“There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them”
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
If you’re part of the blogosphere or are on a social networking site, chances are you’ve seen (or been “tagged” with) the “page 123” meme. Though it’s been around for a while, it resurfaces now and again and it goes something like this:
Pick up the book nearest to you.
Open it to page 123.
Find (then post) the fifth sentence.
The results are usually funny or odd, or sometimes (as with the passage quoted from the book nearest me, Leaves of Grass) a little, ehem, impolite.
What’s clear is that pulling a few lines out of a book doesn’t give a fair representation of the book’s contents. What’s more is that a brief excerpt, when taken out of context, can reek of ridiculousness. For some, that may be the whole point: to poke fun at (and maybe even discredit or taint) an otherwise good book.
Speaking of, if ever there’s been a book subjected to such cherry-picking shenanigans, it’s the Bible. Now and again a movie or TV character will quote an obscure—sometimes strange—Bible verse, leaving viewers who are unfamiliar with the Scripture somewhat stunned, perhaps thinking “People really believe this stuff?”
The practice of “prooftexting” (selecting quotes to “establish a proposition”) is generally used by believers and nonbelievers alike to make the Bible say what the reader wants to hear. For the latter, it’s used as a means to discredit the Bible’s relevance and, therefore, reliability. But how effective is this particular approach?
I talked with Krista Bontrager (theologian and Reasons To Believe’s Dean of Online Learning) and Kenneth Samples (philosopher/theologian and author of A World of Difference and A Matter of Days) for their perspectives.
Samples explains that “hermeneutics is critical” whenever reading Scripture—that is, learning how to interpret the Bible within its context and genre. “Without context,” he continues, “some verses or laws seem unusual or offensive….Some laws have to do with ceremony—ceremonial laws that were fulfilled in the Old Testament. Others, like moral law, have a broader application.”
Bontrager adds, “Old Testament laws represent the human cultural manifestation of a universal principle.” She uses Deuteronomy 22:8 as an example: “When you build a new house, you must build a railing around the edge of its flat roof. That way you will not be considered guilty of murder if someone falls from the roof.”
So does this mean people living today need to roll up our sleeves and start working on a fence for our roof? No. She explains that in the ancient Near Eastern culture, people would gather and hang out on rooftops. The verse isn’t about a fence but about loving our neighbors, so much so that we want to protect them from harm.
Bontrager makes this final point: “Though the Bible may contain things we would consider unusual or objectionable, it’s important to figure out how all the pieces tell the overall story of the Bible.”
So what seemed like an odd or useless decree now starts to make sense. Forget the fence. Let’s just love our neighbors. In other words we must look beyond page 123.
Now that’s something we can believe in.
Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (deals more with alleged contradictions)
Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible
It’s giveaway time! The first 10 comments to this post (on Take Two's Wordpress blog) will receive a free copy of the audio message “How Can We Trust that the Bible Is True and Inspired by the Creator?” from the monthly series on Answers to Life’s BIG Questions. Happy commenting!