I’d been watching an episode of Explained almost every day, but in that moment, the magic was lost. In every 16-18 minute episode, the show promises to give a quick but comprehensive explanation of a topic. It may be one getting frequent media coverage but that most people don’t know much backstory on. I wasn’t taking everything they said as total truth, but I was accepting of their general claims. And thought I had every reason to believe that they would provide generally balanced scholarship on any of the meatier topics they addressed.
When we continue feeding our desire for easy answers, we lose the ability to approach complexity with the appropriate tools.
But their episode titled “Monogamy” woke me up to my uncritical viewing habits. In an episode that repeatedly asked the (loaded and leading) question: “Why are humans so invested in monogamy when it doesn’t work?” there had been no mention of religious faith. Not even a slight nod was given to centuries of Christian teaching on sexual ethics in an episode that seemed genuinely interested in exploring why people believe (regardless of the validity of this belief) that monogamy is good or moral. Beyond that question, the episode relied heavily on a single source who used questionable science to defend the idea that humans are biologically hardwired against monogamy. It was a weird episode.
Explained is one of many manifestations of an approach or philosophy that Vox pioneered: “explainer journalism.” While print newspapers and magazines haven’t traditionally had the room for thorough explanations of the background or context of the stories they report, the internet provides that opportunity. In Vox’s own words, “We live in a world of too much information and too little context. Too much noise and too little insight. And so Vox‘s journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters.”
It’s easy to see why “explainer journalism” has such appeal. Not only do we often need background information about developing news stories, but in a world where the very concept of “truth” seems to be crumbling, there’s also something calming about a source that will give a straightforward and simple explanation. That’s also where the danger lies: the very concept of “explainer” implies a level of objectivity that can inspire intellectual laziness.
I watch and read most news with the knowledge that facts can be presented differently based on perspective, ideology, or purpose. And yet I was shocked when an Explained episode immediately registered as completely off-base. I realized that more than anything else, I wanted the episodes to be objective and completely truthful, but I was also drawn to them precisely because they presented a specific perspective. I wasn’t looking for simple facts, but a coherent and complete story, a picture of what was “really going on.” There’s something so appealing about that potential that many of us are willing to pretend it’s a reality.
Watching the “Monogamy” episode reminded me of a feeling I’d had before, a feeling I’d watched countless young Christians experience at one point or another: the realization that a trusted source of authority might not be perfect.
Many Christian teenagers grow up in a pretty tight bubble, at least when it comes to biblical interpretation. I remember discovering that one of my friends went to a church that “baptized their babies” and running home to tell my mom, “Isn’t that sad? I thought Stephanie was a Christian.” There was a comforting simplicity to my limited knowledge—there were people and books and ideas that were “safe” and if I knew something was “safe,” I could trust it. Not only could I trust it, but I could also approach it with the kind of built-in acceptance that came with authority.
It’s intriguing and maybe a little weird to first discover that other Christians do things differently, but it can be altogether terrifying to discover that other Christians interpret the Bible differently. Just like developing news stories can seem overwhelming and complicated, understanding the Bible (along with the long history of the church interpreting it) can seem daunting. There’s something comforting about an “explainer”: a single and uncomplicated source of authority that can explain with objectivity.
It reminds me of some moments in my classes in seminary today. There are some professors, textbook authors, and fellow students who (usually subconsciously or unintentionally) think that the best or safest way to approach the Bible is to limit their exposure to a handful of “safe” sources. I still remember the day that a student saw a book sitting on the table in front of me and leaned over to say, “Be careful with that one.”
I wondered if we had been sufficiently “careful” with the books on our own syllabi, or if we treated them like explainers. We are understandably drawn to certainty. It’s comforting to think that a single, objective, and uncomplicated source exists that can “explain” everything to us.
To be clear: there is nothing wrong (and everything right) about finding, respecting, and listening to sources of authority on the Bible. Everyone determines which sources they trust and which come from a theological tradition or background that hurts the credibility of the source. But that is altogether different from an underlying desire for easy answers and straightforward solutions that come at the expense of wading through complexity and nuance.
I had a friend say to me recently about seminary students, “Maybe we aren’t giving people the tools to deal with ambiguity.” I think that one of the (many) things she meant was that when we continue feeding our desire for easy answers, we lose the ability to approach complexity with the appropriate tools. We either throw up our hands and declare everything unknowable or we dig in our heels and refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of other positions.
When I realized that Explained wasn’t the generally objective source of information that I had subconsciously believed it to be, I began to doubt every other episode. It’s a lot like a Sunday school teacher who met one of my questions about alternate views on interpreting Revelation with, “Well, they just aren’t reading their Bibles.” When we present our views as the only and unassailable correct position instead of honest and genuine attempts at interpretation, we invite that feeling of distrust. I felt deceived by Explained and by the teachers and leaders who had led me to believe that anyone who disagreed with them was malicious or stupid.
That’s the real problem with “explainer” approaches, regardless of subject matter: no one is truly objective, and attempts at pretending only invite distrust. There’s a place that exists between total trust of a single authoritative source and living in a land of grey areas. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more difficult place than either of those alternatives: there are lines to be drawn about what constitutes a legitimate position, there are places that turn out to be truly black and white, there are questions with answers too important to “agree to disagree.” A good starting point for all of us is admitting that our interpretation (of the world and the Bible) is influenced by our culture, background, and personal prejudices or preferences. Once we’ve done that, we can value other positions, even when we disagree. We can even be open to changing our minds.
It’s not an “explainer” approach or a Wild West free-for-all of interpretation. Our options are not between total certainty and all-out relativism. Either one of those would be easier than the complicated reality that truth exists but we don’t always recognize it, and that we aren’t nearly as unbiased as we’d like to think. A good dose of epistemic humility goes a long way.