In an essay last year for The Federalist, Tom Nichols observed that the universal accessibility of information in the digital age has had at least two effects on culture, one positive and one negative. The positive effect is that for the first time in Western civilization, knowledge is completely unrestricted, transcending lines of formal education, class, age, and just about every other barrier that’s historically made such learning a privilege for the few.

But this “flattening” of knowledge also comes at a cost. Nichols notes what he calls the “end of expertise.” The ease and immediacy with which everyone can access the same information and share their interpretation of it has fomented notions of an intellectual hyper-egalitarianism, in which everyone’s opinion and perspective must be of perfectly equal importance. A person can be “informed” if he’s read theWikipedia entry, or can “speak to an issue” through a free WordPress blog. The result is that what counts in this “intellectual marketplace” is not one’s skill, certification, or merit (things that can be fairly compared and measured) but one’s narrative, story, and voice (things that cannot be compared and measured).

Nichols makes a compelling case that this is a cultural trend particular to our time. I think that’s true, but I also think it’d be a mistake to merely lay the blame on the millennial generation or chalk it all it up to the Google era. Rather, I think the “end of expertise” and emergence of an authoritative “my story” tells us something true about human nature in every generation.

Default Settings of the Heart 

Pride and conceit are the default settings of the human heart. I wasn’t born thankful that others know more than me or are more qualified to speak or to do something than I am. Obviously I’m often forced to yield to the authority of others, but this is mostly because of the demands of reality, not the desires of my heart. When the room empties or the lecture ends, my natural inclination is to be convinced that my 25-year-old self is just as qualified, just as seasoned, and (therefore) just as entitled to authority and respect as anyone else.

I cringe as I write, remembering all the times I insisted my parents were merely ignorant of who I was, what I needed, what my life was really like. It seems now that the more wrong and misguided I was, the more angry and frustrated I became that Mom and Dad couldn’t see my side of things. The further I wandered from wisdom, the less recognizable it became.

For many of us, that description of the childhood and teen years hits close to home. And we shouldn’t assume that simply because we’re older we’ve put away childish and sinful ways of thinking. The temptation to invest our sense of identity in “my story” is a very real and very serious thing.

Culture’s Coddling

Our culture values individual autonomy and self-authentication over things like commitment to causes and institutions greater than ourselves. From sexuality to work to divorce to friendship, we live in a world that encourages immediate and unquestioned self-recreation if our felt desires aren’t being met. The best way to resist being reigned in by some outside truth claim is to insist that it doesn’t take into account “my story”—that the person making the claim lacks empathy and would encourage (or at least, dare not challenge) my current lifestyle if they could just see things “from my point of view.”

Though this temptation applies to people of all ages and backgrounds, it seems especially potent right now for younger Americans. Recently The Atlantic featured a cover story on the “coddling of the American mind,” a movement within American higher education that seeks to cater to students’ emotional mores through academic (and sometimes legal) intervention. From demands for “trigger warnings” before lectures to well-intended but bizarre “safe spaces” where students will not be argued with, many cultural commentators are concerned American colleges are producing a generation of young adults who feel they have an inalienable right to not be provoked. These students are genuinely unable to process the stress and epistemological labor of learning and being in a context that isn’t immediately friendly to their stories. They cannot go forward until they’re reassured that who they are is who they are supposed to be, and that nothing and no one can ever legitimately challenge that.

Looking to a Better Story

The antidote to this mentality is to look away from ourselves. This doesn’t come naturally to us in the age of the selfie, where cultural liturgies encourage us to use all the blessings of technology and information to seek more self-actualization. We have to end our love affair with “our story” by breaking out of the prison of the self-oriented life. We must actively meditate on how the gospel constantly draws us outward rather than inward.

Where culture dictates that we must know ourselves, the gospel invites us to know God. Where culture insists that reality bend to fit “my story,” the gospel points us to Jesus Christ, the one who is the meaning and purpose of all history. Where culture invites us to retreat into our sense of individual autonomy, the gospel throws open the doors of the church, where we know and are known by people in whose lives we have a real stake.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has remarked that “love de-centers the self.” He’s right. We can have true love or fake autonomy, but we cannot have both.

Jesus said we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. There is a story better than my story—and it goes on and on, forever.

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