Bible Verses Are Not “Magic” Cards

Bible Verses Are Not “Magic” Cards September 8, 2015

I was reading a very nice blog post by a Christian yesterday about LGBT acceptance. He was arguing–very well I thought–for the idea of bigotry being a very bad thing. You can guess how many comments it took for some jackass Christian bigots-for-Jesus to show up braying about why this blogger was wrong.

Many of the Christian bigots-for-Jesus in those comments did something I’ve begun noticing more often lately: they flung so-called “clobber verses” at this blogger with the smug glee of someone who thinks he or she has scored a major zinger. There really aren’t many of these “clobber verses” considering the vast bulk of the Bible; out of some 30,000ish verses, one might find only six or seven scattered around the Old and New Testaments that bigots-for-Jesus think–erroneously, as you’re going to discover soon in one particular case especially–strongly condemn same-sex relationships.

It’s amazing to me that Christians can take a book compiled over thousands of years with dozens of mostly-anonymous authors, a book of (revised) history and (imagined) science, of folk magic and supposedly-divine intervention, of petty racism and soaring nationalism, of beautiful poetry and stunning brutality, of–yes–transcendent language and startling insight at times, and reduce it down to sound bites they can select, warp, and then fling at their pleasure to score points against those they view as inferior opponents. To me it seems extremely disrespectful for a Christian to treat their holy book in such a simplistic and reductionist way, but I see it all the time regardless.

But I finally figured out where I’ve seen that attitude before:

In collectible card-game tournaments.

Like this. (Credit: cchauvet, CC license.)
Like this. (Credit: cchauvet, CC license.)

I first heard about these sorts of games back in 1994 or so. I was living in Portland, Oregon, which was where one of the card-gaming companies was based at the time, and the local newspaper did a big spread about this new craze that KIDS TODAY were playing on our lawns–er, in our schools and everywhere they could find a large enough flat surface to play upon. For those who didn’t waste their formative years or don’t have children who are doing so, collectible card games are sold in packs like bubble-gum cards (except they rarely contain bubble gum, a fact which displeased me mightily when I bought a couple of them out of curiosity). The packs contain a mix of cards of varying values and rarities, usually coded by color into suites similar to decks of regular poker cards. The idea is that you build a “deck” out of these cards, then play the cards in your deck against the ones in someone else’s deck and see who wins. Sometimes you play just for fun, other times you play for what amounts to pinks: ownership of the cards themselves. Players also trade the cards back and forth between each other, or sell them outright.

The game mechanics might vary, but generally all you need are the cards, a flat surface to play on, and some counters–which could be anything at all–to keep track of your “strength” or lives or whatever the game calls your points (I used aquarium pebbles–the clear plastic-looking kind that glitter like gems). Individual cards might shore up defenses, or inflict damage to the other player’s cards, or even directly deduct the other player’s points. Players try to defeat their opponents by sapping away all their points, while defending or adding to their own points as best they can. Whoever loses all their own points first, loses the game.

And there are hundreds of these games. Magic: The Gathering is only one of them, but it’s the one I briefly played; there are others ranging from Sailor Moon-themed (which I own but haven’t ever played because I can’t find anyone who’ll play with me, weirdly enough) to various apocalyptic settings. I had a boyfriend once who literally bought boxes of the card packs in bulk, opening each pack with the giddy reverence of a child unwrapping a Christmas present that looks a hell of a lot like a bicycle. The cards themselves are quite pretty, often with well-known fantasy artists’ work on them. I’ve had one, “Bird Maiden,” in my wallet for about 20 years now because every time I look at it I feel a sudden burst of joy. She’s actually a common card–but there are some that are incredibly rare and expensive.

Those who can construct imaginative decks are quite admired in the card-gaming community. I knew a guy who had a “Brought to You by the Letter ‘W'” deck, wherein the title of every card in his deck began with that letter. Another player built one entirely out of one particular type of creature; others built decks based around particular artists’ work or telling a narrative story. If someone has a near-unstoppable deck, like that boyfriend I had, then sometimes people will deliberately construct a deck specifically to take that player down.

As you might guess, there are near-professional leagues of players in quite a few of these games. Dragon*Con features a gaming hall where you can see hundreds of people playing their various card games at the same time, and DC often features gaming discussion panels or fandom panels talking about these games. Tournaments take place–on both an informal and a formal level–every weekend all over the country; when I lived in Atlanta, I met my best friend at one hosted by the huge gaming/comics store The War Room. There are all levels of interest and fanaticism about these games, from dilettante elementary-school kids to middle-aged recluses who lose their shit over theme decks they think are a tad too irreverent (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience here; I still can’t believe he got that mad at me).

My then-husband Biff briefly got involved with Magic for some reason not long before our breakup, but he only wanted to play white/green decks because he thought that color combination was particularly Jesus-y. I’m not kidding. He thought it was an indication of my spiritual decline that I went mostly black/red. Yes. Because you can tell people’s spiritual state by what colors of Magic cards they put in their decks. Didn’t you know? He viewed his time gaming as a sort of missionary outreach, and was considerably more interested in the game than I ever was.

It takes a lot of attention to detail to play games like these and do so proficiently. One must have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds if not thousands of different cards and be aware of how each one interacts with a host of other cards. One must be able to think strategically to construct, in advance, a deck that can defeat other decks–it’s not as easy as just throwing together the right number of cards, as I discovered myself. And boy howdy do you run into people who take this whole game too seriously.

Is any of this sounding familiar? Because it really kinda should.

Knowing about gaming culture helps me see a lot of the stuff I used to do in religion–and stuff I see people doing today in religion–in a whole new light. It takes me outside the normal context and perspective I might normally use to evaluate stuff and helps me distance myself a little from the normal emotional response I might have. And it helps me see the dynamics of how people interact a little better. I might not reference that culture or my experience in it all the time, but it’s always in the back of my mind, informing what I see and hear.

Even so, it took me quite a while to figure out why it kept twigging me to see this whole tendency Christians have to fling Bible verses around like they do constantly. Fundagelicals especially are prone to doing this, though we’ve seen hardline Catholics do it as well sometimes. It reminded me of something, and I struggled to think of what that might be.

Well, I figured it out.

I made an offhand reference to the practice a while ago in one of our “Handbook for the Recently Deconverted” posts about why arguments aren’t evidence:

[S]ometimes people use the names of logical fallacies like they’re Magic cards or something, like they just have to slap one down and they win. It doesn’t work that way. I think it was prominent atheist blogger and philosophy professor Dan Fincke who said a while ago that he doesn’t even tell his students the names of logical fallacies for a while because he doesn’t want them to fall into this bad habit.

And, too, Neil Carter wrote a fabulous post over at Godless in Dixie evocatively titled “Quoting the Bible Doesn’t Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick”. In it, he wrote:

Despite their aversion to the word “magic,” Christians where I live are taught to believe the Bible has special powers, and that the recitation of it carries a power of its own kind to effect change in the people who hear it.

But it still took me till reading the comments on this one Christian blogger’s post to make the connection I have today.

When you see Christians flinging Bible verses around to try to strong-arm a victory in a doctrinal dispute, especially with those who they know disagree with their position, what you’re seeing are Christians who have constructed a sort of “deck” of Bible verses in their heads–verses they think form an unstoppable, invincible case for their argument. They’ve looked through 30,000+ Bible verses and found the few that form what they think makes a good “deck.” And like the Bible’s authors themselves did in the New Testament by lifting Old Testament verses totally out of context to shoehorn to new uses that their original authors probably never even imagined, sometimes these verses are totally misunderstood, mistranslated, or plain old distorted in the doing. It hardly matters.

Just as Shakespug in Get Fuzzy always tries to find Shakespearean quotes that fit the occasion for everything he says, some Christians seem to believe that there’s a verse in the Bible that covers every situation that could ever conceivably happen–and which can guide them in deciding what to think or do or say in every circumstance. Sometimes their pastors teach them to do it, often apologists advise it, and occasionally they decide to do it on their own, but the results are the same: a group of people who think that 21st-century life can be predicated upon an ancient book written before we knew what germs are, why slavery is bad, or what makes the sun shine. Worst of all, such Christians act like these individual verses, by themselves, have the power to win all their arguments–absolving them of all responsibility to concoct truly effective cases for their claims and often even of any negative fallout from using this tactic.

The Christians favoring this method of interacting don’t tend to appreciate it at all when their opponents do the exact same thing back to them, as one atheist noted:

One thing that I found highly annoying was the tendency (as usual) for the Christians to quote verse after verse from the bible. Yet the moment I quoted from the bible, I was immediately told that I was ‘quoting the bible out of context.’ I countered by stating that I am doing nothing more (or less) than they were doing; I am taking a single line of scripture and quoting it back to them. My quoting is no more or less valid than their method. . . “I don’t recall in the bible where god gives you special permission to quote a few lines here and there and disallows anyone else that same privilege.”

The reply to this note, incidentally, mentions that “Quoting Scripture out of context is a very “Christian” thing to do, and Jesus himself, and Paul and Matthew and the others, were very adept at doing this,” and goes on to cite a number of occasions in the New Testament where this exact thing happens. It’s fascinating reading and I do recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about this topic.

I really don’t know what Christians are thinking is going to happen when they try to win arguments with Bible decks. When I was Christian myself, it was very frustrating to me that a group of Christians from different denominations could play Bible Verse Smackdown all night long and never come to any real conclusions about what doctrines were right or wrong. For every verse they had about why women didn’t need to worry about their hair, I had one about why women could never ever cut their hair. For every verse they could slap down on the table about the Trinity, I had one that denied that doctrine. For every verse they brought out saying speaking in tongues was demonic, I had one that said it was damned near a requirement. I eventually learned to steer clear of these unwinnable, pointless arguments but many of my peers never did.

And that’s between people who actually think the Bible is authoritative. Imagine how it goes between a Christian and someone who doesn’t even believe that the Bible is a divinely-influenced book at all. Sometimes I think they seriously think that they’ll yell a Bible verse and their opponent will hang his or her head and, in tears, concede that the Christian doing this is absolutely correct and they will now repent or recite the Sinner’s Prayer. I’ve never yet seen that happen–usually the Christian is mocked roundly for trying it. And once the mocking has ended, that Christian will do the exact same thing again.

This makes me think that the Christians who do this aren’t actually looking to persuade.

Oh, if they do that’s nice, they’ll take it, but it’s not really the goal. If winning was truly the goal, then they’d be bending their entire wills toward figuring out how to really win. People do whatever they must to achieve goals that are important to them. Someone who fails, and fails, and fails, and fails at something is either trying to do something totally impossible (which is of course possible, especially in the case of finding objective evidence for Christianity’s claims) or else not really wanting to succeed at their stated goal–especially if their tactics don’t change even in the face of repeated failures. And I’ve seen Christians who do actually alter their tactics when they realize they’re not succeeding, making what their brethren do even more starkly obvious.

What if we’ve totally misread what’s going on here?

Sometimes it feels like the goal is to show off their own sanctimoniousness at others–to display a preening superiority over the poor unwashed heathens and get what must be a truly pleasant jolt of smugness over displaying their religiosity. Other times, it seems like the real goal is to shove proselytization at people under a cloak of “debating” or “dialogue,” where the magic spell is intoned and then Jesus is trusted to do the rest with that poorly-planted “seed.” I strongly suspect that this second goal is probably more common–and that it explains why, after Ken Ham got so roundly defeated in his “debate” with Bill Nye (scare quotes because one can hardly call that epochal clusterfuck and world-class demolishing of Creationism a debate), many Christians (not all, amusingly) actually thought their pseudoscience huckster won rather than been handed his ass and shown the door.

And sometimes it feels like, especially when considering Christians’ behavior around slamming these verses down, that all these cards they play are really a cry to be relevant and powerful again, a cry for lost dominance, a plea for privilege to be restored. Sometimes they seem so indignant that it’s come to them having to be Culture Warriors for Jesus in a world they clearly think has gone mad, and that they are the sole voices of reason, justice, and righteousness in a society they view (mistakenly, as it happens) as crumbling around their ears.

When we see a Christian slamming Bible verses around, especially ones concerning the culture wars their religion started and perpetuates today, the culture wars that mark right-wing fundagelical Christianity especially, we’re seeing a Christian who is well aware that these fights are largely lost already. That’s why they so very rarely seem to care that they get smacked down so effectively and so roundly, and why they keep doing the same thing over and over again even long after being set straight about how ineffective and indeed backfiring their idolized tactic is. Not only do they not seem to care, they damned near seem to have expected such responses. They sometimes seem indignant, but never surprised!

I don’t have much of an answer yet for how one can effectively deal with Christians misusing Bible verses as Magic cards (there might not actually be a really effective catchall answer there anyway), but at least I feel like I’m a lot closer to understanding why they do it. All I can say is, let’s be aware of Christians who don’t seem to care that flinging Bible verses down on the table is not only ineffective but makes their case look worse–and let’s think of ways to short-circuit that mindset. They repeat their failed tactics over and over again because it’s all they’ve got, but we aren’t limited that way. 

I wanted to talk about this before I put up the history post, and I’m glad you took the time to come along on the trip–see you soon. Feel free to hash out ideas in the comments!


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