Cherry picking the Bible

Criticizing people who pick and choose which parts of Scripture to follow is fruitless because everyone -- liberal and conservative -- does it.

By Thomas Whitley

Neale Donald Walsch had a post on Huffington Posts's Religion blog recently titled "Buffet-Style Bible Believers" to which I've wanted to respond, but have had little time until now.

The message of the post is nothing new. He takes a Rev. Tim Reed, pastor of First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge in Jacksonville, Ark., to task for picking parts of the Bible as authoritative to say that "homosexuality is a choice, a sin" while presumably ignoring other parts such as the command to kill a rebellious child. Walsch's post is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that he is clearly making assumptions about which verses Reed would or would not consider authoritative and worthy to be used as a guide in one's life.

This is bothersome, but in the end Walsch may be right that Reed would not consider other parts of the Bible authoritative. The hypocrisy that Walsch is trying to point out is one which many have recognized and something that has been pointed out countless times by moderate to liberal Christians and non-Christians alike.

Yet, the part of the post that most struck me was the first paragraph:

I don't mind when people use the Bible as their Source and Authority on matters of spiritual consequence, but I do have a problem with people who use the Bible "buffet-style," choosing only those verses that suit their purpose or personal opinion, then ignoring anything and everything that does not -- or that they think might make them, as staunch believers in the Bible, "look bad."

What Walsch fails to grasp is that everyone cherry-picks the Bible. Those who claim to be "staunch believers in the Bible" claiming its inerrancy and infallibility along with those who view it as a historical and all-too-human text. Further, while I disagree with the stance taken by the pastor whom Walsch is reprimanding, it is more than a little offensive for Walsch to be telling him how he should read his religiously authoritative text.

I recall a chapel experience while I was in seminary where the speaker discussed this very issue and he shocked many present by saying that yes, of course, he cherry-picks the Bible; the difference is that he's honest about it.

What refreshing honesty. It is no secret that certain verses are more authoritative to some than to others. I don't hear very many Christians today extolling the merits of slavery, though the Bible clearly condones it. Likewise, the practices of concubinage or the command that a rapist marry his victim rarely make their way into sermons today as examples of how we should live our lives.

The truth is, I don't think anyone, anywhere, truly believes "all of the Bible." This is an impossible task since it presents multiple views on a myriad of topics such as what happens after one dies, the existence or not of some final apocalyptic judgment, the necessity of faith or practice, and whether Jesus was human, divine or both. It should not be seen as a single, unified text that speaks with one voice consistently. To say that it does, denies the historical and literary reality of the text. What is more, Walsch exhibits this same "buffet-style" methodology in his attempt to excoriate Reed by picking notably obscure and "odd" passages.

But cherry-picking the Bible is not a problem for me. Certain passages resonate more with me than do others, and while some passages are authoritative for how I live my life, others are not. The way 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus talk about women does not govern how I view women and their potential for leadership. The unquestioning acceptance of slavery and the treatment of women as property does not govern how I live my life. Yet other passages do. The way that Paul in his undisputed letters talks about women is worlds apart from the way 1 Timothy talks about them. One cannot simultaneously believe both are "true" and truly view both as authoritative guides for life. So, yes, of course, I cherry-pick the Bible.

The Bible contains a multiplicity of voices, but this does not bother me. In fact, the Bible becomes much more meaningful, I believe, when we see it for what it is: various voices speaking to us about how they understood God and how they understood themselves to be the people of God. So maybe instead of lambasting others for being "buffet-style Bible believers" we should be honest about our own Bible reading practices and then critique the hermeneutics governing those practices. We should ask ourselves, what overarching convictions about God or the human experience govern our reading of the Bible as a whole and then whether this should be the ultimate guide to how I read the Bible.

Simply put, I'm kind of ready to put this tired critique to bed. No one – conservative Christian, liberal Christian, Jew or atheist – reads all of the Bible the same way because the nature of this anthology of texts precludes this possibility. Let's move on to a more substantive conversation about why we read the way we do and then maybe we'll experience real dialogue and see real, worthwhile change.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.