One of the scariest passages in the Bible is Ezekiel 33.7-9.I first read this before I was a teenager and it scared me deeply.In case you don’t feel like clicking over to BibleGateway and searching, the pericope is a section where Yahweh is warning Ezekiel about the dangers of giving up hope (in the larger context).Ezekiel, you see, had lived through the fall of Jerusalem.Many people of Judah felt that the destruction of the temple was the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the chosen people.Ezekiel here is being warned to deliver good news.If Ezekiel doesn’t call out the lie (the sins of Israel weigh it down) he will be punished as if he were the sinner himself.I knew evangelical friends in college who lifted that verse out of context and said God would punish them if they didn’t warn the people.They weren’t so worried about the fall of Jerusalem—that was old news by the 1980s—but about some other issue they deemed important at the moment.
Taking verses out of context has a name.It’s called “prooftexting.”It can be done to just about any piece of writing, including this blog post.All it requires is finding a passage that says what you want it to and claim that it means what you say it does.The Bible’s a big, big book.Trying to understand its contents in context takes years of dedicated work.Even then biblical scholars don’t have all the answers because if they did we could all stay home and surf the net for the rest of our lives.No, engaging with sacred texts is a never-ending task, by definition.That warning to Ezekiel was for Ezekiel.What was that message?Stop saying the exile is the end!There’s more to the story.Read the book to the end and see.
The problem with prooftexting, if I might engage in a bit of it myself, is that it takes away from the totality of the Good Book itself.Not adding too or taking away from the Bible is a biblical command (taken out of context), which means that with the Bible it’s all or nothing at all.And if it’s the former, it means Ezekiel’s condemnation is contingent upon what follows.Back in biblical times there wasn’t as much reading material as there is today.It turns out, however, that there’s a lot more written down than we used to assume.If we’re going to read it we should do so within its context.But just in case, please be assured that the exile isn’t the end of the story.
Maybe my recollection of the Gospel’s a bit hazy. I seem to remember one of the main characters of the New Testament saying something about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And turning the other cheek. I may be recalling incorrectly, since Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s “evangelical advisors” (and since when do Presidents need evangelical advisors?) has said the Bible gives you permission to take out your enemies. Granted, it takes a twisted exegesis of Romans, and twisted exegesis works best in twisted minds, but this runs full frontal in the gospel ideal of love just two books earlier in the Good Book. Forcing the Bible to say what you want it to say is a tactic as old as preaching itself, but still, those of us with training in Scripture shudder.
Pulling verses out of context like the Bible’s a magic book is called “prooftexting.” Not related to the current plague of texting, prooftexting means you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to. The classic example is that the Bible says “there is no God.” Check it out. I’ll even give you the reference: Psalm 14:1. What’s that? I’ve left out the most important part? “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’”? You see what I mean. The danger here is that a feeble-minded, biblically illiterate world leader could easily be swayed. Nukes, after all, are great for your ego. Who wouldn’t want the Bible to say that it’s fine to take out all your enemies, and horde all the money you possibly can (not it’s not the root of all evil—Paul is dead, after all.) Except Paul wrote Romans. How are we ever to decide?
The Washington Post story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey may not suggest that we should pay attention to Bible scholars—hey let’s not get too radical here!—but the world would be a very different place if we did. The Bible is a complex and difficult holy book. (As most holy books are.) The idea used to be that you had to spend a lifetime in a monastery, or at least a few years in a seminary, to say something intelligent about it. And that training wasn’t reinforcement of literalism. But we live in a brave new world. A world that re-envisions Jesus as the loving God with his finger firmly on the button. And sycophant preachers saying, “Go ahead, make my day.” It’s all there in the book of Hezekiah.
Midtown Manhattan is awash in litter, particularly on a Monday morning, or first thing after a holiday. I generally arrive in the city shortly after 7 a.m., before the detritus is swept away. Frequently I see, among the discarded food wrappers and cigarette butts, copies of Tony Alamo’s World Newsletter. You can get a pristine copy if you take the subway. An abstemious young man will gladly hand one to you with a smile. The articles are accusatory and unsophisticated examples of prooftexting of the worst kind. Even I know better than to use “you” all the time, implying that “I” am better. The following is typical: “It may seem fun to you to run wild, to do whatever you please, but remember…” Not that Tony Alamo would ever run wild, doing whatever he pleased.
I was curious about the movement. Ironically, Tony Alamo, according to Wikipedia, was convicted as a child sex offender in 2009. It is a pattern as familiar as it is unfortunate. Those who rail loudly against certain behaviors often find themselves practitioners of the same. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this phenomenon is that it never seems to change, as if the learning curve is just too steep to climb. In the case of evangelists, it may be that treating the Bible as a magical book—mashing all verses together out of context, cherry-picking the one that best seems to fit the sin of the day, creates an impossible standard to follow. The Bible both indicates that you should love your parents and hate them. What it might mean depends on context. Those who snatch a verse from here and a verse from there are practicing the old form of treating the Bible like a book of spells. It can be done, of course, since it has one author (God) and mix-and-match is as good a method as any. What if God was having a bad day?
The lead article I was handed last time on the subway confirms this: “Why Does God Bless and Why Does He Curse?” the pastor wonders. The answer to the latter question, which I have eagerly sought all my life, is finally made plain. What seems to be God’s curse is your own darn fault. You deserve worse, since you are such awful sinners. Pardon me, I seem to have slipped into the second person, based on the vernacular I have been reading. Classic blaming the victim. One can hardly be surprised when evangelists resort to this inexpensive explanation—theodicy has historically been one of the most difficult problems faced by those who declare God all-powerful and all-good. The 6 train squeals into the station. As the doors clinch shut behind me, I see passengers eagerly reading the newsletter. There are those who might give more reasoned answers to life’s pressing questions, but they can’t afford to hire young proteges to stand in a dank subway station to hand out their wisdom. It has to be found by chance, like litter on the streets of the city.
As part of my regular Hebrew Bible class, students prepare classroom presentations for the end of the semester. This gives them a break from constant lecturing and also serves the function of initiating discussion. I assign social issues for them to discuss vis-à-vis the Bible; they can discuss these with each other in group-sessions throughout the semester. Since no one knows “the answer” when it comes to the Bible, I figure we can all learn from each other. I’ve been using this exercise for four years now, and at a school the size of Rutgers, you’d expect a wide variety of perspectives. This occurs, to be sure, as does more predictable stances. After fourteen weeks of instruction, most of them can only find the Bible a trove of prooftexts.
Learning to integrate biblical study into a rational worldview is difficult in our cultural climate. From nearly every medium from which religion wafts – Internet, television, newspaper, personal sermonizing – it comes out literal. The Bible/Quran says… (fill in the blank). What occurred to me during the student presentations is that scriptures of all descriptions become dangerous when their context is lost. Politicians, often among the arguably least educated members of society, argue about what the Bible says. Problem is, the Bible was written from a pre-Enlightenment viewpoint, a perspective that is out of reach to all but the most utterly naïve. Even to understand worldviews from the pre-Enlightenment you need to spend years of serious historical study.
So here’s our dilemma: we live in a society enamored of a book it doesn’t understand. Bible verses are used like Band-aids, pasted over every perceived rupture of continuity, but never quite reaching to the ends of the wound. Even after a semester of bald instruction – in the case of Nashotah House three semesters – students generally revert to what they know. To learn what the Bible instructs, take a pair of mental scissors, snip around the pericope, and tape the verse over the issue. There is, however, always a backside to the page. And most students never learn even to turn the page over to see if both sides agree. They could be ready for a life of politics.
A headline in yesterday’s paper read “Mom expected God to provide food, daughter testifies,” regarding a New Jersey court case on child endangerment. Back in 2006 an unemployed mother decided, based on what her religion dictated, that God would sustain her family. Her children nearly starved to death after eleven days without food. In a society where those who take their religion literally like to wear it on their sleeves, and politicians receive excessive adulation for their piety, this case is a splash of ice-water honesty. Reality is, people starve to death. Many of them children, many of them religious.
The non-biblical adage “God helps those who help themselves” can properly be traced to Algernon Sydney, a seventeenth-century British philosopher. Quite apart from this noteworthy comment, Sydney was also aware that taking the verses of the Bible out of context you could prove just about anything. He famously wrote, “If you take the scripture to pieces you will make all the penmen of the scripture blasphemous; you may accuse David of saying there is no God and of the Apostles that they were drunk.” Found guilty of treason for his own words taken out of context, Sydney was sentenced to death. Today many people believe his words are biblical.
God help the man who speaks the truth
Perhaps the reality is that people do not want to own up to responsible religion. Believing that God dabbles almighty fingers into the realms of physics, biology, and chemistry every day, violating the laws of nature, they suppose that our little planet is the focal point of a grand cosmic scheme. Meanwhile, a glance at the paper reveals evil perpetrated in the name of God, and a glance at history reveals sensible thinkers facing the gallows.
This week’s Time magazine contains an article entitled “How Moses Shaped America” by Bruce Feiler (actually it is an abstract from his book, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story). Feiler points out how Moses has been manipulated and utilized by various factions of American society from the earliest pilgrims up through President Obama’s campaign. There’s some interesting stuff here, from the proposal of the Great Seal that depicts the parting of the Red Sea to the Mosaic elements in the Statue of Liberty. No doubt about it, America loves Moses.
As intriguing as I found Feiler’s thesis, I couldn’t help but be a little bit disturbed by it. Serious biblical scholars are early taught to avoid prooftexting like a plague of frogs. Prooftexting is part of a Fundamentalist’s daily spiritual calisthenics, right after chapter-and-verse-presses. Prooftexting is pulling random Bible verses out of context to support a confessional position on any issue. You can always tell it’s coming when someone opens with “the Bible says…” Then you get a chapter-and-verse punctuation mark. What Feiler is describing in his article is just that, a use of Moses that fits the crisis of the moment. While there is nothing wrong about looking to a great leader in time of need, whether that leader be mythical or historical, I wonder how different this is than marching into battle with “Gott und Ich” inscribed on your belt-buckle.
One statement Feiler makes, however, I must take exception to: “With the rise of secularism and the declining influence of the Bible in the 20th century, Moses might have melted away as a role model.” No doubt secularism was in the ascendant during the twentieth century, but the influence of the Bible was never stronger. The twentieth century saw the Bible co-opted as part of a powerful political agenda that drove this nation to the brink of destruction. Never before had the Bible been used to deceive many thousands of untrained religious believers in the ways of war and greed and inhumanity. Bible-thumping had become more effective than rational thinking or coherent speech in the political debates we all so painfully watched. No, the Bible’s influence has not been shrinking. What is needed is a Moses to wrestle it back to its proper place. Even the Bible can be a golden calf.