Stop Reading the Bible Like It's a Ransom Note
Why Plucking Verses Out of Context is a Terrible Idea
Recently on Twitter I pushed back on a post that declared “Homosexuality is a sin.” (It’s not, in fact.) I often see things I disagree with, and think are generally terrible takes, and I keep right on scrolling. However, I am also a committed ally of the LGBTQ+ community, which means I don’t just let these kind of things go unchallenged.
Unsurprisingly, several people arrived in my mentions to quote the Bible at me. More than one person trotted out the so-called “Clobber passages,”1 which, in their mind, prove definitively that Scripture condemns any expression of love and human sexuality outside of a heterosexual experience. (They don’t.) But that aside, this happens a lot on my social media accounts. I’ll post something that pushes back on long held assumptions and interpretations, and my mentions fill up with Bible verses.
I find it interesting for a couple of reasons. First, do they really think I haven’t read that verse or that I am not aware of it’s existence? More importantly, it’s a terrible way to read the Bible. I’ve started to refer to this proof-texting and cherry-picking of a verse here and a verse there as the “Ransom Note Hermeneutic.”2
When you think about a ransom note in a movie or show, they are often composed of random letters cut out of magazines and affixed together to create a message, and usually, a list of demands. The way so many Christians have been taught to approach the Bible is frustratingly similar. We’ve been taught that the Bible is an answer book, and so we comb through it looking for a verse for whatever issue or situation with which we are presented. It’s more akin to a “Magic 8 Ball” than a sacred text. We take a verse here and a verse there and construct a theology that can be easily weaponized against others, and we wield it, without restraint, against those who fall outside of the orthodoxy we’ve slapped together.
The problem with this “Ransom Note” approach is that it doesn’t actually care about the Bible. It cares about being right, for sure. It just doesn’t value what the Bible is. The Bible isn’t a book, it’s a library. Like any library it contains different kinds of literature. One question I hear a lot is “How do you reconcile the contradictions within the Bible?” My answer is often surprising for people: I don’t. Have you ever walked into a library and noticed the different books that represent a diversity of genres and perspectives? Have you ever become angry or decided that, because all the books in the library don’t all say the same thing, that libraries are meaningless and should be torn down? Of course not! The same is true of the Bible. It’s a library of texts that were composed by two communities, the ancient Jewish community and early Jesus followers, over the period of around one thousand years (roughly 1000 BCE - 135 CE). In that period of time attitudes shifted and perspectives changed. That’s not a “gotcha.” It’s a human reality.
Another problem with the “Ransom Note” approach is that it ignores the contexts in and from which the authors of the Bible wrote their texts. These contexts shaped the perspectives of the writers and, as a result, the content of the texts they produced. Meaning is bound up in context, which means if we want to take the Bible seriously we must not only focus on the text, but also the context. The words on the page matter, but so does the context. After all, the context is the page upon which the words are written.
The truth is you can cut and paste from here, there, and everywhere and create a nice, neat, and unified theology. The problem is the Bible, in context, doesn’t offer that to us. The Bible isn’t concerned with neatness, but with the messiness of humans sorting out who God is, what God is like, what it means to be human, and how we flourish in the world. The Bible isn’t an answer book that is meant to satisfy all of our questions, give us certainty, or even disclose God’s full and final thoughts on anything. Instead, Scripture invites us into the journey of continual learning, growth, and transformation. Of course there are contradictions in the Bible. Of course the picture of God changes over time. That’s because we change. We are a species in process, and our religions are, too.
The “Ransom Note” approach might make us feel right and certain, but it’s a terrible way to read the Bible. More than that, it too often leads to harm and dehumanization, which is always evidence that we have lost the plot. Taking the Bible seriously—in its context, as a diverse library—is the best way to honor the texts, and the communities that produced them, while making space for their continued impact on our lives today.
My friend Colby Martin wrote a fantastic book dealing with the misuse and misinterpretation of these texts. Click here for more on “UnClobber.”
Hermeneutic the way I am using it simply means “the lens through which we interpret the Bible.”