The headline hit my Facebook feed at the peak of lake season: “Freshwater Shark Caught in Lake Lewisville.” Purportedly, a shocked fisherman landed a shark in the lake adjacent to my town. By the time the local news debunked the story, it had been shared over 100,000 times.
It is a classic example of “fake news,” complete with a clickbait photo of a child next to a giant shark on a dock. In a sly stroke of comedy, the fisherman’s name was listed as “Ima Lion,” and his granddaughter’s as “Shebe Lion.”
Shared over 100,000 times. The fine residents of Lewisville, minds cuing the theme from Jaws, swore never again to enter the murky waters of Lake Lewisville. My neighbors laughed in hindsight, but the fake news provider laughed all the way to the bank.
Fake news is not always as benign as an improbable shark tale. It can influence elections, defame character, incite unrest, and propagate fear. It has always existed, but digital media has given it momentum and reach like never before.
Growing awareness of its prevalence and potential dangers has reminded us of the importance of gauging the credibility of a story’s source, fact-checking its content, and analyzing its message for bias. It has also renewed our appreciation for time-tested, reliable news sources that have consistently demonstrated journalistic integrity.
Think fake news is scary? Try false teaching. The Christian equivalent to journalistic misinformation commits the same kinds of deception with much more at stake. Like fake news, false teaching has enjoyed a long history. The original misinformer appears in the earliest moments of human history, whispering into Eden’s atmosphere, “Did God really say?”
In a smooth turn of phrase, Satan does what liars do best: Muddle together a heady cocktail of fact and fiction, twisting the very words of God to prey on fear and desire. The pattern for false teaching was set.
If you pray with enough faith, God will grant whatever you ask. You can earn God’s favor through good works. Sickness and trials are the result of your personal sin. God wants you to be happy, so do what makes you happy. You can’t lose your salvation, so live as you please. You can lose your salvation, so you better not sin.
Those are just a few of the fins circling in the present currents of Christianity. As with fake news, each appeals to fear or desire. Each distorts the truth, relying on a partial knowledge of what God really said. False teaching also enjoys unprecedented momentum and reach in this digital age. In the onslaught, Christians must train themselves to discern the credibility of the teacher, the scriptural accuracy of the message, and the dangers of credulity.
False teachings share the goal of diminishing God. Ever since Eve was lured by the twisted promise of becoming like God, humanity has conspired to render God like us—arbitrary in his judgments, indiscriminate in his affections, able to be manipulated by human influence. False teachers always serve up a God who is small.
If the church wanders from its time-tested, reliable source of revelation, we begin to welcome these messages, content to receive instruction secondhand, no fact-checking required. It will not do. If the church is to navigate the shark-infested waters of the digital age, we’re going to need a bigger boat.
We learn to spot a lie by studying the truth. Both fake news and false teaching bow to this principle. To help children sift the digital messages that bombard them, educators now teach media literacy in the classroom to aid critical thinking. The church must act similarly.