You cannot be too conservative. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tact is the ability to describe others. – Abraham Lincoln
If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it. – Ronald Reagan
The people quoted above really said the things attached to their names. I’m perfectly prepared to admit that each quote seems out of character for the person to whom it’s attributed – MLK was no conservative, Lincoln was far too witty to see tact as simple description, and Reagan was the great enemy of taxes, regulations, and subsidies. Nevertheless, each quote is attributed correctly.
The problem, of course, is that each quote has been severed from both its context and the complete sentence in which it was said. This changes the meaning of each, and that’s why people of integrity don’t generally tinker with quotes like I have here. For me, it also raises the question of why evangelicals treat the words of Lincoln as being more sacred than those of Jesus or Isaiah?
Not sure what I mean? The same selective chopping of quotes is done with the Bible on a regular basis. People who would never muzzle MLK by editing his words so severely do exactly this with passages of the Bible. Understand: I’m not complaining about people quoting scripture anymore than I would complain about people quoting the influential Americans I cite at the head of this post. My problem is when those quotes are so aggressively edited that the fragmentary leftovers lose both meaning and context. It happens with worship songs, congregational readings, devotional readings, in bulletins, and even as topics of entire sermons. Basically, everywhere we look in Evangelical Culture we encounter scriptural quotations disembodied from sentences.
Since evangelicals by definition hold the view that scripture is inspired by God, many people appear to assume that each phrase of scripture has some kind of mystical pixie dust that makes it transcendent no matter how it’s used. This is crazy for myriad reasons, not least of which is the fact that it assumes profound spiritual truths are present in groupings of words that – since they’re not complete sentences – do not themselves combine to form complete thoughts. Unless we’re talking about poetry, that’s laughable. Here’s an idea: the Bible is as long as it is because God didn’t reveal Himself via Haiku.
Scripture’s authors write in sentences and paragraphs. This is because they sat down to write their books for specific reasons, and while they often give us nuggets of wisdom in the midst of their larger points, we shouldn’t be placing a higher value on the nuggets than on the grand themes of the Bible. Unfortunately, evangelicalism loves pithy sound bites. And while it sometimes works to use a familiar phrase to signify a more meaningful whole (I’ve often heard just “For God so loved the world” used to stand in for the rest of John 3:16, and people are seldom confused by this), more often than not, our sound bites of scripture manage to simultaneously obscure a passage’s point while also confusing those in our midst who are less steeped in evangelicalism. Does that sound like a win to you?
Permit me to close with an analogy. Beef is a staple of American cuisine, in pretty much any form. There’s almost no part of a cow that we won’t eat, and those parts of the cow’s meat that are harder to eat (or less desirable) are minced into what we call ground beef. But just because most parts of cow are edible doesn’t mean they’re equal; given a choice between filet mignon and ground beef, everyone I know will choose the filet, because cow tastes best when it’s least processed.
Scripture fragmented into bite-sized pieces divorced from context is much like ground beef – in fact, I even call those bite-sized pieces Ground Bible. But people eat ground beef because filet mignon is harder to find and because they can’t afford to eat filet mignon every time. Ground Bible, meanwhile, costs the same as any paragraph, chapter, or book of scripture and is actually the more difficult of the two to find, since it takes more effort to rip a phrase out of context than to simply leave it in a paragraph. So why should we ever eat Ground Bible?
The Bible consists of complete thoughts expressed in the contexts of larger points, and the evangelical predilection to ignore that fact while quoting fragments of scripture is another reason that Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable.
P.S. For the sake of transparency, here are the completed quotations diced at the header to this post:
When you are right, you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves. – Abraham Lincoln
The government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it. – Ronald Reagan