Good ol’ Biblical Cherry Pickin’

Good ol’ Biblical Cherry Pickin’ December 6, 2018

Editor’s Note: I was very happy to receive this essay inspired by a comment made on a recent blog post here.  “Cherry picking” is a term that is often used but rarely clarified. After reading this, you’ll know much more about it and will get a few good laughs as well.

======================

By Chris Highland

Author’s note:  Originally written for my newspaper column, I thought this might better serve as a good fruit basket for some in the secular community to chew on.

Reading another atheist criticizing believers for “cherry-picking” selected passages from the Bible, I offered this response:

 “Some cherries might be good to pick.”

I followed this with,

“By their fruits you shall know them.”

Both extreme atheists and extreme theists “cherry-pick” books, passages, verses or words, selecting according to their taste, or what they find distasteful.  Then they often turn around and “cherry-pick”—or throw their own cherry pits—back at the one on the other side of the orchard.

Can’t we all just eat cherries?  A flippant, simplistic response, yet I think we can choose something better—and less messy—than fruit fights, don’t you think?

Pretty much all Bible-believers (in Christian circles I make a distinction between “Bible followers” and “followers of Jesus”) have their own chosen and cherished stories or verses.  Oftentimes these special selections support the beliefs one already has, either instilled from Sunday school or Sunday sermons.  A good example would be verses such as,

“He gave himself for me.”

A whole tree of theology grew up around these passages, one that stressed that the whole message of the Bible is a “salvation story”—a dramatic (and terrifying) epic of slavery to sin, sacrifice, and a promise of a golden city in the sky where the “redeemed” can spend forever looking down on the eternal suffering of the unsaved.  Bitter fruit indeed.

Others choose to mark the “best parts” as personal morality.  For instance,

“Keep yourself unstained by the world.”

Yet other people of faith are guided more by the first part of the same verse:

“Pure religion is to care for orphans and widows.”

They view the Bible as a positive story of freedom, justice, mercy and love, rather than divisive judgement.

Yet other believers choose to focus attention on the Psalms and Proverbs, the poetic and prayerful parts.  These folks don’t get quite so agitated about who’s a member or “true Christian” and who’s not.  They use biblical teachings as helps for their devotional life.  Of course, they may skip over passages on judgment and punishment—wink, wink.  Called on this, many are quick to admit they enjoy the sweet rather than bitter bits and bites.

Earlier I made a statement a reader may find puzzling, making a distinction between those who call themselves “followers of Jesus” and “Bible-believers.”  I’ve always been a bit unsure what people mean with both labels (I was both at one time or another), but experience tells me it’s good to ask for some explanation.

When one person says they believe or follow the Bible, my first thought is:  how can you believe or follow a book?  Seriously, it’s a book before it’s a “holy book.”  Responses range from

“The Bible is God’s Word so I believe every word” to “the essence of the Bible is love and goodness so I try to practice that.”

The tense history of religion has been marked by the tug-of-war over scriptures, so it’s best to know how someone uses the writings.

It’s also informative to find out how and where someone has read or studied the Bible.  As I see it, poor religious education can be blamed for the quality of fruit picked and presented.

Many atheists who were once believers know the Bible upside down and backward—and some have had their fill “eating the scrolls” (remember Ezekiel munching the honey-flavored scroll?). Yet even some of the scripture-saturated pick out all the stuff they reject (if they haven’t tossed the whole thing in the garbage) to assault the faithful with:

“What about THIS!  How can you believe THAT?”

I’m not much interested in these cherry-throwing contests.

On the other hand, many believers, mostly the “apologists” (defenders of faith), grab a pearl and throw it at the infidel swine (now there’s a twist on the gospel).  These folks seem a little too fearfully defensive to me, easily provoked, easily choked on too many cherries.

What might Jesus himself say about all this cherry chucking?  Bible-believers threw plenty of pithy pits at the Nazarene preacher and he could toss a few back.  But mostly, as I read it, he was much more interested in the ethics of his followers than in their ability to use ancient scriptures as godly grenades.

The Bible battles weaponizing “The Word” (or any scriptures) are the best arguments for putting the books up on the shelves for a while, to take a long look at what we’ve allowed “inspired ink” in gold-tinged leather books to do to the human family. (I often wonder whether any faith would long survive in the absence of a “reference manual”).

What are the “best” passages from my point of view? A few of my favorite juicy slices, from both Hebrew and Christian baskets:

 “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (of course)

“Seek wisdom.” (always sound advice)

“Let justice roll down like waters.” (reminding us it’s not all about wordgames)

“Do to others what you want them to do to you.” (of course, again)

“The river of the water of life flows from [the Great Living Temple], on either side grows the tree of life.” (I just like the natural images, though this appears at the end of The Revelation)

More cherry picking, isn’t it?  Whatever we pick from the trees of truth—sacred or secular—I have to ask:

Does it nourish and flourish in both body and brain? Does it make us better people? Are we more compassionate, loving?

As I well remember from Greek studies,

“pan dendron agathon, karpous kalous poiei” (an appropriately poetic message:  “Every good tree bears good fruit”).

Maybe it would be best to share the juice, bake pies, and tend the trees together.  Although, not everyone likes cherries—or sharing.

So maybe it’s time to pause the picking. There are other orchards, with other fruit, that haven’t even been found yet.

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Bio: Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see www.chighland.com.

>>>Photo credits:  By Milad Mosapoor – Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26706757 : https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Gutenberg_Bible.jpg

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Cozmo the Magician

    As an atheist I wonder how many bible humpers immediately recognized that photo as a an actual Gutenberg? I knew what it was instantly (:

  • Mark Rutledge

    Nice article; thanks

  • Scott Stahlecker

    Mark, I enjoyed the read. There are many great human “truths” to be learned from the Bible and bad ones as well. One of the advantages of being a freethinker is we get to explore the world of ideas presented in various religions, philosophies, and the study of people and cultures. The advantage we gain from exploring these areas is that we can begin to see common focal points of interest from one religion to the next or, one philosophy to another–and so forth. Your article alluded to the importance of gaining this kind of wisdom. I hope as non-believers we can stop being so defensive, and do a better job of finding common ground with others.

  • mason lane

    Chris, It’s nice how we non-theists can disagree. 🙂 And, as you know, I’d never call the Bible a “Tree of Truth”; The Elm of Evil” is my opinion. And if cherries are the metaphor, a crudely baked pie of very rotten and poisonous cherries comes to mind. We should do a podcast debate about this subject entitled; “The Bible, Tree of Truth or Twisted Trunk?”

    Offering an undeserved dignity to the Bible, Koran, or any ancient writing that features a totalitarian, misogynist, religiously genocidal, sadistically twisted, blood sacrifice fixated, mythical deity is (excuse the mixed metaphor of cherries & pig ears) is an effort to make a silk purse out of a sows ear. And in this case, a really ugly sow’s ear.

    Cherry picking these writings is like cherry picking the actions of any historical despot; all despots did some good things. In all of human fictional and non-fictional history there is no more despicable character than the Bible deity. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/p/god-daniel-barker/1122409434/2675198414571?st=PLA&sid=BNB_New+Marketplace+Shopping+Books&sourceId=PLAGoNA&dpid=tdtve346c&2sid=Google_c&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIuaqS0JiO3wIVCh1pCh3cJgv6EAQYAiABEgJ4o_D_BwE

    If platitudes are going to be cherry picked from these ancient texts, they should always be accompanied with a clear warning caveat IMHO, and every Bible should have a warning label like a pack of cigarettes.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b2ae7d4978114a2333ba9741e4fafec6259b56fc36645dbf6ceef9bad1dbf12a.png

    • I agree, Mason, to disagree. I was just reading about Rev. Shuttlesworth whose home was bombed more than once in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era (we’re never beyond that era, it seems). Along with Rev. King and many other clergy, including Rabbi Heschel, they were motivated by their faith and quoted scripture (such as “let justice roll down. . .”). If we take the extreme position, that the tree is completely rotten, how do we explain these people of faith and their social action? Would you simply argue with these folks and spend the time bashing their book, or join them regardless of what book or tradition, faith or no faith?

      I hear a lot of bitterness in the atheist community and suspect many have no loving relationship with anyone of faith any longer. If so, fine. But I don’t see anything positive in the put downs of good people doing good even if in the name of a god, energized by any book, old or new.

      By the way, I spend a great deal of time writing to challenge beliefs, but I’m interested in building bridges rather than burning them.

      • mason lane

        Most the hard liner atheists, like me, have plenty of good loving relationships with people of irrational faith. We’re rather good at that. I’d just rather people quit lending a dignity to the Bible that it in no way deserves.

        I don’t claim the tree is totally rotten, just that it’s replete with rottenness and there’s a plethora of trees to find better fruit without continuing the reverence for a collection of writings undeserving of such reverence. It’s not the “good book.”

        It’s not a case of either/or. I can spend time bashing the Bible (it’s a self bashing work of literature) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cef5e9898f873b706b838c6a750218751edc09b68dca4c3a857bb5e4ac114138.jpg AND join them in any positive efforts/works.

        I think in the same way humans need to get off fossil based fuels for energy, the good folks you reference need to use other not so rotten sources to be energized.

      • ThaneOfDrones

        I hear a lot of bitterness in the atheist community and suspect many
        have no loving relationship with anyone of faith any longer.

        If you listen harder, perhaps you will hear them be quite specific about the source of their bitterness: that many Christians do not understand or accept separation of church and state. They love their freedom of religion but do not understand that it applies to those of other faiths or no faith at all. That any attempt to maintain a level, secular playing field is an attack on their Christian religion.

        There are Christians who are good people, and use their Christian faith in good ways. I would single out Jimmy Carter, who has been exemplary as an ex-president, and Johnny Cash.

        Examples of bad Christianity are too numerous to list. It is of course the loudest voices who set the tone, and characterise the group to outsiders.

        As for personal relationships with Christians who are family members or co-workers, I would characterise some of them as good Christians and some as bad Christians. Some of the bad Christians are not especially familiar with the contents of the Bible, so it would not be straightforward to shift the blame to a book.

        • I hear that. And I would not oversimplify either the theist or non-theist communities–fragmented as they are. I would simply urge wider conversation and connection to the “good ones” who are also “too numerous to list.”

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Anyone reading or quoting “The Bible” is already engaging in cherry-picking, even if they are not aware that they are doing so. “The Bible” has already undergone stages of cherry-picking, as committees (e.g. Synod of Hippo Regius, Council of Rome) decided which books would be included. And I put “The Bible” in scare quotes because the list of books included differs between different segments of Christianity, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the Protestants, the Orthodox churches all have their own lists, which do not entirely agree.

    • You’re right, a lot of old juice is The Book. And most of us learned that in our liberal seminaries long ago. Nothing new to “PC’s” (progressive christians) or large numbers of Jews for that matter. That’s at least part of my point in the essay: there are many people of faith who acknowledge the spoiled fruit parts of the scriptures–I did through many years of ministry. Chopping down the whole tree, claiming that nothing good still grows on it, seems to me sour grapes.

      • mason lane

        The whole tree does not require chopping down, but it’s too thoroughly diseased to save via pruning.

        What I think is warranted is to accurately characterize it for what it is. It’s not a good book (yep, I said that before), the deity in the book is a totalitarian monster of the vilest order, it has been and still is the source terrible beliefs and actions, and citing a few platitudes within it’s pages and not educating people about this collection of writings, is a disservice to humanity.

        The fact that it’s still held in esteem and is used in some public setting like taking oaths or been inducted into public office, is indicative of how much work needs to be done. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ba1e325486e68a683cc6f122f1b548fb5d12237a2bc8216a16cd47dcb95eda4d.jpg