Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Do Christians Cherry-Pick the Bible?

The religion reporter at the local paper, The Gazette, recently did a short piece titled, “Is Bible an all-or-nothing proposition?” The piece was precipitated by the recent move in the ECLA regarding homosexual lifestyles and marriage, and was intended to ask the question whether Christians cherry-pick from the Bible. Barna notes:

The crux of the issue comes down to the Bible — or, more specifically, how one views it. Is it the literal word of God, and if so, shouldn’t the faithful follow everything in it? You might be surprised by how some religious leaders answer the question.

Several Colorado Springs evangelical pastors I interviewed contend that the Bible is the absolute word of God, yet they acknowledge that they dismiss or de-emphasize various biblical passages.

In other words, they cherry-pick the Bible. (To be fair, most everyone else does, too, but biblical literalists sometimes criticize other Christians for not accepting Scripture in its entirety.)

After very short blurbs from each of three interviews, Barna accuses the pastors of cherry-picking from Scripture. The only minister not accused is the one who agrees with the premise of the article.

So, is it true? Do Christians simply agree with those portions of Scripture they find comfortable and gloss over the rest? Because this is such a serious, not to mention complicated issue, I am going to split my thoughts up into a couple of posts (at least).

First of all, let me say I feel the accusation. I have spent my entire adult life dealing with Scripture, and there are still plenty of stories and passages I don’t know exactly what to do with. But, after my time in Scripture and the development of my own belief system, I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis when he says in Mere Christianity that the God of Christianity is far too uncomfortable to be made up by us. So, if we believe in someone who betrays our natural comforts, chances are good we aren’t making him up or cherry-picking according to our own pleasures.

Secondly, the Bible is not a simplistic document that can be handled with simplistic notions. The Christian Scriptures contain the legal and cultic (cult = having to do with the practice of religion) documents of an ancient middle-eastern people, the religious documents of a theocracy, history, prayer and wisdom books, prophetic oracles, spiritual biographies, epistles, apocrypha, and more. Each literary milieu comes with all the standard hermeneutical principles, just like we would expect to use when comparing the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Emerson, and Emilie Dickenson. It would be simplistic silliness to “exegete” all three of those authors the same way. So it follows it is simplistic silliness to exegete Leviticus, Psalms, Jeremiah and Paul in exactly the same ways.

Therefore, we need to avoid the phrase, “I take the Bible literally.” You don’t. Even if you say you do, you don’t. What should be asserted is something more like: I take the Bible seriously, or, I affirm all the Scriptures affirm. Take for instance my belief that I take the Bible seriously and Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I don’t take that to literally mean that the sky speaks like humans speak. Taking it seriously avoids the silliness of taking it “literally,” and yet allows me to believe what the original author intended to say. The complexity and beauty of creation reveals to me a God.

But, of course, Barna is not that worried about my hermeneutical method and metaphor. He wants to know about the biblical injunctions about homosexuality. So then we will need to continue…


Eric "the" Lind said...

That article made me rather irate. "Oh, you don't follow every last injunction about going to the bathroom outside the camp or not eating crustaceans, so, obviously, it's hypocritical of you to state that homosexuality is a sin." The whole attitude of the piece betrays a total lack of knowledge (or, perhaps disregard) for what the Bible itself says about such matters. The book of Acts and much of Paul's writing clearly delineate the difference between OT dietary laws and actual, universal sin. The article itself cherry-picks its source, while the people it excoriates are the ones who are actually trying to perform the difficult task of living in harmony with all of Scripture. Bah! So annoying.

Phil Steiger said...

It really is something, isn't it? The first time I finished reading it, I had a hard time believing it was an "article" as opposed to a simply blog post. A little bit of work would have gone a long way.

Brian B said...

After reading the Gazette piece, I wondered how Barna came to be considered qualified for writing on religion in a fairly large newspaper. Could he have even taken a single Intro class in, say, Biblical Studies or hermeneutics or even literature? If so, he didn't seem to remember even the most basic principles involved.

Most of his conclusions just don't come close to following from his premises. For example, "Carrol chooses to ignore the two Leviticus shellfish “abomination” passages..." is supposed to follow from the fact that Carrol thinks the injunction against shellfish doesn't apply to every group of people. But thinking that command X applies only to certain groups at certain times does not entail "ignoring" X. Nor does it conflict with a "literal" interpretation.

Then Barna explains one pastor's principled distinction btw. those injunctions that show up repeatedly and consistently, and those that don't, but calls this "cherry-picking." If that's cherry-picking, then Barna obviously owes the reader a definition of his term, since his usage is highly idiosyncratic, to say the least. Normally we use the term "cherry-picking" to refer to an unprincipled or arbitrary "selection" method, or a method that is driven by prior commitments, and so uses already-accepted conclusions to work back toward one's selections. But the example he cites suggests the very opposite of cherry-picking in that sense.

Everyone understands that the "literal" meaning of a parable is something like the "moral message" that a fictional story is intended to illustrate or convey. It would be silly to accuse someone who interprets a parable in this way of "cherry-picking" which passages to take literally and which ones not to take literally. Not at all: there is a well-motivated, principled reason for treating some passages in one way, and others in another way. Things like the cultural context, the social context, the literary genres available to, and intended by, the author, even the intentions of the editors and compilers of the canon - all of these play a role in determining "the meaning(s)" of a given text.

Barna also seems to be unfamiliar with the distinction between a hermeneutical method and a view about the authority of scripture. The former concerns discerning the meaning(s) of a given text; the latter concerns whether one thinks that the intended meaning(s) of a text are true or authoritative or to be taken seriously, etc. So sloppy statements like "biblical literalists sometimes criticize other Christians for not accepting Scripture in its entirety" reveal his conflation of these two very different things. There are plenty of non-literalists (whatever that amounts to) that nevertheless "accept Scripture in its entirety."

Naughty Barna. You'd think that a Colorado Springs-based newspaper, of all places, could find someone a little more familiar with the topic they're supposed to write about!