Echo Chambers

Information can come from many different sources and perspectives. Unfortunately, echo chambers amplify and reinforce only one view by repeatedly communicating and repeating the same attitudes and opinions. As a result, echo chambers increase polarization and extremism.

An echo chamber is an environment where a person encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce one’s own existing beliefs or convictions. We all tend to listen to and read sources that we have come to trust. Yet, if all we do is obtain our understanding from these sources, we are probably in an echo chamber.

It was typical in the ancient Near East (including Israel and Judah) for the kings to have court “prophets” (numerous different technical terms are used for these prophet-like “advisers”). Nathan was a prophet in the court of David, and he remained such even when he chastised David for his actions concerning Bathsheba and her husband (2 Samuel 12:1–15). Isaiah seems to have had access to the temple and the palace and advised the king (for instance, Isaiah has access to king Ahaz at the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field – Isaiah 7:3-25).

Often these “court prophets” were “yes men” (telling the king what he wanted to hear). For example, King Ahab consulted his prophets about a proposed attack against the king of Syria at Ramath-gilead (1 Kings 22:1–12; 2 Chronicles 18:3-11). Prophets for hire, they assured him that the attack would be successful. However, King Jehoshaphat of Judah was suspicious of such unanimity and asked for another opinion. Ahaz noted another prophet, “Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil” (1 Kings 22:8). Thus, the court prophets functioned as an “echo chamber” for king Ahab, but Ahab needed to hear another perspective (God’s truth), and the prophet Micaiah was willing to speak God’s word to Ahab.

In the time of the prophet Jeremiah, most of the prophets served as an “echo chamber,” telling the king and people of Jerusalem what they wanted to hear. For example, Hananiah, the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon (Jeremiah 28:1), was one of the false prophets who prophesied a short-lived Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 28:2-4). Other prophets in Jerusalem prophesied peace and victory when there was no peace (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; 14:13; 23:15-16; 28:9). Amid this situation, Jeremiah was willing not to be part of the “echo chamber” and suffered for it.

The discussion questions that I wrote to go with the sermon on Mount Gilboa required me to research and consider multiple sources and points of view concerning the end of life decisions and burial practices to discuss essential issues intelligently. Just relying on my “default position” or selecting only sources that agreed with my “default position” (an “echo chamber”) is not credible or helpful.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012). Haidt attempts to explain why people see things and believe things the way that they do and why very rarely do you have people changing their minds on issues that are not peripheral.

Haidt’s thesis is that people do not typically have reasons and then move to their views. Instead, people tend to have intuitions and find reasons to support them unless something intervenes. A person has a specific intuition, and there are certain things that, without thinking about, this person responds to either with a lack of alarm or with a positive view or with a sense of withdrawal or a sense of disgust. Still, often the person does not understand why.

I think Haidt is correct. Haidt is not a Christian, but his thesis is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture. For instance, Paul teaches that God has given people up to their heart lusts, passions, and lies (Romans 1:24-26). Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). According to Proverbs: “the way of the fool is right in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15), “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25), “every way of a man is right in his own eyes (Proverbs 21:2) and “he who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26).

God’s authoritative word is clear. If we follow our “intuitions” and do not challenge our intuitions with information that challenges our intuitions, we are fools, and our lives will be going in the wrong direction. This is because finding the correct way to navigate life is not found “within” ourselves (“intuition”) but from the God who is “outside” and “above” us.

God’s powerful word can break through our “echo chambers” and set us free (John 8:31-32).

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