For several years I have been searching for a metaphor to encapsulate the central paradox of wisdom: that the more we acquire, the less we realize we have. And that the sooner we boast of possessing any, the sooner we betray our own ignorance and pride — proving we have none at all.
At times, pursuing wisdom can feel like running a race whose finish line keeps retreating, even as we grow leaner and faster with each mile. The problem with the metaphor is its negative framing, focusing on wisdom’s elusiveness. How good it is, then, to see Brett McCracken’s “The Wisdom Pyramid” (Crossway, 2021), which offers a positive vision of wisdom, an account of how it can heal the ills that ail our modern souls. Taking the USDA Food Pyramid of a balanced diet as his central metaphor, McCracken argues that our information diet is no less critical, and like its culinary counterpart, the wrong kind of consumption can lead to deep mental and spiritual illness if left untreated.
The first half of “The Wisdom Pyramid” describes three dangerous habits of the digital era: information gluttony (consuming too much); perpetual novelty (consuming too quickly); and autonomy (consuming only what we like). Unchecked, these habits yield irritability, arrogance, and distrust — and those are just the mild ones. A healthy information diet can prevent these afflictions, McCracken writes, but a bad diet is toxic, “making us unwise and more susceptible to the lies and snares of our age.”
Serving as an editor for The Gospel Coalition, McCracken says that he had felt these effects firsthand, and serving as a church elder had shown him new pastoral sicknesses in his own flock. “That personal exposure to the digital world made me aware of what it does to your soul,” he told me in a recent conversation. “What did I notice in myself that was making me unwise, that was making it harder to live a life of wisdom?”
The first half of “The Wisdom Pyramid” describes three dangerous habits of the digital era: information gluttony, perpetual novelty, and autonomy.
His examples hit uncomfortably close to home. When, say, we keep our phones beside us while having coffee with a friend, we do not tolerate interruptions; we condone them. We allow the stream of notifications and pings to take priority, ruining the good of intentional fellowship. “I wanted readers to feel sick reading the first half,” he says, “realizing how true it is to the struggles that they face in the digital age.”
Citing scholars such as Nicholas Carr and Maryanne Wolf, McCracken notes that sociologically, such habits have led to spikes in anxiety, attention disorders, depression, and other mental illnesses across the country — especially in younger generations. But theologically, McCracken says, we run deeper risks. “Each of these sicknesses is connected to root sins.” Gluttony recalls a prideful craving for all knowledge — the cause of the Edenic fall — just as pursuing perpetual novelty betrays impatience, shunning any time frame for learning or change other than our own.
A Wisdom-Informed Information Diet
How, then, to resist such temptations? According to McCracken, by adopting Hippocrates’ apocryphal dictum, to “let food be thy medicine.” The second half of “The Wisdom Pyramid” contains his prescription for a healthier information diet, with the pyramid structured on five primary sources: the Bible, the church, nature, books (real ones), and beauty and the arts. Working through each one, McCracken shows how they have nourished the church for centuries.
Chief among them is God’s Word: “Having Scripture as the foundation allows you to get the most out of things like nature, science, and the humanities,” he told me. “If you don’t have an interpretive grid — something outside of yourself that is indisputable — an ultimate arbiter of goodness and truth and beauty, then any intellectual exploration is ultimately wandering. It’s a circular, nomadic journey. How is anything ever evaluated in a clear way if there’s nothing solid to build it on?”
If the church serves to bring “fullness and focus to our understanding” of Scripture, the remaining three sources — immersion in God’s creation, a sustained reading of life, and a search for beauty — instill a humility and curiosity that together constitute a life of wisdom. Careful inquiry, not predetermined conclusions or petty squabbles, both illuminates divine revelation and nurtures a measured temperament that is sorely lacking in today’s digital world. “So much of wisdom in life is becoming ever more aware of your smallness in the face of God’s vastness,” McCracken says. “Rather than trying to do, do, do and produce, produce, produce, or come up with some brilliant thing to say to God or do for God, the most brilliant thing we can do is be still before Him and let His majesty be declared before us.”
McCracken is hardly a Luddite. At the top of the pyramid — consumed sparingly — lie the internet and social media, and he is cautious not to condemn them further than their perils require. Rather, he grants the good that comes from the intentional use of digital platforms, and their power to advance the Kingdom, serve the church, and uplift voices that have not historically been heard in the agora. (Even here, he argues, we should follow the exhortations in James 3). The key is not to wander aimlessly, not to let an algorithm dictate our consumption, but to regard technology as a useful tool and no more.
Ultimately, McCracken says, he hopes to remind readers of timeless sources of wisdom. After all, “Part of the evangelistic task for Christians is to make the choice of wisdom beautiful, something that isn’t just the eat-your-broccoli approach — but more asking, are you really thriving right now, in the pursuit of wisdom in your own eyes? Is life on Twitter really satisfying to you? If not, here’s something that might be more nourishing. That’s the evangelistic approach I’m attempting with this book: to paint what I hope is a beautiful vision for choosing the path of wisdom in God rather than wisdom in the self.”
The central paradox of wisdom may linger, but after McCracken, its metaphor may be closer at hand. After all, Wisdom calls any who hunger to the feast (Proverbs 9), and through Word and sacrament, Christ feeds us at His own table. You are what you eat, indeed. The question is: On what shall we dine?