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.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 3 of 3)

Homeless Child

In Part One, I broke down how no era, no decade in American history could really be referred to as “righteous.”  In Part Two, I spoke about the information overload that destroys our ability to not know about the evil the world, and how it pushes us to yearn for a simpler, more sheltered time.

I really think that’s the main emotional and psychological driver behind the “return to a more righteous time” meme.  But I’m being charitable here.  If I were being cynical, I’d say it’s just that people are angry at cussing on TV, and at “the gays.”  Kids these days!  Get off my lawn!

The truth is, even yearning for a simpler time is callous an inhumane. I can’t condone yearning for a simpler time, when respectable white people could be sheltered from the suffering of the brown folk.  Suffering that was often caused by  the respectable white folk.  “Eat your food: there are children starving in Africa.”  And African-Americans like Emmett Till getting lynched in America.

If our national morality rests on Mayberry RFD and stopping gay marriage, then we’ve already failed.   If our hope rests on  turning back the clock to a time when we could pretend we weren’t living in a fallen, broken, needy world, we’ve really failed. There’s a world out there that’s crying out in need.

For the price of dinner for two at Olive Garden, you could provide mosquito netting or school supplies that could mean everything to a child in Sri Lanka or sub-Saharan Africa.

If you want to make America a moral nation again, think of someone other than yourself .  Go to Worldvision and donate – sponsor a child or give a one-time gift to buy seeds, mosquito netting, school supplies, medical help, whatever.  Then go to Kiva and make micro-loans to help build businesses in the poorest countries, to build up their wealth and infrastructure so (in time) they won’t need our donations.

Your vote won’t make America a righteous nation again.  It can’t.  America has never been a righteous nation.  We’ve never been the hope of the world, the city on the hill.  Jesus is the hope of the world.

At our best, America has been an example to the world.  Our constitution with its bill of rights, freedom of conscience, and representative government gave birth to the modern democracy.  Nations across the world have followed in our footsteps, and been much better for it.  But remember, when the revolution was won and the constitution written, it only applied to white men.

 

It’s true that America’s been the world’s police officer, stopping rogue states and defending weaker nations from aggression.  Stepping up to fight the Nazis during WW2 was not only necessary, it was virtuous.  But even then, our soldiers were segregated, and thousands of Japanese were imprisoned without trial or charges, just because of their race.  We may do righteous things as a nation, but we are not a righteous nation.

America is and has been a great nation, an exceptional nation, but we’ve never been a righteous nation.  No nation ever has.  Even ancient Israel wasn’t.  They failed God time and time again, turning to pagan gods that demanded terrible sacrifices.  Solomon, that great wise king, enslaved foreigners to built God’s temple [2 Chron 2:17-18].  He sank to the level of the Pharaohs who’d enslaved Israel just a few centuries earlier.

Our nation runs on money and power, like every other nation in history.  The kingdom of God runs on faith, hope, and active, self-sacrificing love.  The best we can hope for is – as Christians, individually, and together – to be instruments of God’s grace and mercy within our nation, and beyond.

We can use our unearned favor, the wealth and power we have as Americans, to help those who suffer in abject poverty every day.  Whole families’ lives could be radically changed for the price of our cable TV fees.  We can use our time to reach out to our neighbors – our literal neighbors, not the circle of friends we have because they’re just like us.  We can take risks and build relationships with people who think differently than we do, look different, vote for the other side, are different ages, religions, and races.  We can try to love the world as Jesus loves us.

Maybe, just maybe, if we do all that, the world will look at us and say, “Hey, those Americans, they’re not so bad.  They actually take care of each other.  They even help the poorest of the poor, people who can’t pay them back.  I guess those Starbucks-drinking, McDonalds-eating, Wal-Mart-shopping folks maybe they are onto something.”

If we’re really lucky, they’ll say that about us as Christians.  No matter who you vote for, your vote won’t glorify God.  But your actions can.  Where your treasure is, there your heart is also [Matthew 6:21].  Will you put your treasure in the ballot box?  Will you store it in an idealized and inaccurate view of the past? Or will you give it to those who need it most?

The choice is yours.

Things I Don’t Understand – When America Was Righteous (Part 2 of 3)

Howdy Doody display.  Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

Howdy Doody display. Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.”  Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist.  Why are they so powerful?  Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?

I think I can answer that.  When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler.  I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).

I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a  UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns).  If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show.  And on those five channels, the rules were strict.  MASH was about as risqué as it got.  I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.

I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills.  On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing.  Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.

I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union.  I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.

But I was the exception.  Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children.  They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early.  Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War.  They were sheltered.

My parents’ generation?  While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman.  But they were sheltered.  They were children.  Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.

And today?  Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad.  I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him.  I guess computers get STDs, too).

He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak.  But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts.  So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.

That shelter is gone.  And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold.  I won’t argue against that at all.  Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.

Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well.  Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly.  And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis.  Something has to be done!  But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?

Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone.  Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.  We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides.  We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran.  We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.

We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.

A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly.  The proof is not for the faint of heart.   This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.

Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.

So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now.  We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world.  Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion.  It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us.  Matthew 25 tells the story.  Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?

On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 1 of 3)

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

I hear a lot of people talk about America’s moral decline.  There’s a real sense of lost innocence and yearning for a (morally) better time.  I even hear that America was once a Christian nation.  As a student of history, I’m wondering when? 

When Was America Righteous?

(Bear with me.  This next part may sound harsh, but I promise, I’m going to be kind again soon)

At its founding, when chattel slavery was written into the Constitution?

During its expansion, when American armies slaughtered thousands of indigenous people in the name of Manifest Destiny?

After the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan rode across the south, terrorizing and freed men who tried to vote or learn to read?  When the sharecropper system substituted economic slavery for legal?

During the Gilded Age, when monopolies like Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and massive political machines bought and sold laws?  When immigrants and workers in unsafe factories, when children worked twelve hour days in mines?  When the U.S. Navy was sent to Latin America to defend the interests of American corporations?

During World War I, when a generation of young men was sent to die for England in a war we had no share in?  When those who opposed the war openly were jailed?  When we let England and France force Germany into a peace treaty so odious it set the stage for Nazi rule and World War II?

During the “Roaring Twenties,” the time of the flappers and speakeasies, when organized crime rose to heights never seen before, setting the stage for fifty years of American mafia?

During the Depression, when national relief efforts openly discriminated against minorities, when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced, when Jim Crow ruled the South?

During World War II, when Italian-, German-, and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for the crime of their ethnicity?

During the fifties, the age of Ozzie and Harriett, Emmett Till, and the bombing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home?  When Governor Orval Faubus uses the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School?

Maybe the sixties, with the Viet Nam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy?

Or the seventies?  Watergate, Viet Nam, the drug war?  The days of disco and tearoom trades?

Was it the eighties?  “Greed is good?”  “Cocaine parties?” Iran-Contra?  “Just Say No” and the crack epidemic?  Well, we did have Republican Presidents, so maybe that was it?

The nineties?  Surely not.  Gangsta Rap.  Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski.  The birth of Internet pornography…

Well, that brings us to the 21st century.

The point here is not to be sarcastic, or to be unpatriotic.  I truly believe America is a great nation, even an exceptional nation.  But we have never been a righteous nation.  Nations run on power and money, and we all know that nobody can serve two masters [Matthew 6:24].  Maybe that’s why God was so reluctant to give Israel a king [1 Samuel ch. 8].

As Americans, we can be righteous and merciful.  We can steer our nation to be more godly, to sow peace and life, rather than greed and death.  But we should never forget that we are a nation of power and wealth, like all other nations (including Israel, ancient and modern).  We should never forget that America is not the hope of the world.  Jesus is.

 

 

(In part two, I’ll give my theories as to why the “America’s righteous past” meme is so persistent and powerful.)

 

The Art of Vulnerability

Nietzsche Quote

As Christians, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones, something I’m not very good at.  I’m not a naturally outgoing person.  I tend to prefer books and numbers and art and ideas to people and social gatherings.  Of course, I get as lonely as anybody else if I do not get enough social interaction.  I’m incredibly thankful that I’m married to a woman who not only understands this, but feels very much the same (though she’s more focused on music than on books and numbers).

But I think that going outside our comfort zones almost by definition means doing things we’re not so good at.  Don’t get me wrong: I think God made us the way we are for a reason.  I think our talents and temperaments are not accidents, but gifts.  And so I will probably never be called to lead a Billy Graham-style crusade, preaching to millions, or even work as a pastor, dealing with an entire congregation in groups and one on one settings.  But if I ever am, I know I’ll have to step up and do it, trusting that God will give me the strength to fulfill His call.

So, what does that mean here, in the written word?

I think, for me at least, it means vulnerability.  Nietzsche famously said, “of all writing, I love only that which a man has written in his own blood.”  I think that (if I may be so bold as to speak for Him), God may feel the same way.

Vulnerability goes beyond honesty.  A person may be completely honest, as far as it goes, while writing about topics that never require him to lay himself bare, to intentionally make himself look weak or foolish or flawed.  But only by appearing weak and foolish and flawed can we really glorify God.

And this goes for fiction as well as blogging and memoir (those who know me know I’ve always written fiction, and I’ve always struggled with being truly happy with what I create).  It’s hard, when trying to juggle plot, character, character voice, and prose style to really be vulnerable.  It’s not easy to let an ugly, doubt-ridden, questioning, disappointed, vulnerable part of myself spill out into the characters, especially not a character I like.  It’s not easy; in fact, it hurts.  But it is, I believe, necessary.

So what do you think?  Should our brokenness before God show through in everything we write?  Is there a place for confident, even didactic prose?  What about didactic, prescriptive fiction?  And are we ready, as Christians in an often-sanitized culture, to confront each others’ vulnerabilities?

Eet Mor Chiken and the Gratest Komandmint

Chick Fil A Chicken Sandwich

Photo by J. Reed, Creative Commons

I recently saw a letter to the editor in a local newspaper in which the author said he was tired of hearing about Chick-Fil-A.  He wanted us all to shut up about it because America has bigger problems than some fast food guy.  I sent a letter back replying that for homosexual men and women, civil rights, bullying, and marriage equality are hardly yesterday’s news.

I don’t think it’s time to stop the conversation.  I think it’s time to keep talking.  I hope I can say this with grace, and without any rancor or sarcasm.

When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus called us to love God with everything we have and love our neighbors as ourselves [Matthew 22:36-40].  Can we love somebody without every trying to see things from their perspective?  Can we love somebody without taking the time to understand their struggles and what’s important to them?

Samaritans were seen much like homosexuals are today: outside of the faith, less valuable, different, other.  Samaritans were half-breed descendants of Jews who’d married pagans.  They worshipped on a mountain, not in the temple, living a lifestyle that defied God’s holy law every Sabbath.  They were enemies of the faith, unnatural half-breeds, scum.  But when asked “who is my neighbor,” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. [Luke 10:25-37]  When traveling, Jesus took a detour into Samaria and preached to the woman at the well [John Chapter 4], even though she was living in lifestyle sexual sin with a man she wasn’t married to (while most likely still being legally married to one of her five previous husbands).

So if we love our gay neighbors as we love ourselves, shouldn’t we think about how our actions will affect them?  Shouldn’t we consider that our massive Chick-Fil-A rally will look less like “support for free speech” and more like a raised fist to them?

If you lived in a nation where Christianity was a small minority, denounced and scorned by the majority, how would you feel about a huge demonstration of support for a rich man who vocally condemns Christians and financially supports organizations that oppose Christianity?

I’d feel terrible, myself.  I’d feel bullied and persecuted.  I’d feel like, indeed, my own neighbors had turned against me. Not welcome, not loved.

How do you think the average gay person felt when he or she saw long lines wrapped around Chick-Fil-A all day, people lining up to support a business that gives money to anti-gay groups?

But it’s different, we say.  Homosexuality is a sin, we say.  Jesus didn’t say love our sinless neighbors as ourselves.  He said love our neighbors as ourselves.  Believing that homosexuality is a sin (even if you’re right) doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore Jesus’s commands on how to treat his gay children, our gay neighbors.  Being right never excuses unloving, graceless, judgmental behavior.  Nor does it excuse thoughtless behavior that is hurtful to an already vulnerable population.

I hadn’t really written anything about this, but seeing that letter in the editor lit a fire under me.  Sometimes we are so concerned about being right that we fail to follow our Divine Master’s greatest commandments.  And I’m as guilty of that as anyone, but I’m trying to work on it.

What do you think?  In our zeal to critique our secular culture, do we sometimes lose sight of God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves?  Can a critique that is begun out of love become something unloving through escalation, or perhaps through failure to see things from another perspective?

Privilege Part One

I’m a pretty regular reader of Rachel Held Evans’s blog, and today, I saw something there that really pricked my conscience: “Church Stories: A Plea to Engage in Racial Reconciliation.”

I urge you to read this.  I’ve never been a “racist” but I know that as a white American, and a Southerner that racism is not a thing of the past.  It lives on in our communities, in our churches, and in ourselves.

(edit) As I posted in a comment at RHE’s blog,

I think it’s like growing up in a house with lead paint on the walls.  Even if you don’t eat the paint chips, you can’t ever really escape it.  The heavy metals hover in the air, seeping into your hair and skin, your blood and heart and brain, like a slow poison, dulling your senses and clouding your mind.  And even if you get out of the house, the lead remains in your system for years, possibly forever, unless you take conscious, even drastic steps to purge it.

Too often, as white people, we hold on to parts of our past that looked good and comforting from our perspective, but were really ugly, unhealthy, and even oppressive.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people praise the values of the 1950’s, but the truth is, for every Beaver Cleaver there was an Emmett Till.

I had some African-American friends in high school, mostly through Beta Club and Marching Band, but the college I went to was overwhelmingly white.

That’s not surprising for a Baptist college (for the record, I wasn’t seeking a sectarian undergraduate experience.  I basically told the college recruiters to show me the money, and Mississippi College gave me the best offer by far.  I think a lot of that school, to be honest: the instructors held us to a high standard of academic rigor, and yes, the biology professors taught us about evolution).

Though not surprising, it was somewhat problematic.  I think the first time I really thought about the issue of race was when the O.J. Simpson verdict was released.  Opinions on it were sharply divided along racial lines.  Ever black student I talked to was happy, and every white student was upset.  I think that was the first time I realized that just trying to ignore race entirely was not going to work.

My graduate school experience landed me in New Orleans and introduced me to a much broader set of ideas and beliefs.  I joined my first non-Baptist church (Crescent City Church of Christ), I became friends with people of several religions (including no religion at all) and people whose concept of gender was perhaps unconventional (at least for a sheltered Baptist boy like me).  It was good to reach beyond my narrow comfort zone in so many ways, but the quiet question of race still remained … specifically, the question that had plagued the South since its inception: white and black.

I graduated, got married, got a job, and basically nothing changed.  Then I started teaching school in Jackson, Mississippi.

If you haven’t been to Jackson, Mississippi, let me explain.  It’s a textbook case of white flight.  The white folks fled to private schools and the ever-expanding periphery, keeping their kids away from the black kids (and I do mean ever-expanding periphery: Madison is 45 minutes from some parts of Jackson).  And there I was, teaching in a school that was 98% African-American.

I really could have done better than I did.  I tried as hard as I could to be a good teacher, but I think along the way I forgot to learn from my students.

And so I find myself here, with my conscience pricked, realizing I am still surprising tone-deaf about race, surprisingly swaddled in my own white privilege.

And I know this isn’t how God wants me to be.

Wrestling Angels

I’m writing this blog primarily about religious matters.  I’ve tried blogging about my faith a couple of times before, but I always fell away from it (the blogging, not the faith).  I think there were two problems:

First, I was trying to tell people what I think the “answers” are.  I don’t have answers.  Honestly, we don’t get many “answers” this side of Heaven, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Second, I wasn’t ever really, deeply honest.  I don’t think it is possible to be fully honest when giving out “answers,” because the truth is, whatever seems right now may seem wrongheaded and petty in a couple of years.  When your business is talking answers, you either lie,  constantly contradict yourself, or become so arrogant that you refuse to change your mind.  None of those is worth the bandwidth.

The only honest path is to admit to the questions, to embrace the questions, and to genuinely study the questions.  Doubt can be a kind of worship.  Doubt is a kind of humility.  Doubt is saying to God, “I don’t understand you, I know I can’t prove you, but I still choose to worship you.”

That’s why I’ve called this attempt “Wrestling with the Angel.”  The title comes from Genesis 32:24-28, when Jacob wrestled with an angel (or possibly a pre-incarnate Christ) throughout the night, refusing to let go until the angel blessed him, even though the angel tore his hip out of joint.

It was here that he lost the name Jacob, the deceiver who stole his brother’s birthright, and became Israel, the one who struggles with God.

And I think that is one of our duties as Christians: to struggle with God, to wrestle the angels, to dive headlong into our doubts and fears.  To hold on until He blesses us, and gives us a new name.