In Defense of Cherry Picking the Bible

People accuse each other of cherry picking sacred texts, as if the term was an insult. But for those seeking to honor the quest of the Bible writers or to raise healthy children within a Christian tradition, that is precisely the right approach.

No parent with a backyard cherry tree would pick every piece of fruit on the tree and feed it to her children. No matter how excellent a tree, some of the fruit is wormy. Some of it is bird pecked and moldy. Some wasn’t pollinated properly and has been hard and shriveled from the beginning. A loving parent culls through, discarding the bad fruit and feeding her children the cherries that are juicy and nourishing.

But when it comes to handed down ideas about religion—about what is real and what is good and how we should then live—many people don’t apply the same prudent care. They take the Bible or related traditions and pass them on without sifting or sorting.

Bad cherries in the bowl will give a child a stomach ache at worst, but bad religious ideas can leave a person needlessly guilt ridden for life or unable to enjoy sex, or deeply fearful of death, or full of judgment and alienation toward outsiders, or even suffering what some call religious trauma syndrome.

Handing down un-culled religious beliefs from one generation to the next not only passes on psychologically harmful ideas, it is tearing apart our world. Today some of the worst ideas plaguing society are ideas that claim support from the pages of the Torah or Christian Bible or Quran, for example the idea that children are born bad and must be beaten, or that female sexuality is dirty and dangerous, or that homosexuality is abominable, or that religious outsiders lack morals, or that war can be holy, or that the Earth is ours to consume as we please and that God will simply replace it.

These ideas reflect the mentality of our ancestors, but there is every reason to think that they would be far less common today were it not for the fact that they are endorsed in the pages of books now called Holy by hundreds of millions of believers.

To understand how humanity ended up in this dilemma and how we might get past it, we need to understand something fundamental about the Abrahamic religions.

People of the Book

 
When the Prophet Mohammed embraced Jews and Christians as fellow “People of the Book,” he wasn’t simply acknowledging the shared roots of all three religions in the ancient Hebrew narrative of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was also correctly observing that these two religious traditions were centered around written texts akin to the one he was in the process of creating.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerged during the time when writing was coming into its own as humanity’s most powerful cultural technology, one that wouldn’t be rivaled until the 20th Century. To a degree unlike any prior religion (or any religion that is likely to emerge in the future), the Abrahamic religions are structured around a specific communication technology—the written word. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s largest religions spread across continents not only in the minds of individual believers but in bundles of papyrus, parchment, scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, and finally mass produced books.

In Christianity, the advent of the printing press, which brought the written word to the masses, directly fueled the Protestant Reformation. Over time, across vast swaths of Christendom the authority of the papacy and Catholic hierarchy were replaced by the authority of the Bible, the Reformation’s “sola scriptura.” (The irony, of course, is that it was the Catholic hierarchy itself that had assembled the collection of texts and declared them, on papal authority, to be God’s best and most complete revelation to humankind. But I digress.)

This focus on the written word is both the greatest strength and greatest flaw of the Abrahamic religions. It has allowed Christianity and Islam to become more powerful than any religion in history. Today over 3.7 billion people identify with one or the other of these traditions. But it has also allowed both traditions to become stagnant and cruel, profoundly corrupted by a phenomenon that might best be described as “book worship” or “bibliolatry.”

Book as Golden Calf

 
Today many Christians assert that the Bible is the literally perfect Word of God, timeless and complete—exempt from addition, deletion, or revision. Many Muslims make the same claim for the Quran, according it such high status that either defacing a copy of the book or denying its divine provenance is a crime worthy of death. In other words, they attribute to the Bible and Quran the qualities of divinity, and they treat offenses against the book as if they were offenses against a god. They behave toward the Bible and Quran precisely like their ancestors did toward the wood and stone carvings that represented the divine for pre-literate people.

In an age of widespread literacy, what better golden calf than a ‘golden’ book?
Bibliolatry, meaning book worship, is at the root of most modern fundamentalism, which means that it hurts not only individuals who receive wormy, bird-pecked, shriveled ideas from their parents, but our society as a whole. It is what compels an otherwise loving but devout Christian father to kick his queer teen out of the house. It is what allows a Jihadi, with perfect sincerity, to explain why he is entitled to take a young girl for himself and breed her against the will and custom of her conquered parents. It is what prompts earnest Evangelicals to threaten kindergarteners with eternal torture or tell Hindu students that their parents worship demons. It is what inspires well-meaning Christians to stamp Bible references into gun barrels or send solar Bibles rather than food to people hit by natural disasters. It is what motivates institutions like my alma mater, Wheaton College, to seek exemption from civil rights laws and civic duties that offend Mosaic Law.

Bibliolatry Violates Both Book and Writer

 
Ironically, the idea that our sacred texts are perfect and complete, in final form, is diametrically opposed to the stance of the men who wrote those texts. Each of these men took the tradition and teachings he received, processed them, and then offered what he believed to be a better, deeper understanding of reality and goodness. Had this not been the case, the authors would have been copyists, not writers.

The “People of the Book” traditions have included millions of men who were, in fact, copyists. Scribes, monks and printers painstakingly translated and duplicated texts, by hand or by machine—memorizing, repeating and replicating the words of our spiritual ancestors. But these are not the men that receive honor as prophets, apostles, or church fathers, who are honored precisely because they rejected the copyist approach.

Ironically, too, writers of both the Bible and Quran understood the dangers of idolatry, and did what they could to warn against it. They recognized that pre-literate people had sought to convey their understanding of the divine through works of art: sculptures, paintings, friezes, and more. They recognized that these objects became idols, treated as if the icons themselves were as holy as the truths they sought to convey. And they recognized that idol worship bound people to harmful ideas and practices, and to inadequate conceptions of divinity.

They felt so strongly about this that they encouraged the destruction of religious symbols and icons. In the intervening centuries, both Christianity and Islam have been plagued with bouts of iconoclasm, purges like the one that currently drives members of the Taliban and ISIS to destroy the last vestiges of ancient pre-Muslim culture and religion, as they are able.

The authors of the Bible and Quran valued spiritual growth. Were it not the case, there would have been no need for them to write, let alone prescribe the destruction of outdated symbolic systems. They had no way to foresee that their words would eventually cause the greatest developmental arrest in the history of humankind. In their Iron Age context, the advent and spread of writing was an innovation on par with the arrival of computing. It allowed so much more depth, nuance and complexity that earlier symbolic systems that the possibilities must have seemed infinite.

It must have been impossible to imagine that inked texts would ultimately fail to keep up with the growth of human knowledge, and that they would eventually be replace by mass printing, then living documents (like wikis) and other media. It must have been impossible to grasp the limits of the written word–that texts, however sacred, can only, ever, convey a finite set of spiritual understandings, static and frozen in time, small and bound by human psychology, utterly inadequate to encompass the power behind the DNA code or the laws of physics.

The High Price of High Fidelity: Static Books, Static Knowledge, Static Priorities

 
The spread of writing allowed previously unimaginable advances, but like any new technology it created a new set of problems. Before the advent of the sacred text, religious beliefs and practices were handed down via oral tradition and were represented by symbols, icons and rituals. Religion was necessarily more heterogeneous, more place based, and more grounded in practice, or “praxis,” rather than belief. It was also more free to evolve as culture and moral consciousness themselves evolved in response to changing environmental conditions, population densities, and technologies.

By contrast with oral tradition, a book allows an extraordinary degree of fidelity in transmitting a set of ideas across time and space and between strangers with many degrees of separation. That is the strength, but also the weakness of the written word. This fidelity means that any printed text is frozen in time, a snapshot of a single mind embedded in a specific cultural and historical context. And since the knowledge or insight imbedded in the text is static, when people or institutions bind themselves to a text, asserting that it is final and complete–the definitive authority on whatever matter it addresses–they become stagnant too. An institution or person that declares allegiance to an immutable text becomes developmentally arrested, unable to do what the author himself did, which was to take his received tradition and iterate on it, offering new ideas and insights about the subject at hand.

Faith in Our Fathers

 
Why do we have such a difficult time thinking our way out of this box? A partial answer lies in our collective psyche, in patterns of information processing and cultural transmission that serve us well in many circumstances, and not so well in others.

Human children are highly credulous, meaning they accept without question most of what they are taught by trusted adult authority figures. Given the vast array of knowledge and skills that children need to master in a few short years, they simply can’t afford to scrutinize, question, and work out everything from first principles. If an adult says, “running in the street is dangerous” or “the stove will burn you” a child is more likely to survive by simply accepting rather than testing what he or she has been told. Credulity, in other words, is adaptive; and erring on the side of excessive credulity may be safer than erring on the side of skepticism.

Perhaps this is one reason that, even into adulthood, we tend to defer to the teachings of our ancestors. The more time has passed since a set of words were uttered, the more reverence we instinctively accord them, even when, as I have said, this violates the very ideals of the people whose words we are quoting and whose example we seek to follow. Comedian Jeff Jeffries recently made fun of Americans who argue that we can’t limit gun rights because the right to bear arms is secured by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. “Yes you can,” Jeffries said, “That’s why it’s called an amendment.”

Our ancestors got a lot of things right, and within the texts and traditions they handed down to us can be found timeless bits of wisdom and beauty. But don’t we hope to outgrow our parents? Don’t we hope to give our children permission to grow farther still so they can create better lives rather than simply repeating our mistakes? Don’t we dream that the future will be better, that the arc of history will bend toward justice, that the children of our children may one day transcend the darker angels of our nature? Don’t we dream, like the Shakers did, of the peaceable kingdom?

If so, we need to treat handed down pieces of culture and religion like we treat other bits of our cultural inheritance—like furniture, for example. Some pieces of antique furniture survive because they are unusually beautiful or durable or practical. But that is not always the case. I have a couple of tables from my great grandmother that were cheap and poorly made from the beginning. They are still around only because they have been in the family so long. Finally, they have made their way to the basement, but even there, they are taking up space that might be put to better use.

My friend Eckhart inherited two old cherry trees when he bought his current home. The trees were past their prime and the cherries are prone to be buggy. But with selective pruning and care he has gotten a bounty of sweet, wholesome fruit for his family. Eckhart’s story isn’t surprising to anyone who understands agriculture. But why do we so often fail to apply simple lessons from other parts of life to our spiritual endeavor?

The Fruit of the Spirit

 
Rather than being used as an epithet, perhaps cherry picker should be a compliment, an acknowledgment of discernment, wisdom, judgment, and responsibility. In actual fact, all religious believers (and nonbelievers) cherry pick their sacred texts or cultural traditions, even fundamentalists, even those who deny doing so. A book like the Bible or Quran contains passages that contradict each other, or that demand a level of perfection (or cruelty) that is simply unattainable for most believers. Whether we are Christian or Muslim or post-Abrahamic freethinkers or practitioners of some other spiritual tradition, the question isn’t whether we cherry pick, it is whether we do so wisely and well, based on some higher principle that tells us which passages are spiritually nourishing and which should be discarded.

Humanity’s shared moral core provides guidance in this regard. Religion scholar Huston Smith says that the world’s great wisdom traditions converge on three values that he calls veracity, humility, and charity, each of which both constrains and enhances the others. Veracity means truth telling and truth seeking, including honest self-appraisal. Humility means recognizing that each of us is just one among many and that the yearnings and insights of others matter. Charity, in the King James sense, is not merely generosity but love, the kind that seeks to value the pleasure and pain of others on par with our own.

The Golden Rule, which can be thought of as a shorthand for these values appears in some form in virtually every religious or secular moral philosophy, and likely is encoded into our genes in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. As Christian author Rachel Held Evans has said eloquently, in Christianity, this ethic is woven into what Jesus calls the greatest of the commandment, to love God and to love your neighbor, the latter being the tangible manifestation of the former. This, he says, sum up all the writings of the Law and Prophets. In the book of Matthew, he warns against false prophets, saying, “You will know them by their fruit.” The Apostle Paul lists the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, goodness, meekness, temperance and faith. “Against such, there is no law,” he adds, recognizing that these virtues are respected not only within but also outside the nascent Christian community.

These are the measures that let us know what fruit is worth keeping, and what is not. Cherry picking a sacred text doesn’t leave a person without a moral core, lost in a world where anything goes, as some fundamentalists fear. Rather, it anchors that moral core to something clearer, deeper, and more durable than the bindings of a golden book.

Our ancestors were flawed and human, as we are today. And they lacked many of the advantages we have from our privileged vantage in the 21st Century. They were constrained by their own time and place and individual failings, but even so, they took their received traditions and wrestled with them, offering a new understanding of what was right and real, drawing on the past but facing the future. And in doing so, they offered us genuinely timeless and transcendent metrics by which we might do the same.

When we cherry pick their words in accordance with their highest and most enduring ideals, we honor and further their quest. We also show our selves worthy of the privilege we have been given to live at this point in history. What stories might have been told, and what insights might have been attained by an Isaiah or Jesus or Paul or Mohammed who had the advantage of living in the 21st Century?

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