Some Christians got into it recently with Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Joyce Carol Oates. It could have gone better.
Oates questioned a reference to scripture. She was told, "Go read a book," meaning the Bible. Oates lashed back by criticizing the Bible, and in particular, how Christians tend to "select those verses that appeal to them while ignoring other verses. Fertile ground for hypocrisy."
Of course, then it was on. The ugliness after that surely didn't win Oates over as a convert to Christianity.
What does this have to do with our seven-day practical faith? I think it's true that we Christians not only need to know our Bible better, but that we need to express better answers - because we do have answers and not just rants. Our faith should include the ability to answer questions with the Christ-like qualities of patience and humility.
I've thought about Oates' question and challenge. Frankly, I've heard similar questions and challenges in adult Sunday School classes I've taught.
Her question came after a podcast host's comment about caring for widows, orphans, and prisoners. Oates tweeted, "Widows, orphans, prisoners - really, these entirely disparate categories have something in common?"
Sure, she wrote it in a prickly way. But the question indicates someone who hasn't read the Bible much. It's possible to answer with patient teaching rather than ridicule.
Here is how I would have answered. The Bible has a running theme that those who are outcasts of society should be cared for and even championed. In the society of the day, widows and orphans were vulnerable. Without male or fatherly support, they were relegated to the bottom of society, financially and socially. Obviously, prisoners also were at the bottom of society. Here's just one example of the Bible emphasizing the care and championing of the vulnerable and oppressed, from Isaiah 10:1-2 (NIV):
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
Our scriptural charge today is to identify the vulnerable and oppressed of our society and take care of them. In that way, we take an ancient text and apply its principles to our day and time. There's the answer.
Oates' challenging response to the pushback against her original question actually carries some hard truth in it. With humility, I must agree that one of the temptations we Christians must guard against is to select verses that agree with our viewpoint and then twist them to whatever our purpose or rationale might be. We all do it, to an extent, but we have to be aware of this tendency and fight it with further study, so that we are not hypocrites.
How do we fall into cherry picking? Three ways: (1) We generally don't know the Bible well enough. (2) We don't understand the context of the cherry-picked verse as we don't know the verses around it. (3) We don't understand the overarching narrative of the Bible and how the verse fits into it. Overlay those three ways with our own inclination to support our preconceived viewpoint rather than accept what the whole of the Bible is telling us.
These three areas deserve a much longer dissection, which I won't do here. I will tell you that the second cherry-picking way is my pet peeve. People will lift out a verse to me, not understanding the passage that it comes from. The classic example was when an adult class participant lifted their hand and said, "You know, Jesus said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'" My comment was, "Yes, those words came out of Jesus's mouth. He happened to be quoting that saying and was speaking against it at the time!" This person had completely misunderstood what Jesus was talking about by selecting a very small segment of the discussion to support their opinion.
Don't dismiss cherry picking as fertile ground for hypocrisy. Remember that Satan cherry-picked verses when tempting Jesus! Satan knew scripture and used snippets to try to misguide Jesus. However, Jesus knew that these snippets were misleading and taken out of context, and he knew scripture well enough to counter with a more persuasive verse.
It takes humility to admit that each of us Christians must do a better job of understanding and applying the Bible. It takes patience to actually listen to what a person is saying and to respond to the question's content rather than only to its tone. If we have humility and patience, we don't need to lash out defensively.
Last year I purchased an email list that supposedly contained church members. An atheist in California wrote back to complain about my email message and forcefully say that he didn't want to hear this Christian stuff. After some back-and-forth, during which I was polite and apologetic, we realized his email address had gotten mixed up with a church member's in Alabama. We actually kept exchanging emails for a bit, as he gradually admitted some curiosity despite his atheism. It finally got to the point where I offered to speak with him if he ever had questions about God. He replied, "I don't think I ever will, but it means something to me that you treated me well and that you're willing to talk with me." Did I win a conversion that day? No. Did the Holy Spirit plant a seed with this man? I firmly believe so, and it wouldn't have happened without practicing patience and humility.
I don't believe we encourage faith in others by just screaming at them as we defend Christianity. Instead, we should patiently explain Biblical perspective and humbly admit when someone makes a good critique. We do this by developing our own seven-day practical faith and being attentive to ways to increase theirs.
A seven-day practical faith is best served by getting outside our comfort zones and trusting Jesus to guide us in new ways. Please check out my new book, "From Comfort Zone to Trust Zone: How Jesus Urges Us to Take Leaps of Faith for His Kingdom." As one Amazon reviewer put it, "You will be challenged in every chapter to deepen your faith by relinquishing certainty to replacing it with uncertainty and thus growing your faith by growing your reliance on God." To learn more, visit CecilTaylorMinistries.com/from-comfort-zone-to-trust-zone .