Friday, March 9, 2012

Separating the signal from the noise


One of my specialties as an engineer has been what is called Six Sigma analysis. Not to bore those of you unfamiliar with manufacturing, let me simply put it this way: six sigma is a series of statistical processes that allow you to make good quality decisions about a process based upon some samples or experimental results. As such it is a very useful skillset for science and engineering.

One of the reasons that I have been so successful with six sigma, though, has little to do with the actual six sigma process. Rather, it is my ability to "separate the signal from the noise." What I mean by this is: in any informational system or dataset, the useful variable for which you are searching is mixed in, and hidden by, a tremendous amount of "noise"--distracting data and results which keep you from drawing the right conclusions. Like the image above, the 'signal' you desire to hear is corrupted and hidden by noise around it.

I cannot help but see similarities in our world today. It is hard to properly verbalize the drastic nature of our technological advancement: just a century ago, people were still debating whether electricity was safe enough to use, and whether airplanes could fly. Now, we have wireless internet access on our inter-continental flights.

The Internet, in particular, has brought an amazing wealth of available information. Nothing seems to be hidden any more. A photo or sext or ill-advised tweet ruins careers forever; any information can be found on any topic in moments; corruption and data-faking are exposed. Theologically, you no longer need years of poring over dusty textbooks to learn Greek; instead, anyone with an iPad can log on and access dozens of concordances and lexicons explaining all possible interpretations of a word.

It should be, frankly, the Golden Age of theology. We have access to more tools than ever before; theories and discussions can be had at light speed with colleagues from around the world; and we have the best understanding in history of the natural world and archaeological data.

And yet...it doesn't seem to me to be a golden age of theology. We have all of this access to our brothers and sisters around the globe, all this access to information...and we use it to simply split more churches, generate more strife, further separate the Body of Christ.

You see, I think we struggle greatly to separate the signal from the noise. We are inundated as Christians today with debate topics, from the scientific to the theological to the historical. And anyone with a wi-fi connection can self-publish a blog or a book or a research paper with any manner of claims, based on the overwhelming mass of information available on the Internet.

So now we find ourselves in a time in which we have access to more information than ever in history, and everyone claims to have a detailed belief (either for or against) Christianity...and yet: fewer than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible; fewer than a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount; eighty percent of evangelicals believe the Bible says, "God helps those who help themselves"; twelve percent of Christians think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife; and one in four Americans do not know what Easter celebrates. (Simply do a search for "Biblical illiteracy statistics" and you will be shocked.)

It is severely ironic: Christians once were ignorant because only the priests could read and they chose to withhold information. Now we are ignorant because, in the wealth of information available to us, we cannot distinguish truth from fiction.

So how do we, as Christians, separate the signal from the noise?

Honestly, I think the cure for separating theological signals from the noise comes from three places.

First, you must actively study the Scripture. There are dozens of online resources to help you here. If you have never done so, start by choosing a "Read the New Testament in a Year" reading schedule. That will help give you the high-level scope of how things fit together, which is so critical to understanding context. Regardless of what you choose, create habits of spending time every day in the Scripture. And rather than just choose some random verses here or there, pick a book and read it end-to-end. That is the best way to see how things fit together contextually.

Second, as I have said many times before before, I find it critical as Christians that we always have a clear separation in our minds between Essentials of our faith and Non-Essentials of our faith. Be absolutely rock-solid on the essentials. And on the non-essentials, feel free to give leeway and liberty. This will help you to always keep the appropriate focus in your mind. Remember the key essentials and you will be much more easily able to see through the noise to get to the important signal in a passage.

Third, find a church where the Scripture is taught. This is sadly becoming all too rare today, but it is important. In Acts 2, we see that the first Christians spent time together frequently, studying the teachings of the apostles. Yet many churches today have lost focus on educating about the Scripture, and instead talk exclusively about Christian lifestyles. True, you need practicality--no question there. But church is not about choosing "either/or": you do not have to choose either a practical church or an educational church. Find one where you are learing more about the Bible all the time: what do the words mean, what did the culture mean, etc. These things will help you to sort through the theological noise and focus on the true signal in your life.

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