Wikipedia: a time to embrace


I recently spoke to a wonderful theologian, who decries the use of Wikipedia. He has a great deal of authority on the issue, since he has several articles published in real, print encyclopedias.

He doesn’t allow it as a reference in his classroom. Which makes sense. “There are some things that are just not up for debate,” he says with his usual mix of cynicism, erudition, and humor. I laugh and agree with him. The source of our information should be left up to experts, not the masses.

But, then I hang up the phone.

The next moment, I find myself preparing for a class on how the canon was formed. I’ve studied the topic at great length, but need a reference to refresh my memory before I assemble the class notes. I begin to reach for that book on the subject, but what was it? Who was it by? I vaguely remember that it has…a cover. Beyond that, I’m at a loss. It could be at home, or at the office, or in the basement. Or…did it survive the last three moves? I mean, I don’t know how an exciting read on canon formation could have been culled for the Goodwill, but I suppose it’s possible.

It’s late. The libraries are closed. The class is forthcoming. And so I wiki.

I have to admit, as a pastor, I use wikipedia. When nobody’s looking. Just to…you know…refresh my memory on things. According to Geoff Nunberg, I’m not the only one.

I know it’s not the best source for theology, church history, and biblical scholarship. And the article on canon formation, it’s a mess! No consistent voice. It’s a hack presentation by a crew of conflicting authors that makes my head ache by the end of it.

But I’ll use it again. I know I will. The whole world is using it.

So, what if we start admitting it? And what if our fine academics began embracing it? Even contributing to it? Is that too much to ask? It may not feel like the most scholarly thing to do, but you could do it late at night, when nobody’s watching. Although you wouldn’t be getting paid for the service, there’s something in it for you. You can reference yourself as an expert, in the third person. You can put your books or papers down in the notes, and (you’ve got to trust me on this one) your impact on the Christian education and the church will be enormous.

What do you say? Will you roll up your sleeves and join the conversation? On behalf of all the late-night pastors/pseudo scholars, I sure hope you do.


4 thoughts on “Wikipedia: a time to embrace

  1. I too have been guilty of using wikipedia when I didn’t have access to some of my reference books. I find its often a good starting point for some basic information that leads me to the place I really need to go. It would be great if more academicians became significant contributors to this body of information.

  2. Neil, Glad you admitted it! And you bring up another good point for scholars. I too use it as a starting point, and often research the notes further. So, it would be a good way to invite people into more rigorous investigations as well.

    There are other disciplines that engage Wikipedia. The American Academy of Sciences is right down the street, and I know big-wig scientists who contribute. So why not our theologians and biblical scholars?

    Your civil religion posts got me thinking. I haven’t picked up Rousseau in a while…. I need to do that.

    Have a great vacation–with no internet! (How did we ever live without it?)

    Take care.

  3. I too use Wikipedia as a starting point. It does indeed give us a few very good leads – and at the end of the day I would hope that is why we use encyclopedias anyway. One way or the other, if we keep pursuing knowledge we will finally educate ourselves to develop a finer sense of judging the good, the mediocre and the plain useless.

    It was Wikipedia that led me to Mark Goodacre’s NT Gateway, and NTG then led me on to Salamanca University’s fascinating group of online presentations on the Historical Jesus – which in turn has a great bibliography – a fair amount of it being free online. At the same time it was also NTG which set me off on reading a good introduction to Mark’s Gospel – Wansbrough’s ‘An Introduction to the Gospel of Mark’.

    I spent over nearly six decades in Africa, and in conclusion I can only be thankful for Wiki. Anyone who has been beyond the Limpopo River will realise what a sad condition the libraries of Africa are in. Walk along the streets of Blantyre in Malawi any day and you will usually find valuable library books – either ‘borrowed’ from the French Cultural Centre, the British High Commission library – if it still exists there in Blantyre – and any other number of libraries. These guys need library books to feed their families. I look forward to the day when some enterprising street salesman will start printing off online books and selling on the knowledge to the public.

    Wikipedia can only improve with time. Here’s the website for Salamanca’s online course on the Historical Jesus. It is in Spanish but can be quite easily translated into fairly reasonable English, uisng MS Word’s translation tools:

  4. post script: “…when some enterprising street salesman will start printing off online books and selling on the knowledge to the public.”

    – but far better still, where African men, women and children will be able to have access to a free and inexpensive type of e-card where they can download all manner of knowledge gratis – just as Wikipedia, ‘’ and other wonderful organisations have made knowledge freely available to those of us who are more fortunate.

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