In "The Message in the Bottle," Percy attempts to separate information into two categories: knowledge and news. The essay is built on an extended metaphor of a castaway with amnesia who remembers nothing but the island he washes up on and who creates a new life with the natives of the island. The castaway frequently finds on the beach bottles that have one-sentence messages on the inside, such as "There is fresh water in the next cove," "The British are coming to Concord," or "Lead melts at 330 degrees."
A group of scientists lives on the island, and they separate these messages into two categories: empirical facts and analytic facts. The castaway is disturbed by this classification, however, because it does not take into account the messages' effect on the reader. Thus, he comes up with the categories of knowledge and news. Knowledge belongs to science, to psychology and to the arts; simply put, it is that "which can be arrived at anywhere by anyone and at any time" (125). News, on the other hand, bears directly and immediately on his life. The scientists, because of their commitment to objectivity above all else, cannot recognize the difference between these two categories.
A piece of news is not verified the way a piece of knowledge is—whereas knowledge can be verified empirically, news can be verified empirically only after the hearer has already heeded its call. The castaway must first, however, decide when to heed the call of a piece of news and when to ignore it. Percy sets forth three criteria for the acceptance of a piece of news: (a) its relevance to the hearer's predicament; (b) the trustworthiness of the newsbearer; and (c) its likelihood or possibility. As news depends so heavily on its bearer, the messages in bottles that the castaway finds cannot be sufficient credential in and of themselves. The castaway must know something about the person who wrote them.
The problem with modern society is that too many people attempt to cure their feelings of homelessness by seeking knowledge in the fields of science and art. Their real problem, says Percy, is that their feelings of homelessness come from their being stranded on the island—they should be looking for news from across the seas.
Percy links this distinction between news and knowledge to how the world understands the Christian gospel. He writes that the gospel must be understood as a piece of news and not a piece of knowledge. To Percy, the gospel is news from across the seas.