Whether the issue is political or local gossip, there are a lot of knee-jerk reactions to commentary taken out of context. I know I was the object of a lot of community gossip when I served a church and a rumor got around town that I had refused a gun salute at a military funeral. It wouldn’t have even been an issue had the cremains been buried in a cemetery. But since the ashes were going to be taken home, there was a question raised about having the gun salute in the church parking lot.
Well, it wasn’t even an issue or a question, really, because I offered the family the inclusion of the gun salute figuring we could work through the logistics, but the family was so grateful for all I was doing to accommodate their military-related requests that they just gave me a smile, a thank you, and a no.
Never mind the details. Never mind that anyone could have come to me and asked about it. Never mind that the family was completely happy after the military funeral was over and “Taps” had been played. There were folks who just heard snippets of what had happened, concluded I had refused the family’s request, and, suddenly, the local newspaper was bombarded with angry letters to the editor about an unnamed pastor in town who was so unpatriotic, said pastor refused the gun salute. Frankly, I wondered who the letters were talking about. I was floored to find out they were talking about me. Nothing they claimed happened was true.
Oh, there was a snippet of truth. There was a funeral, it was a military funeral, and I was the officiant.
That’s how bad information gets around, I’ve concluded. People take a snippet of truth and twist it to fit their own expectations, their own desires, their own needs for revenge or retribution. Sometimes their aim is to hurt an individual (which certainly happened to me in this case) or a cause. Sometimes it is without thought about anyone’s feelings but rather the need to be part of the crowd, to be accepted in their own communities. Whatever the reason, it’s just wrong.
One of my readers had asked me to write a post about taking pieces of scripture out of the context of scripture around it and the context of the totality of the Bible. As I gave it serious consideration, it made me think about political arguments we have these days. While the venom on social media is bad enough, I fully expect it to get worse in the many months leading up to the presidential election. Yet in most of it, there is a tidbit, a snippet of truth on which rumormongering can build otherwise completely fabricated conclusions. The irony is that those passing on those ill-conceived conclusions often don’t realize how they are built on such sandy soil to begin with.
Taking scripture out of context to suit one’s own agenda is nothing new. It’s been going on since God put those first words into the dictation machine. Humans being what they are, there were some typographical errors and miscommunications, but God chose those people to convey God’s words and it has been up to the rest of us to noodle through it all to see if we can get a peek at God’s intentions for us.
To get that done, it’s imperative for us to make an effort to find out what’s in the Bible in the first place. How often have I heard it said, “Well, you know, the Bible says, ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window.’” And I have politely said, “Is that in the Bible?” I’m greeted with stares like deer caught in headlights. “Isn’t it?” “Uh, no. But I confess I make mistakes so if you can find it in the scriptures, by all means, let me know.”
And then there are the conclusions we reach based on what we have heard all of our lives. I recall a particular adult Sunday School class when the question of God’s gender arose. A young woman got up and left in tears when I suggested that perhaps God was only referred to as “he” because through the history of Christianity, men have been doing most of the writing and translating. Going back through what little I know of Biblical Hebrew and Greek, I’d say God has allowed us to make God a man because God’s love (God is love after all) is so beyond our ability to imagine that we have to anthropomorphize God – put God in human terms – so that we can begin to grasp who God is and how God understands us.
In the Second or New Testament, Jesus tells the story of the shrewd manager which, on the surface, would instruct us to be dishonest in order to make money. In another of my adult Sunday School classes, one of our treasured older women with a dog-earred Bible was upset by the implication. “This shouldn’t be in the Bible,” she said firmly. As the discussion among the class continued as to what Jesus could possibly have meant by this parable (certainly not to be dishonest!), the dear church member began to shake and tears welled up in her eyes. I softly inquired with her whether our discussion had cleared any of her concerns. She simply repeated, “This shouldn’t be in the Bible.” She never returned to the study class. And, of course, it wasn’t in my power to take it out of the Bible.
Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. Most often when we read a passage and study it at one point in our lives and then take it up again a few years later, we’ll read that same passage completely differently. It is a marvel to me as I look through my old notes how I came to the conclusions I did. And it’s not that I was necessarily wrong in those conclusions. Rather, the Bible is intended to be a living document. Therefore, God can speak to us through those words regardless of our age or setting.
So there are difficulties, to be sure. But what my reader was most concerned about, I think, was what is called proof-texting; that is, taking a snippet of scripture completely out of the context of the scripture surrounding it or out of the context of the Bible in its entirety and using that snippet in the same way those folks took the information about that military funeral completely out of the context of what actually happened in the planning and carrying out of that service.
While I try to be as gentle as possible in pointing out the difficulties of some of our translations (and, yes, I am wrong about this stuff too), I have found myself at points of frustration with some church folks who are intent about deliberately skewing the printed words to fit their own pre-conceived conclusions. One Sunday when one of our adult church school members was once again quoting scripture to support her point, another member at the table politely asked her to give the scripture reference so that she too could look it up and study it. Several minutes later and after the discussion had moved on from an uncomfortable and completely erroneous conclusion, that second member politely interrupted and said, “You know, I looked up the scripture that Ruby shared with us earlier and I think it’s important to read the verses around it.” So that’s what she proceeded to do. In so doing, it was clear that the erroneous interpretation was just that and had been taken out of context. I suppose it’s important for me to note that our friend Ruby apparently did not like being corrected for taking that snippet out of context because she never came back to the class.
As a preacher, I am charged with interpreting scripture whenever I stand before a congregation. It is a directive that I take with deep humility. A particular piece of scripture can be laden with meanings depending on who is hearing it and what is going on in their lives at that particular moment. Scripture is not something with which to trifle. Yet, and this is the biggest one for me, there is an over-arching theme in the Bible whether we concentrate on the First or Old Testament or the Second or New Testament or both: Love. God is love. We are to love God. We are to love one another. We are to love ourselves.
If we want to convince someone else of what we see as Truth in the scriptures, we must do so, first, with love and with the understanding that others may interpret those scriptures differently. We must be respectful of others’ traditions, what they have been raised to believe, what we have been raised to believe, and that all of us have been taught or concluded some things incorrectly.
Interpreting scripture, like interpreting politics or community gossip, is kind of a chicken and egg sort of thing. What came first? What are the facts? Can we find a way to know all of the facts or as many as possible? And can we agree that just taking a snippet here or there may lead us not only to the wrong conclusions but to hurtful ones?
The fact of the matter is that if we were to begin with the scriptures first and read them not in a vacuum but in the context of others who are exploring and want to know more, there won’t be any issue about chickens and eggs when it comes to politics and gossip. The scriptures will tell us, will be our guide for how we interact with one another and we’ll know that we must treat one another with love. Period. Scripture is both the chicken and the egg.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” – Luke 6:46-49