The word information seems synonymous with content or facts or data. In fact, we regularly use the word information to talk about an accumulation of ideas or bits of knowledge around a particular topic. The very form of the word might also clue us into another more ancient and more specific use of the word inform.
The MIddle English enforme or informe refers to “give form or shape to” and “form the mind of,” “teach.” The Latin informare comes from “in” or “into” and forma “a form.” As I pause over the word “information,” it makes me think of Torah. The way of Torah is a way of relational instruction: parent to child. The parent images the The Lord as Father of His people who instructs them from His holy mountain, leads them through the wilderness, and shapes them into a nation of priests and kings. At its root, information is a way of formation not simply of accumulation.
I read a delightful article by Ted Olson this morning called “Hacking the Bible.” He describes the convergence of computer processing tools and Holy Scripture. The developments could both excite and could great concern about the future of Bible research and study. He explores the exploding possibilities of collecting, searching and recombining data from commentaries, original languages, church history and more. The possible directions for Scripture study seem almost endless…overwhelming.
Tools like BibleGateway, YouVersion, Logos, Bibleworks and more suddenly give users instant access to large accumulations of data. Olson writes,
“Access to information was the old problem. Logos has been blowing up books for years now. They know how to take a new volume and turn it into data. Now the big issue is sifting through that information and curating it.”
This can be both amazing and disturbing. I use several digital Bible research tools, and find them helpful. I am also aware that instant access to data does not equal formation. This is not limited to the digital world. I was listening to a lecturer at a Christian graduate school recently and she was encouraging the students to take speed reading courses, so that they could keep up with the reading levels expected in graduate school.
I know those demands. When I studied rhetoric, we would sometimes have to read large amounts of dense texts between classes. As Mortimer Adler once discussed there is a helpful way of rapidly covering a text to get a quick snapshot of the big ideas, but he also suggested that there are times for ruminating.
Ruminate. What a delightful word. It means to “chew the cud.”
After reading that article this morning, I thought I might simply pause and ruminate over that word information. We all have access to massive bits of data from our newspapers, televisions, computers and more, and there are time when we may need to sort through large selections of texts/media to extract some key ideas or get a sense of the big picture from multiple perspectives or even to verify references by others.
But let us never equate this with the way of information. I once knew a guy who could easily quote large portions of Scripture, but he had not been shaped by the words he spoke. His ability to quote it gave him a sense of mastery, but it was false.
True information is not mastered. That is why I am so hesitant with “expert” language. I would rather see an idea shaped into a life that to be rapidly quoted in a succession of references. The forming of a life in relation, in community is something different.
Thomas Merton once said that it is okay if we are not the best at everything we do. We must face of our limitations. In a world of nonstop data, I would suggest that it is okay not to be able to reference everything, or not to look like an expert or master of everything. It is far greater to be shaped by the Word and the words we read and we speak.
As we seek to walk in the way of Torah, information might be understood as formation in relationship, in a family, in a friendship, in a community. This way of information might be a helpful way of thinking about the lenten journey. Even as we ourselves are being formed, we form others in our words and actions. May the Lord grant us grace to be formed into the image our Savior. Then our credibility, our verification will be less about the ability to cite references and more about the shape of love expressed through one life.