The other day, someone asked me, “How do they know that the Bible is the most-read book in history?”
“Who’s ‘they?’” I asked.
“Everyone. I read it in a magazine article just the other day.”
“What magazine?” I asked.
It went on like that for a while. There are a lot of “facts” we think we know that are really just strongly held opinions. This is especially true when it comes to the liturgy. Many liturgy planners make decisions based on what “everyone” knows is correct liturgical practice. But oftentimes, our planning is based on the way we’ve always done it and not on church teaching and tradition.
So when you are reading a blog post or a magazine article, how do you know if the author is reflecting their own opinion or authentic church teaching?
That’s easy. Any writer is always giving you their opinion. The opinion may be based on solid research and documented church teaching, but it is still opinion. The question for the critical reader is, can you trust the author’s opinion to help you shape your own decisions?
To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves several other questions. This style of reading-while-questioning is called “close reading” or “critical reading.”
Who is the author?
Look at the author’s bio. Have they published anything on this topic before? Do they have much background in the topic? Don’t automatically assume that a priest or a PhD is an expert in the topic they are writing about. Dig into the writer’s credentials a little bit.
What is the publication?
There is a difference between a personal blog post and an article in a respected academic journal. That doesn’t necessarily mean the blog writer is steering you wrong and the academic writer is steering you correctly. Remember, everyone has biases. But you want to use information from sources you trust. Also, it is possible to read a journal article from a highly-respected institution that says the opposite of a journal article published by a different but equally respected institution.
What is the level of authority?
If the pope, for example, publishes an apostolic exhortation on the Vatican website, a commentator might write a magazine article disagreeing with something the pope said. That’s actually a good thing, and Pope Francis, more than any recent pope, encourages healthy disagreement. But the pope’s writing is still the authoritative word on the subject. Similarly, a priest might write about a local liturgical practice on his Facebook feed. And later, his bishop might issue an official letter that requires a change in that practice. The bishop, obviously, has the final say. Often, however, the authority behind the content you are reading won’t be as clear. Check the sources the author is citing, and think carefully about how much weight those sources have.When you are reading a blog post or a magazine article, how do you know if the author is reflecting their own opinion or authentic church teaching? Click To Tweet
Is the writing clear?
If you are reading an article and start feeling confused, do not assume that is because the author is smarter than you. A solid article will be based on clear thinking, supported by research, authoritative sources, and logical thinking. And usually it will be written clearly. While every author is biased, the best writers work hard to present a clear, balanced argument that supports their point of view. If the article is confused and unclear, that is a sign that the writer hasn’t done the work required to support his opinion with a reliable foundation.
One easy way to test the clarity of an article is to read the opening paragraph and then skip to the closing paragraph. Then read the first sentence of each of the paragraphs in-between. Do you get an overall feeling of a logical flow? If so, go back and read the article “for real.” Underline or highlight passages that leap out at you. Ask and even write down questions as you go. Look up words you don’t understand.
Is there obvious bias the text?
Sometimes an author’s bias comes through in the choice of words they use to describe an event or an idea. For example, here is a recent news story taken from three different sources. Note how the “facts” are similar in each, but each conveys significantly different information:
- “American NASA scientist Serkan Golge, 40, returned to his Houston home earlier this month after years of languishing in a Turkish prison — a pawn in what U.S. officials characterize as Ankara holding political prisoners.”
- “The U.S. on May 29 welcomed Turkey’s release of a jailed NASA scientist who had been sentenced to over seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges.”
- “Serkan Golge, 39, is a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen whose release Washington had been lobbying for after he was detained in 2016. He was released from custody Wednesday. Golge was convicted in February 2018 of belonging to the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), which Turkey accuses of being behind a defeated coup attempt in 2016.”
Which version most clearly reveals the author’s bias? What are the ways each author uses vocabulary and sentence structure to convey the information? If Golge were a close friend of yours, which account would you say is most “accurate?” If you were a high-level politician in Turkey, which version would best reflect the “truth?”
How did the text make you feel?
This is related to the previous point. A good writer will be able to cause an emotion in you through the way they write. Can you tell what emotion the author is trying to cause? What is your actual feeling after reading the piece? Does your emotion align with what the author was striving for? Are you able to think about the text both objectively and emotionally?
Can you summarize the main point?
This is a big indicator of the quality of an article or blog post. After carefully reading it, can you write a sentence or two that accurately summarizes the author’s point? Use your own words, not the author’s.
In the world today, there are multiple sources of information on almost any topic we can imagine. As we develop our skills as liturgical planners, we have to do the work of evaluating the sources that inform our decisions for the worship lives of our communities. By using the critical reading skills discussed in this article, you can become a more informed reader and better minister.