“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” L. R. Knost
I have been accused of cherry-picking Biblical verses to support my theological stance. My response is: of course I do! We all do. It is the nature of reading, it is what we do with texts. It is why we love the stories we love and hate the ones we hate: how we feel about texts directly correlates to the degree to which we perceive them to be in agreement with our beliefs and values. We are hard-wired to look out for the bits of the world that resonate with us. The only difference between me and my accusers is that I acknowledge that I am doing it.
When it comes to the Bible, cherry-picking is inevitable, because the texts that comprise the anthology come from a multitude of voices, some of which are bound to resonate with us more than others. It is why preachers will have “favourite” books of the Bible, and will tend to preach more from certain books of the Bible than others. They simply resonate with some of the authors’ theologies more than with others. And that’s okay.
But because theology and actions are so deeply intertwined, cherry-picking with sacred texts demands a greater degree of responsibility from readers than doing so from secular texts normally would. What you believe about God has a radical impact on how you relate to the world, so it is encumbent on you to cherry-pick responsibly.
Part of that, I think, means at least making a genuine effort to understand the text on its own terms, rather than your own. If you claim to revere the Bible, then you are obliged, I think, to do it the courtesy of trying to understand its texts within the contexts they were written, and through the eyes of those who penned them. It is too easy – and completely disingenuous – to claim that God is the ultimate author and therefore what it means now is what it meant thousands of years ago. That absolves the reader of any responsibility in terms of being accountable for the way hen interprets the text. It constructs the reader as the passive recipient of a universal message, unsullied by the cultural and experiential contexts through which the reader receives them. But that is patently untrue. History has demonstrated over and over again that it is possible to use Biblical texts to justify any number of oppressive worldviews. If you want to revere the Bible, particularly if you are doing so in order to understand and follow Jesus, you are obliged to attempt to mitigate the effects of your own preconceptions in the reading of it. My Christian friends, please accept this: we all cherry-pick, whether we like it or not. The trick is to cherry-pick the bits – when using texts to attempt to reconstruct Jesus’s theology – that most accurately represent Jesus’s thinking.
Part of doing that means discarding certain ways of reading the Bible. Perhaps the most prevalent and the most misleading of modern hermeneutical methods is treating the Bible as a devotional text. I really hate it when Christian radio stations or schools or church bulletins have “your word for the day”. The truth is that when those who sat down to pen the various books that comprise the Bible did so, not one of them wrote with the intention of providing bite-sized nuggets of wisdom that people could carry with them through the day to keep them focused and positive. Some wanted to write poems, some wanted to write historical records or genealogies, some wanted to write apocalyptic texts (which have very specific rules for interpretation) and some wanted to write letters to specific groups of people to address specific problems. To read every book as speaking the inerrant and (usually) quite literal word of God – conveniently packaged in chapter and verse so that its nuggety goodness can be contained for quick consumption – is not only an irresponsible way of reading, but a dangerous one. In Romans, for example, this approach means ignoring Paul’s use of prosopopoeia . Prosopopoeia, which is the practice of speaking an adversary’s argument (in hen’s absence) as if hen were presenting it – better if possible – and then countering it with one’s own argument, was a recognised part of classical training in the art of rhetoric. In fact, right up until the 19th century, training in rhetoric occupied a central role in the educational programme. There can be no doubt that prosopopoeia would have been a technique with which Paul – as an educated young man, an exceptional scholar from a well-to-do background – would be both familiar and comfortable. Indeed, it is central to making sense of his letter to the Romans. Let me spell it out: not every sentence in Romans reflects Paul’s own theology; much of it is his exposition of the theology of the ‘false prophet’. Thus treating Romans as a devotional text, spoken exclusively from the mouth of God, will invariably result in a blurring between the voices of Paul’s ‘adversary’ and Paul himself. This would have an obviously detrimental impact on our ability to accurately reconstruct Paul’s theology. The Bible is not a devotional book. Very little of it was written with that end in mind. That is not to suggest that the Bible offers no comfort or sustenance, rather that if these are to be found it ought not to come through a devotional reading of any of the Biblical texts.
If you want to root your theology in the Bible, at least make an effort to understand the Bible on its own terms. I will offer this as a cherry-picked passage from 1 John 1, penned by a man who was a close friend of Jesus and a deep theological thinker, as is evident from his gospel account, and who – unlike Paul – actually intends to write theological statements – and which is thus a text I am comfortable using for the purposes of deriving a Jesus-centred theology:
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
In him there is no darkness at all. Can a God who would demand blood payment for sin, who would consign the vast bulk of humanity to eternal fiery torment for adopting the ‘wrong’ creed, be regarded as having in him “no darkness at all”? You might understand my reservations. A little later in that letter, John writes:
3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. And what does that mean, exactly? It is clearly not a rigid and unyielding adherence to the Levitical laws: on numerous occasions those who valued obedience to those laws most highly labelled Jesus a “sinner” (John 9:24) and “demon-possessed” (John 8: 48). It is not about obeying the law. It is not about what you believe about Jesus- your creedal statement. It is not about ‘accepting Jesus into your heart’. It is not about saying the sinner’s prayer and believing that you are forgiven. It is not about tattoos or sexual purity or Harry Potter. It is about living as Jesus did. Yes, I cherry-picked that, but I think validly. And in case you didn’t grasp the import of that, or are in any danger of adopting a legalistic understanding of ‘living as Jesus did’, John goes on to say:
7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning[own note here: in other words, this is what God has always been about]. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble [my emphasis]. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
It’s about love. It’s about refusing to hate. It’s about forgiveness and peace. It’s about living as Jesus did. Are you?