Proof-Texting and Cherry-Picking

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

It’s only human to sift through the evidence and latch on to any fragment that supports your case.  Prosecutors do it. Lawyers do it. Even preachers and theologians do it (there’s a song in there somewhere, I think).  It’s only human … which means it’s certainly not divine.

The things we believe are vital to our subconscious, especially in Evangelical Christian circles.  In a very large sense, we are what we believe. You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, the tendency to subconsciously interpret the evidence before us (whether textual, physical, or statistical) in a way that’s consistent with our existing worldview.  We cherry-pick and reinvent to protect our self-image.  And most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

So it’s not that surprising when someone accuses me of not taking the Bible seriously.  What they generally mean is “Anyone who doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible doesn’t really take the Bible seriously, and here are the proof-texts to prove it!”

As if using isolated verses out of context to prove your point in an internet debate actually amounts to taking the Bible seriously.

The Bible is simultaneously a divine work of amazing unity and a related group of human works spanning several centuries and many genres, including poetry, history, prophecy, apocalypse, epistles, and genealogies.  It’s kind of like Jesus in that way – simultaneously fully divine and fully human, as Peter Enns wrote.

Both aspects have to be appreciated and respected, if you want to take the Bible seriously.  Isolated verses thrown out with no cultural context (and in translation, no less), used to silence opposition and win arguments?  That’s how the world uses knowledge: as a weapon, a means to an end, with the end justifying the means.

I’ll quote a comment I made earlier (I won’t link to the debate, because I think that would just be “pointing fingers” at the person I was arguing with).

The truth is, we can cherry-pick individual verse and parts of verses from the Bible, and honestly, we can use them to “prove” anything – subjugation of women, Biblical support for slavery, predestination, free will, Manifest Destiny (the necessity of conquering “pagan savages” so you can teach them about Jesus), vegetarianism, socialism, capitalism, whatever.

THAT practice is what offends me. Not the scripture, but the use of individual verses (and verse-fragments) as a tool to back up whatever point we’re making.

The Bible can only be respected if it is studied as a whole unity, understanding that it was divinely inspired, but written by human hands. We respect it and take it seriously by studying it as a whole, praying for God’s guidance, AND by learning about the genres, culture, and lives lived by the people who first heard it.

The point is not that I’m wiser or more spiritual than some random person I’m arguing with on the Internet.  I’m not.  I’m as vulnerable to confirmation bias as anyone.  I’m as prone to cherry-pick and proof-text as anyone.

The point is, we all have to be aware – and beware – of our own biases and tendencies.  We want the Bible to shape what we believe, but too often it’s the other way around.  Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if we stuck with the basics:  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

2 comments on “Proof-Texting and Cherry-Picking

  1. Nathan Webb says:

    “It’s kind of like Jesus in that way – simultaneously fully divine and fully human, as Peter Enns wrote.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone reframe the Bible in a way that actually helped me to see in a light by which I respect it /more/ as a text.
    I recently read “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell, and he makes several off-hand theses in that book that others would have been able to write dissertations on. He sums them up in an almost throwaway sentence as part of his larger dissertation. One of those was a quote that went something to the effect of “If we get bogged down in arguing whether or not the myths are factually true, we’ve missed the point entirely.” The larger context of that quote was how we deal with our hero stories on a super-conscious, universal, spiritual level, not how we deal with them on a conscious level.
    As such, that’s the quote I kept coming back to every time I would read an argument on the internet that boiled down to “prove God existed,” or “prove Jesus was real.” Now, the context of that argument was usually a wholly conscious debate–should the government make a law involving themselves in X, Y, or Z, and the person arguing that God did not exist or that Jesus did not exist was making a practical case that someone had no moral authority to legislate something. The premise was “IF your justification for X comes from God/Jesus, THEN it is up to you to prove the basis for your justification.” That person usually referred to the bible, which was then sumarily argued down as a HUMAN work, not a DIVINE work.
    Similar arguments exist as to whether Jesus as HUMAN or DIVINE, and for much similar purposes.
    So after reading Campbell, I was always hesitant to accept the argument of the humanity or divinity of the Bible as an admissible argument to /either/ side. Conscious things need to be handled consciously, super-conscious things need to be handled spiritually. The bible does address super-conscious matters, and those parts are obvious* and timeless.

    *well, more or less.

  2. Tim Dedeaux says:

    Kinda wish I had a “Like” button. 🙂

    Since I don’t, I’m going to ramble. Forgive me if it gets annoying. 🙂

    Something that Peter Enns (and Christian Smith and Rachel Held Evans) pointed out is that even if we take the Genesis account as a nation-building, unifying origin myth, designed to demonstrate Jehovah God’s superiority to and dominion over the polytheistic national gods around them, that doesn’t mean we have to take that same approach to other parts of the Bible.

    Different parts of the Bible were written in different genres, and with different time-gaps between the events. For example, the Pentateuch wasn’t completed until about 500 BCE, but parts of it had been written much earlier … but most of the New Testament, including the Gospels, were written during the original eyewitnesses lifetimes.

    So while many Christians take the Genesis account as something less than strictly, linearly literal Young Earth Creationism,* and with good reasons, it doesn’t logically follow that they’ll come to the same conclusions about the Gospels and the life of Jesus.

    Kurt Willems, a pacifist anabaptist minister (I think you’d like him) actually talks about that some here, holding a discussion on whether you have to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian.

    C.S. Lewis actually talks a lot about this in *God in the Dock,* which made two things crystal clear to me

    1) C.S. Lewis really IS that good. And he’s at his best when he’s talking about myth and miracles and magic, not apologetics.

    2) It’s no wonder American Evangelicals don’t read Lewis anymore. I remember when people did, and discussed his books in Church and everything. But he’s too – well, I hesitate to say liberal, but too nuanced for the typical program now.

    * St. Augustine, apparently, didn’t believe in what we now call YEC (His “Literal Interpretation of Genesis” was not what Young Earth Creationists would call “literal” at all), and Second Temple Judaism wasn’t 100% in line with it either, as the writings of Philo make clear
    ( )

    C.S. Lewis also didn’t put a lot of stock in the “seven 24-hour days starting in 4004 BC” interpretation, either.

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