling. And so we have to figure out how do we navigate this? How do we find truth in the glut? How do we discern? How do we filter? Because if we don’t, it’s only going to get more chaotic and we’re going to lose any sort of solid ground even more than we already have. So, that’s why I think this is an urgent topic for everyone, but for Christians especially because we should be the most invested in the idea of truth as something that’s discoverable and find-able. And in a world that’s post-truth—that’s already a phrase that we use in our culture that we live in a post-truth world—that’s problematic. And that’s concerning for people who believe that truth exists. And it’s the truth that sets us free, ultimately.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, Brett, you say that the antidote to that problem of too much information is discernment. And discernment though, it really requires and suggests this idea of reflection, of looking at two possible options, those two ideas that are vying to be true and discerning which one actually is true and which is not. And then that takes us in some ways though, to the next problem, which is information is coming at us so fast. That when information is coming at us so fast, we don’t have the time to exercise that discernment. And so that “eat too much” and “eat too fast,” in some ways they’re kind of related. Ideas come at us so quickly that we don’t have time to determine which ones are true and which ones are not. So we might inadvertently start believing ideas that are false. Is that a fair assessment?
MCCRACKEN: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And one of the themes that I return to again and again in the book is the relationship that wisdom has with time. In order to become wise, it’s not going to happen overnight, right? It’s a process. It’s a time involved process. And that is the same for being able to kind of vet information and discern what is true and false. We can’t do that in an instant. We have to take time to kind of investigate claims and research the credibility of the source. And yet the speed of the internet age is so fast and we’re all constantly beckoned to sound off instantly. Whatever your instant reaction is to what you see on social media, you’re invited and encouraged to share immediately. And that gets us into all sorts of problems, as many of us have experienced the hard way in terms of our own social media habits. So yeah, I think in general, a slower pace is so essential for us if we’re going to be wise in this fast paced digital world.
SMITH: Welcome back to the program. You’re listening in on my interview with Brett McCracken. Brett’s written for the Princeton Theological Review, Books and Culture, Christianity Today, Image Journal, and other publications. Let’s get right back to our conversation.
Well, Brett, since you introduced the notion of time, I want to explore a couple of concepts related to that. Because information is coming at us so fast, and that as Christians we need to have patience as an antidote to that, and just take time and to slow down, you introduced some ideas that I want you to say more about. One of them is that because information is coming at us so fast that we have developed what you call the harbor of the same old thing, that we’re constantly looking for the new thing. Say a little bit more about that.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. That’s a phrase from C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters. And one of the ways that the devil kind of preys on human fallenness is we’re—I think by nature of our fallenness we’re prone to get bored easily, and we want to move on to something new. And it’s the sin of Adam and Eve. They were so antsy. They were so fidgety. They weren’t satisfied, right? It boils down to discontentment. And consumerism also plays into this human weakness for novelty and getting bored easily and wanting a new experience, a new product, a new piece of entertainment constantly because we’re so discontented. So, I think that the speed of the internet age today, it feeds on that existing human tendency towards novelty and there’s a lot of money to be made. That’s one of the dynamics that we have to notice and pay attention to. Silicon Valley is built on this idea that people want new things to amuse them and to divert their attention and to kind of distract them. And the speed of things in the digital age allows for that. So you can literally move someone along via the algorithms and via different streaming sites from one thing to the next. And literally that’s what it says on Netflix. When you finish watching one show, it says, watch this next. Before the credits even roll, it’s trying to get you to watch something else. And that’s how social media feeds work, right? You click on one thing and then your feed produces something else that is vying for your attention. And all of this makes money for someone in Silicon Valley because it’s keeping our eyes on their platforms, but it plays into our human tendency towards novelty, but none of this is a good thing for our wisdom.
SMITH: Well, one of the ways it’s a bad thing, one of the reasons it’s a bad thing is because, as you say, in your book, it causes skimming to become the default way that we see the world. And the way we read. The idea that we might deeply engage an idea, that we might pause on that idea, and really consider what the implications of that idea are, first of all, we’re not encouraged to do that by social media. And secondly, even if we have the temerity or the courage or whatever you want to call it to buck that trend, in some cases, we may actually be losing the skill, the ability to do that, even if we want to. Is that a fair assessment?
MCCRACKEN: Yeah, I think it’s absolutely true on both counts. There’s interesting science that has come out in recent years that has shown how the kind of digital age and the internet interface has changed—it’s rewired our brains and the way that we process information. So the dominant mode on our smartphones or on our computer screen is to kind of skim from app to app, from tab to tab. And we read articles by kind of looking at the headline and skimming. And so naturally when you do enough of that, your brain starts to be rewired in that direction. And so we’re literally losing the ability to do deep, long, reflective reading, which is a troubling thing. Because, you’re right, I think to be wise, you have to be able to create space to go deeper and not just wider in terms of the sheer volume of shallow engagement you can have with the multitude of information, but we have to be able to go deeper and to create space for that. And it’s harder and harder to do that. Both because the landscape of the media is not built for that, but also our brains are slowly being rewired to not be able to do that.
SMITH: Brett, I really do want to get to some of the solutions that you propose in the book pretty quickly. But I want to linger just a couple of minutes longer on some of the symptoms and effects, I guess you could say, of the current technological and information environment that we’re in. You mention a number of symptoms of our sin, of our sickness that I don’t think we need to linger on too much. I think we probably all kind of know intuitively that it’s creating anxiety, stress, disorientation, impotence, which is a failure to act. The impotence that you described in the book it’s like hesitation. I don’t know which is true, which is false, which way I should go, which direction I should go. And it kind of turns us into a nation of spectators. Can you say a little bit more about this idea of impotence?
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting one and it’s a newer phenomenon in human history in terms of the amount of information that we know about what’s happening in the world is so disproportionate to the amount of actionable information that we can actually do something about. So, I referenced Neil Postman who is kind of a seminal figure, very much a prophet. He predicted a lot of what we’re experiencing today when he was writing his books, like Amusing Ourselves to Death back in the eighties. But one of the things Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death is that there’s this information-action ratio. And for most of human history, it was a pretty even ratio. You only knew about things that were happening kind of in your 15 mile radius of your town. It was a pretty limited scope in terms of what your brain was confronted with in terms of information. And so you could act. These were tangible realities around you, that you could actually like do something about. But as new technologies were introduced and he kind of pinpoints the telegraph as the technology that really kind of changed things, suddenly we were bombarded with a whole lot of information from all over the place from literally the other side of the world that we couldn’t do anything about. And if that was true, when the telegraph was invented, it’s even more true now with the internet, right? Like all day, every day, you can spend your time being aware of so many problems, injustices, calamities, headlines from all over the world. And yet very little of it can you do anything about, aside from being a spectator to it, aside from a vague sense of awareness. And so, yeah, I think that’s part of why we’re so angsty. There’s so much anger online and on social media. A big part of it comes from this impotence. We feel in a rage, rightfully so, by all the terrible things that we’re seeing in our feeds, but we can’t do anything about it aside from sharing a hashtag and solidarity, you know, and that’s the extent of it. So it’s a problem for sure.
SMITH: Well, it seems to me, Brett, that it’s even more insidious than simply not being able to do anything about it, that we have in effect, been trained not to do anything about it. We have been trained that information is of no consequence to our actions. That all this information is coming at us that we can’t do anything about, therefore, whenever there’s information that coming at us, that we actually maybe could do something about it that we could act in a meaningful and a positive way, we’re just like, well, no, that’s not what you’re supposed to do with information.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. It reminds me of the term “infotainment,” which I think is a really apt kind of word to summarize our cultural moment. Information really has become entertainment in the sense of exactly what we’re talking about. We’re passive consumers of it, we’re spectators to it, but it’s divorced from real world tangible participation and action. And that’s problematic for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones that I’ve been thinking about is how—and I see this in my own life, I’ve seen it in people in my church and their lives—but when we spend so much of our mind and our hearts energies in kind of this digital space where we’re aware of everything that’s happening in Washington D.C. at any given moment or in some part of the world where something crazy is happening, we end up not having much energy or desire to be really aware of what’s happening in our own backyard. And so I think if you asked any given Millennial or Gen Z, name five figures in national politics. They’ll be able to name some because that’s what’s in their social media feed. But if you ask them to name five city council members, or even who’s the mayor of your city, they’re not going to be able to know because their minds and their hearts have been taken into this ethereal space of what’s happening out there far away, what’s trending on social media, and that’s commandeered their attention. So there’s, there’s no space left for their attention to go towards what’s right in front of them.
SMITH: Well, and that’s sort of a tragic irony because for most of us, I mean, this might not be true for all of us, but for the vast majority of us, our ability to influence what happens in Washington D.C. is very, very limited. Our ability to influence what happens in our local town or on our school board or city council still might not be great, but it’s greater. There’s a better chance than that we could have had influence here. And so we’re in some ways that the language that I sometimes use is that as Christians in particular, but I think as citizens generally, we’ve been faked out of position in a very meaningful sense. Is that a fair assessment of where we are?
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. I think it is a fair assessment and it’s tragic because I think if you unleashed every Christian and every church to be as effective as they possibly could be in their local context, man, there’s a lot of good that could happen on the local level. And there is a lot of good happening. There’s plenty of churches that are invested locally. But I feel like there’s a lot of Christians who are so spent at the end of the day because they’re so involved, “involved” in what’s happening nationally or internationally on the news that they’re not doing as much as they could be locally. But that’s, like you said, that’s where the most potential for change and true, effective participation can happen. So, I think you’re like this too, Warren, both of us are Wendell Berry fans. I think localism is so needed in a world that pulls us into the ethereal space of kind of everywhere. Nothing against globalism and being kind of internationally connected and nationally aware, but localism is just where change happens. It’s where God places us. We are embodied creatures meant to do life in embodied ways in real places. And yet we spend so much of our lives in disembodied digital spaces, which just aren’t real in the same way that your town in your local context is
SMITH: I’m Warren Smith. Welcome back to the program. You’re listening in on my recent conversation with Brett McCracken. Brett McCracken is a graduate of Wheaton College, and he’s got a master’s degree in cinema and media studies from UCLA. Brett served as the managing editor for Biola University’s Biola Magazine before becoming senior editor at The Gospel Coalition website.
That gives me an opportunity bred to pivot in our conversation. Let’s talk about solutions. And I don’t want to process the entire book here—the last two thirds of your book, as a matter of fact. You talk about sources of wisdom—the Bible, the church, nature, books, and beauty. And so let’s just stipulate for the record that if you want to unpack these ideas, you need to go read Brett’s book, The Wisdom Pyramid. But I do want to maybe talk about an article that you recently wrote for The Gospel Coalition, which is kind of your day job, that I think maybe would be a way for us to kind of land this airplane, so to speak and wrap into a bow some of the ideas we’ve talked about. You identify four, I guess you could say, habits of the heart and mind that we as Christians need to be engaged in that will help us come out of the pathologies, the sickness that we’ve been talking about for most of our time so far. The first one you just alluded to, which is why I wanted to go ahead and pivot that way. And that is this idea of “near over far.” Say a little more about that.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. I mean, not to be too redundant with what I was just talking about, but it’s just the idea that we are more capable of truly knowing something that we can see with our own eyes and touch with our own hands. And just the things right in front of us have a better chance of being carriers of truth that we can actually trust. Not to say that we can’t learn and glean truth from something we find on Twitter or a podcast from someone on the other side of the world. That’s definitely possible. But I think as a general kind of guide for what to prioritize and what to kind of trust, I think that the tangible, the local, the closer to home, the people in your immediate community, trust them more than you trust the random person on Twitter that you’ve never met and who doesn’t know you from Adam. You’re gonna be able to get better in a real embodied community where, yeah, you, people know you, you know them, you can trust them. So proximity matters, I think, in wisdom.
SMITH: So near over far. And the second one is time tested versus ephemeral.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. This goes back to the time idea that I was talking about earlier. I think time has just such a great filter, in terms of the test of time. We can more or less trust that a book that was published 400 years ago that is still on the bestseller list and people are still gaining a lot from it, that’s going to be a solid source of truth. It’s passed the test of time. For generations it’s been helpful. But the trending kind of article, the hot take from yesterday that is some commentators’ instant reaction to something happening in the news, not to say that can’t ever be a source of truth, but given a choice between something that is passed the test of time and something that’s just an unvetted, untested instant reaction, which is so much of what the internet is, is kind of the fuel, that’s the fuel of the internet is the kind of hot take instant reaction. Sadly, I don’t think those are as trustworthy generally as things that are older. So, I tend to prefer the cold take, myself, over the hot take.
SMITH: When I was in graduate school, Brett, my major professor, the fellow that directed my master’s thesis was a guy named Merry Montgomery. And he used to say that great books are being written today, we just don’t know what they will be for another 50 years. And I think that there’s a lot of truth to that. It’s not to say that old is always good or that new is always bad. It’s just that when something does stand the test of time, when it’s helpful not just in the moment, but for generations, I think that that really does make a difference. So, I really appreciated that time-tested versus ephemeral. The third item that you have in your Gospel Coalition article is communal over the autonomous.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. This one is related to the third source of our sickness that I talk about in the first part of the book, the you can kind of look within yourself, the autonomy tendency of our culture. And of course technology and the algorithms are amplifying that because it’s making it possible for us to basically build our own digital reality around our own kind of personal preferences and tastes, and we can silence and mute any voice that disagrees with us. And so this idea that we are the standard of truth and that all we have to do is kind of follow our heart and we’ll find our way to truth. It’s so pervasive in our culture and technology is just, you know, perpetuating it even more. But I think that throughout time, humans are wiser when they lean into community and when they don’t just kind of look within themselves, right? Proverbs makes this clear when it says, “Lean not on your own understanding.” “Be not wise in your own eyes.” There’s a sense to which we need to be humble and our default should be that I’m wrong. And I am naturally wrong. The heart is deceitful above all things, right? So we need the accountability of community. We need others to be able to speak into our lives and point out blind spots. And that’s why church community occupies the second most important level in my wisdom pyramid, because it’s the communal part of wisdom, right? We don’t just take the Bible and read it as an individual where we kind of make it say whatever we want it to say. God has given us this gift of church community to help kind of better be in a position to grasp the truth that he reveals to us in scripture. And through other places by common grace. We’re better able to discern truth in community than we are as individuals is what it boils down to.
SMITH: Yeah. And the fourth and final habit of the heart that we should cultivate is holistic wisdom over knowledge. Wisdom is greater than knowledge.
MCCRACKEN: Yeah. Yeah. It’s not the same thing. It’s not just about how many degrees you have, how many facts you’ve accumulated in your brain over the years. Wisdom involves the emotions. It involves our loves. That’s something I talk about in the book. Christian wisdom is as much about worship as it is about anything. The wisest people, I think, in the world are the ones whose loves are most attuned to God and whose hearts are more magnetically drawn to God’s presence. So wisdom works on the cerebral and the kind of heart level. And we have to view it in that holistic sense. So when you’re evaluating who to listen to in terms of people whose voices are coming at you with different claims of truth, I think this can be a helpful barometer for the wisdom of these sources. Look at their lives. Do their lives manifest this kind of love of God on the heart level? Or do they just know a lot about God? Are they brilliant theologically, but they’re not really bearing the fruit of the spirit? And I think sadly, there’s a lot of people in that category who kind of have a lot of facts and a lot of information, and maybe they’re brilliant communicators, but I wouldn’t trust them necessarily over the slightly less educated 75 year old pastor who just loves the Lord and loves the presence of God. And you can see it in their countenance and you can see it in the way they live their lives. That’s the wise person that I want to listen to because I think that what they have to offer ultimately is probably more nutritious than the brilliantly packaged knowledge that the other person could give.
SMITH: Well, Brett, well said. Listen, I just got to tell you, I’m a big fan of this book already. The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World. Any book that combines Neil Postman, Wendell Berry and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, not to mention a few good movie references, as well, is a book that I’m a fan of. So, listen, thanks so much for coming on the program and thanks for this book. I pray that it has good success.
MCCRACKEN: Thanks so much, Warren.