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Learn to Discern

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Learn to Discern

The word “disciple” is an interesting one. It is used in four primary ways:

First, it is a generic term referring to a pupil or follower of any teacher or school or religion.

Second, as a name for those who followed Jesus during His life and ministry, and specifically the twelve He handpicked to pour into for leadership.

Third, it is also the term for anyone who chooses to follow Christ. In this sense, all Christ followers are “disciples.”

Finally, it is used as a verb, such as someone being “discipled.” This refers to someone being mentored into the life of discipleship.

But what does this word mean?

A little background: it comes from the Greek word “mathetes,” which simply means “learner.” A disciple is a learner. 

Much has been written about discipleship. Books are filled with calls to be disciples, or for churches to get more serious about discipleship. Even more has been offered on the content of discipleship, the foundations upon which Christian life and faith should be nurtured.

Yet I am growing increasingly convinced that in all the talk about discipleship, the changing dynamics of learning itself are being overlooked. Namely, how we learn and, perhaps more to the point, how we access information.

Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, recently noted that “Google has changed the relationship of people to information. For the last 300 or 400 years, information has been collected on college, university and seminary campuses … You went to the collected information to learn. Today the information is available anywhere you want, just Google it."

And the challenge that comes with the “age of Google?”

Rather than primarily dispensing information, Kelley said educators must spend much more of their time helping students evaluate information.

I could not agree more. One of the most pressing needs in regard to the development of a truly Christian mind is discernment in sifting through the virtually unlimited amount of information available through the internet and the various search engines at our disposal.

Let’s state the obvious: all information is not created equal. Or should we say, “equally valid.” 

For example, Google this past weekend’s holiday, “Easter.” You will get 240,000,000 results. One of the top responses on the first page of hits is, headlined on Google as “Easter: Its Origins and Meanings.” Sounds promising. But then you read the following:

“Modern-day Easter is derived from two ancient traditions: one Judeo-Christian and the other Pagan.  Both Christians and Pagans have celebrated death and resurrection themes following the Spring Equinox for millennia.  Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier Pagan celebrations.”

Um, no.

As historian Anthony McRoy counters:

“The argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English and German names for the celebration (Easter in English and Ostern in German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is the Christian Passover festival.

“Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualization—expressing their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people—that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of "Good Friday," but they are in no way honoring the worship of the Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.

“But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that neither the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection nor its name are derived from paganism.”

The entire article is worth a read. McRoy is a Fellow of the British Society for Middle East Studies and a lecturer in Islamic studies. In other words, he is a leading scholar in this field.

The author of the Google article? At first glance, unnamed.

Dig deeper into the site’s sponsor, and you find it is sponsored by the “Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.”

Dig deeper, and you find that almost all of the over 4,475 essays and menus on this web site (as of 2008-NOV) were written by its main author and coordinator Bruce A. Robinson.  He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, class of 1959, with a BaSc (Bachelor of Applied Science) degree in Engineering Physics. You also find that he is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church and calls himself an agnostic.

Which will people tend to read and believe?

The one delivered most readily by Google.

And that is the problem. And the challenge of discipleship. If disciples are learners, then we must not only address the call to discipleship and the content, but its source.

I would say, “If you don’t believe me, Google it,” but that’s the problem.

Unless you have been discipled regarding Google.

James Emery White


“Theological ed. is “being redefined,” Gary D. Myers, Baptist Press. Read online.

“Origins, Meanings and Practices of Easter.” Read online.

“Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?,” Anthony McRoy, posted 04/2009, Read online.

To go further on this subject, see James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

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Learn to Discern