Jan 14, 2022
I once came across a guy on Twitter who made a convicting observation. He wrote: “I have a device in my pocket containing the sum of all human knowledge…I use it to view pictures of cats, and start arguments with strangers.” That really stuck with me. The gap between the power of the Internet as a concept and our actual use of the Internet is staggering. I expect it would make an extraterrestrial explorer who was seeking intelligent life on this planet turn his ship around after observing what little use we make of this modern marvel of communication.
We spend a lot of time criticizing the dangers and dark side of the Internet. I’ve personally spent a lot of time doing this, including on this podcast. The Internet’s potential is on par with the printing press, the telegraph, and broadcasting. In terms of sheer data transmitted, it dwarfs all of these world-changing inventions by several orders of magnitude. But unlike the printing press, most of its output is not Bibles or copies of Pilgrim’s Progress. The top few most trafficked websites in the world are porn sites, and the competition isn’t that close. The Internet is the medium of near limitless harassment, slander, disinformation, and distraction. It has created an entire dark industry of child sexual abuse.
And yet—as I sat at a coffee shop last month writing a final paper for class, I needed to know the dates of a theologian’s birth and death. I Googled them and added them to my paper. The process took maybe five seconds. And it caused me to stop for a moment and reflect. How long would that same process have taken me fifty years ago, assuming the information wasn’t handy in my very heavy textbook? I would have had to drop what I was doing, drive fifteen or twenty minutes to the nearest library, search for the right section (either an encyclopedia or books on Reformation history), hope they were checked in, search for the theologian, and either write down the date along with other careful notes, or check out another heavy book so I wouldn’t have to return for the next theologian’s dates and thoughts.
The Internet made all that unnecessary. Wikipedia even cited its source, so there was little chance of error.
But does being able to find information quickly for grad school papers outweigh the oceans of evil sloshing across cyberspace? I don’t know. What I can say is that it’s clear to me the Internet is included in the “every square inch” over which Abraham Kuyper said Christ claims sovereignty. And it can be redeemed in ways that go far beyond cutting down research time. It seems to me its potential to revolutionize the pursuit of knowledge is something we don’t yet fully appreciate. And I’m not just talking about online courses.
In my discussion with Colin Redemer, vice-president of the Davenant Institute, we talked about his prediction that institutional higher education is due to collapse. In response, he and others have embarked on an audacious project to provide ultra-affordable, rigorous instruction outside of traditional institutions.
The project he’s involved in is called Davenant Hall, and Colin wasn’t shy about claiming he’d pit his graduates against the students of any seminary or university in the country. Davenant Hall, of course, relies heavily on the Internet for instruction. Many colleges and seminaries have done the same, especially since COVID. You could describe much of what they do as “online courses.” But to me, it’s a
proof-of-concept for something even more radical—something reminiscent of what William Tyndale envisioned when he set out to put the Scriptures in the hand of the lowliest plough-boy.
The Internet has made knowledge universally accessible. With the exception of a thin stratum of books and media too recent to be in the public domain, virtually the entire corpus of human writing is available for free online. And thanks to our mobile devices, it’s available at the tap of a finger, wherever we go. If you’re willing to pay a few dollars a month, you can have access to all those more recent works and even scans of titles too obscure to have earned an eBook or audiobook.
Using only YouTube audiobooks and Librivox, I’ve enjoyed Augustine, Athanasius, Anselm, Calvin, Dickens, Jack London, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, J. Gresham Machen, and a score of others. There’s an eleven-hour reading of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” if you’ve got a big road trip ahead of you. And that’s to say nothing of the free PDFs, ebooks, and searchable scans on Google Books.
Maybe most importantly, the Bible itself is available online in literally every translation, with interlinear versions, word searches, and more historical commentaries than you could read in a lifetime. For the especially committed there are free courses in biblical Hebrew and Greek. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Christians in times past would have risked their lives to have this kind of access to God’s word.
What’s my point? The Internet’s democratization of knowledge means that traditional institutions are no longer the only means of receiving an education. Provided you can find a wise guide who can tell you what to read and help you make sense of it, vast swaths of knowledge are available at a click. It may be possible to become better educated through picking brains and reading carefully than through paying large sums of money for traditional courses. If Colin is right, letters behind your name may one day means less than your ability to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about. And the Internet has, at least in theory, made that possible to anyone with a computer.
I can’t say for certain what the future holds for higher education, especially the kind that qualifies a Christians to stand in a pulpit or teach theology. But I can say with confidence that Christ places no boundary-markers on His authority, and He is not willing to surrender to Satan any product of human ingenuity—least of all one with the redemptive potential of the Internet. My conversation with Colin on Upstream helped open my mind to the innovation Christians could undertake as traditional academia falters. But it also reminded me never to underestimate the good God can do through unexpected means—yea, even the invention that brought us the cat video.