Biblical Authority in the Google Galaxy

Kent Harold Richards

These anxieties usually get around to another claim: in this media age looms a crisis of religious authority, or in the case of traditional Bible reading and reverence for God’s Word, a crisis of Biblical authority. But is that true?

Having just left the halls of academia after forty years and becoming the minister of a small United Methodist congregation, I know the question of authority retains a perennial power and fascination. But debate about a crisis of Biblical authority has boiled for decades, even centuries, before Google arrived. It will outlast the era of the microprocessor. Controversies around Biblical truth are no more acute now, and no more settled, than in the ‘60s, or the 1560s, or 360 C.E. Authority is an elusive, powerful force – a drama that moves us, resists us, inhabits us.

“Authority Always Wins”

What do we mean by authority? I think of the words of the chorus of John Mellencamp’s Authority Song, “I fight authority, authority always wins …” and I hear the voice of people who are denied authority. The struggle between the individual and larger forces – educational, legal, moral, military, municipal, political – is a signature human experience. Some notion of power is never far from authority’s various definitions, including religious authority. Those of us in the “business” of religion sometimes forget that religious authority debates are not just driven by religion. Authority was as much a political as a religious issue in the decision by King James I to gather a group of translators to provide the church with an “authorized” version of the Bible during his contentious reign. Either way, the question of power was central.

Where does this authority abide? In the case of the Bible, does the authority reside innately in Scripture, or does it rise from the relationships be- tween the Bible and the institutions or persons who read, interpret, defend? Said otherwise, is the Bible’s power found directly in the text or in the assertion of the religious body that claims power for it? For centuries, people in the academy and in religious organizations have landed on one side of this question or the other, or tried to combine the two. As a former academic now in the parish, I often would like to draw on elements from both sides.

Does technological culture have anything to add here? Despite pessimists who dread the effect of new media on traditional religious culture, the raging revolutions of technology have not remarkably changed, banished, or compromised the Bible’s authority. Nevertheless, the digital age is posing new questions, even new models, of authority that energize the perennial debate.

Take a question relevant to both academy and parish: Which is more authoritative, Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica? To oversimplify a bit, the authority claimed by and for Wikipedia relies on a bottom-up model rather than the top-down ideal that drives Britannica. Wikipedia’s authority is based on a democratizing collective authority – “crowd- sourced” – a process of fact-gathering and vetting not limited to empanelled experts.

Up-Down, Down-Up

Many lament the possible eclipse of the old top- down model, the rectitude of its protocols and canons. The accuracy – authority – of Britannica always derived from strong editorial controls, data checks, monitors on individual biases and academic correctness. Yet all that authoritative display never produced a perfect, error-free Britannica.

Wikipedia famously has errors too. Many questioned its reliability and authority. But the critics are losing the battle. Wikipedia’s popular acceptance resides in its information architecture, visual design, governance – what is frequently referred to as collective or symbiotic intelligence – and ultimately the brand itself. These elements, coupled with the “find- ability” factor that places it high in Google searches, have increased the perception of Wikipedia as an authoritative source for the twenty-first century.

A bold new sort of authority confronts the re- searcher, reader, and citizen: the algorithmically driven search engine in our immense new galaxy of data. Google says its search engine PageRank aims to demonstrate “the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and two billion terms. Pages that (Google) believes are important pages receive a higher PageRank and 

are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.” Google aims to make itself an authority in the universe of knowledge, surely the most ambitious breakthrough in data management since Gutenberg.

The democratization of knowledge unleashes all kinds of unanticipated consequences whatever the era. Each generation sifts the past and sorts through the alarms of the present. An individual’s confrontation with the stories, poetry, or hard sayings of the Bible can stir in the recipient a brush with grandeur, momentousness, antagonism – tremors of authority measured by readers such diverse as William Blake, Herman Melville, Saul Bellow, and G. F. Handel.

As a parish minister, I see the drama of Scripture’s meaning and authority unfolding in the lives of church members. They hear the Word of God – wrestle with it, seek meaning in it as they make their way along a real-world horizon of pain, uncertainty, and hope. This wrestle is proof that the quest to discern Biblical authority is no dry exercise but a lively, urgent operation. It is taking place in the hearts of believers and in the minds of would-be believers every day, whether they encounter Scripture online or in a tweet or in a 200-year-old family Bible.

Contemplating the theme of authority in a Christian Century article forty years ago, sociologist Peter Berger observed there are two kinds of hysteria: the “hysteria of those who have lost their old certitudes and the hysteria of those who, often with blind fanaticism, have committed themselves to new ones.” When he was writing, computers were the size of sedans, and the idea of an internet would have been gaudy science fiction. But his words apply in the new media age. We would do well to avoid devolving into either extreme. That would be a crisis of terrible proportion. 

A Hebrew Bible scholar, Kent Harold Richards served as executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature for fifteen years until his retirement in 2010. He is minister of First United Methodist Church in Mystic, CT.