Recently byFaith sat down with Brett McCracken to learn more about his book “The Wisdom Pyramid.” A summary of our talk appeared in our fall issue. Here’s more of what McCracken had to say.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the origin of the concept for the book?
Before “The Wisdom Pyramid” was ever a book, it was a graphic that was a visual aid for a conference. It was 2017, at a conference called Canvas, in Portland, Oregon, where I was asked to address the topic of “How can a Christian find joy in a fake-news world?” That’s where I first started thinking about the fact that so much of navigating our information environment is about discernment, in terms of what sources are feeding us in a fake-news world. We have to be so careful about what we take in and what we stay away from. That’s where the idea of the food pyramid came into my mind for the first time. What if I took that idea and applied it to categories of information that are conducive to a life of wisdom?
I scribbled the first draft of what my ‘wisdom pyramid’ looked like and sent it to a graphic designer friend, and asked him to design it so it looked like the food pyramid but with these categories placed in this order. I used his graphic on the screen as I gave this talk, and it was funny because that was the thing that really stuck. People got off their phones and took photos of it and shared it on Instagram, and it got a lot of traction on social media, ironically. When I had the space in my life to start thinking about another book, that was the idea that I kept coming back to — what if I took that wisdom pyramid idea and made it more than just a graphic, and took a chapter by chapter look at each category?
With information gluttony, I saw how that constant barrage of information was making it hard to be wise.
You identify three main trends in our information diet that are poisoning us: gluttony, novelty, and autonomy. When did you first notice these?
It was a longer-term realization over the course of living my life as a millennial in the digital age. I’m old enough to remember life before the Internet, so I’m not a total digital native, but I’ve lived most of my adult life and all of my professional life in the Internet world… I experienced those three sicknesses viscerally on a personal level. With information gluttony, I saw how that constant barrage of information was making it hard to be wise, to sort through it all. Then speed, of course, when you have no space or time in your life to slow down and reflect and think deeply, that obviously was a struggle. And autonomy, the orientation of everything around me, the temptation to constantly build your information diet in a way that is comfortable and convenient and tailored to me—that’s a temptation for all of us, and if we’re not intentional about going against that grain we’ll easily end up in our own little self-made bubble of reality.
I saw all of those play out in my own life, and then I’m also an elder in a church — so wearing the pastor hat and discipling people, and seeing these things affect their spiritual lives, was also something that clicked with me in terms of naming these sources of sickness.
Could you unpack that a little — how was it that seeing these challenges among your own flock drove you to try to understand what was going on, and to try to provide this corrective? What new sicknesses were you seeing?
One of them is seeing the increasing deficiency in nuanced thinking and critical thinking. When your mind is catechized by the Internet mode of discourse—everything is blunt and extreme and heightened, like the intellectual equivalent of typing in all caps—you can see how someone’s mind and way of approaching the world is shaped by that mode over time. It was troubling, in conversations I would have with people, to see their inability to wrestle with something, to hold things in tension — seeing instead their tendency to have a simple answer or solution that’s one side or the other.
Another one that grieves me is the way that life online can take all of your energy, tending to the controversies on any given day: what’s being debated on Twitter, what’s trending, so much so that you don’t have any energy or interest left in the tangible problems of your own flesh and blood community.
There were people in my church who were more conversant in some esoteric debate happening on a certain segment of Twitter, and were way more animated by that discussion, than by the people in our own church who were struggling and who needed boots-on-the-ground help. … There’s this weird awareness of the macro/national headlines and a fairly apathetic ambivalence about the local ones. I see that as problematic for the church, which is fundamentally set up for effective missional success when we’re tuned into what’s happening right in our own backyards, and how we can be the hands and feet of Jesus there.
As you said, your generation was the last one to live before the Internet. How do you reach the generation for whom there has always been an instant connection to every part of the globe?
That was a perplexing question for me, because I wanted this book to be something that Gen-Z, digital natives, could benefit from. I wrote it for my own kids, who are in diapers right now, but who are going to be growing up in this world. I knew I didn’t want a book that was 90% railing on technology and the Internet. There had to be some of that, but I wanted the book to be a positive vision for a life of wisdom, a vision for wisdom that is as true for a teenager in 2021 as it was for a teenager in 1850AD or 1200BC. Something that could stand the test of time and could be compelling and beneficial to people decades from now.
Ultimately, I would love for my sons and others to read this book and be less convinced by the first half of the book (although I hope that would raise some convicting questions for them) than to be more compelled by the second half—in terms of wow, there are all these better sources out there for wisdom, my phone doesn’t have to be my primary diet. The few teenagers that I’ve shown the book to, almost to a person, look at the visual and agree—yeah, they say, we’ve flipped it in our generation. We have the phone at the bottom of our wisdom pyramids, and it does occupy the foundation of our diet. They’re honest about the fact that this is a problem, it’s not sustainable, so I hope they would still be willing to read it and tweak their habits a bit in the way the book prescribes.
On novelty, you write that one of the main dangers facing churches is presentism, the pressure to stay relevant, whether in worship or preaching styles, or by being located in a cool warehouse. In the modern American evangelical world, how can churches restore their sense of deep time?
I don’t think there’s one silver bullet; I think it’s an accumulation of a lot of small decisions. One is leaning into the church calendar and making that God’s time, the sacred time of these pinnacle moments of Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ascension Day so that the ordering of our time is something that’s counter-formational in a world where time is so disordered. Another is emphasizing church tradition: making it clear on any given Sunday that we’re part of a bigger tradition than ourselves, we’re not just a 21st-century community that’s doing 21st-century things. We are part of an old, old continuity. Constantly reminding people of the bigger picture of Christianity: that it isn’t just about our own narrow slice of time or culture, but that it has spanned a long space of time and it’s something that transcends every culture. I think that big picture is so important.
With presentism, it’s crucial to be forming Christians in a way that the past is compelling and relevant to them, but so is the future, the eschatology of where all of this is going. Presentism is deadly not only because it disconnects us from the past, but because it also makes the future irrelevant or puts it on the back burner. Christians can’t live that way. The problems and the debates of today are not insignificant, but we are going to be living eternally as the people of God together in heaven—what does that mean for all the debates, all the intramural fighting that we do on any given day on Twitter? Among believers, how does our future vision of worshipping together—every tribe, tongue, and nation—inform how we view our present-day bickering and squabbles? How does our past, the endurance of the church through all of these crazy, tumultuous centuries and schisms and reformations, inform our present-day?
A larger view of the Church, its tradition and its future, is something that our local churches should lean into and find ways to remind people of—even in things like the sacraments, these old habits that the church has always done—and not try to reinvent them in hip, cool, new ways. Being OK with the continuity rather than the reinvention is a better tactic.
If you’re satisfied with what you know already, that’s a mark of pride, and it’s not going to lead you to explore and seek out the depths and to go further up or further into any pursuit.
On autonomy, you deride the death of respect for expertise even as social media has made us all experts in our own eyes. What is the antidote for that kind of pridefulness where only our own knowledge is acceptable?
How do you combat any pride? You have to intentionally practice humility in its various manifestations: listening, being willing to listen to another person, to that expert who has devoted their life to that particular topic. It’s not to say you can’t chime in, because one of the benefits of social media is it has given so many more people a voice at the table—just because you don’t have a PhD in the topic doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the conversation. I actually think there’s a lot of benefit from the people who don’t have expertise in a certain subject, who haven’t been in a bubble of an academic discipline, because experts do have blind spots when they’re too narrowly focused on a topic.
But for those people who are not experts but who are still able to speak in any given debate, I think it behooves them to give credence to experts, to listen to them and not immediately assume that you have an exhaustive, perfect perspective on this topic. One of the most crucial marks of wisdom is a true curiosity about the world, which will always lead you to be teachable even if you are an expert. Even if you are someone who has a PhD in a subject, you should still be teachable in that area, should still be willing to be challenged and change your mind. Those are the wisest people in the world, the ones who have a degree of intellectual humility and teachability.
You mentioned the link between wisdom and curiosity, a connection that is not always explicitly made. How do you see that relationship taking shape?
I think that’s a really interesting question. The Bible says a lot about the humility and teachability aspect of wisdom—curiosity is an outworking of humility in some ways. If you’re prideful and arrogant and you trust in your own wisdom and you’re satisfied with what you know already, then that’s a mark of pride, and it’s not going to lead you to explore and seek out the depths and to go further up or further into any pursuit. There can be forms of self-serving, rebellious curiosity, of course—Adam and Eve modeled this in Eden, when they were so curious about what it would be like to take a bite of the forbidden fruit. Curiosity can lead you off the path: when Woman Folly calls out to you from her doorstep (Proverbs 9) it’s curiosity that leads you to want to go check out what she has to offer.
But insofar as curiosity is motivated by humility and a desire to know the world God has created in a more robust way, for the purposes of knowing Him more and glorifying Him, then it’s a good thing. This is where the whole structure of the wisdom pyramid is important. Curiosity in the area of books and beauty and those upper categories is only a virtue when it’s tethered to Scripture as a foundation, as the motivating baseline staple of your diet. Scripture provides guardrails for curiosity, almost like a safety net for being able to explore and go on uncharted intellectual paths—knowing that certain things are out of bounds based on what God has already revealed in Scripture of truth and falsehood and sin.
Another surprising connection you make is between wisdom and beauty, writing about how beauty shapes our loves, and how that shaping informs our desire for wisdom. Here you write at length about silence, which is an undervalued quality in our lives. Where have you seen our lack of silence contributing to our sickness?
I came to that realization less from seeing the harm of it than from the reverse, which is that all the best things in my life and in my soul have come from the quieter moments. My most potent encounters with beauty have always been some experience where I’ve given my full attention to something, where I’ve been still, where I’ve been silent, where I’ve been undistracted. So if that’s true, if the really transcendent encounters with beauty require a stillness and a certain attentiveness, then the opposite is probably true that when we fill our lives with constant distraction, with constantly being ‘on’, there’s not going to be an opportunity to have those transformative moments.
That’s where beauty can be such a gift, because sometimes the best function of art is shaking our busybody nature into stillness. When we encounter beauty that stops us in our tracks, and everything that we might be doing, every productive thing that we might be doing is irrelevant. Because the most important thing for you to do in that moment is just to receive, just to let the majesty of the moment wash over you.
So how does one make these recommendations for wisdom without standing in judgment of those who don’t think their habits are bad, or those who don’t think they’re sick?
It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot. You do have to recognize the sicknesses to some extent to be interested in a cure, to be interested in a prescription of any kind. With that middle third, my hope is that the dynamics of life in the digital age will lead everyone to experience some sort of symptom of sickness, some feeling like this is not sustainable, this is not working, I feel myself being changed in negative ways by this. Whether it’s I feel myself emotionally getting more angry than I should about silly things that I see on Twitter on any given day, or I feel my anxiety levels rising by virtue of information overload… my hope is that eventually everyone will come to a point where there’s an acknowledgment that there has to be something more. And that a book like this which offers a positive vision isn’t just rehashing the problems, but offering something new: here’s what might nourish your soul in this soul-crushing environment that we live in. Why don’t you try this?
This book is not about me as the pinnacle of wisdom offering my ideas. It’s about pointing people to other categories of wisdom that I have found more helpful and more nourishing than what’s on offer in the digital buffet. I’m on the path as much as anyone else trying to pursue wisdom in an age of foolishness, but what I’m finding is that these more timeless sources have been nourishing souls for millennia. Spoiler alert—and it’s not a spoiler—it’s things like the church, like Scripture, like God’s creation, like beauty and the arts. The Wisdom Pyramid is almost like a book that is so not novel, is so basic, that it is novel. The answers aren’t new but I hope that they’re presented in a way that shake people out of their habits a little bit in the digital age.
A native of Mississippi, Benjamin Morris is a writer based in New Orleans.