on proof-texting

Image from AmenAbility

I interpret text. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m trained to do. It’s what I teach others to do. And, contrary to sometime popular opinion, while there may be more than one right interpretation of a text, there are also wrong ones. Texts don’t mean anything one wants them to mean. They just don’t.

When I teach composition classes, one of the objectives is that students will learn to read their world critically. I tell students that, if I succeed in my objectives, they will become annoying to their friends because they will never again be able to look at anything–movies, art, architecture, books, television, commercials, video games, anything–uncritically. They will be the ones coming out of the great, inspiring film saying, “but…,” and not cynically, I hope, just critically (not necessarily a negative as I use it–critique not complaint), thoughtfully.

When I was in college, I took an Emily Dickinson class. We students presented on the poetry. One girl stood up for her presentation and said something along the lines of, “I like Emily Dickinson because I am an atheist and this poem shows me she was an atheist, too.” Huh? I don’t remember which poem it was, but I was taken aback because, well, it’s Dickinson. She’s heretical maybe, but I’ve never seen atheist. And even if one poem suggests that (and I didn’t think it did) what about the body of her work? One can’t make a judgment based on one short piece. Really. Especially poetry. Poems are hardly “The Autobiographical Essay.” The speaker in the poem may or may not even be the poet. (Autobiographical essays are suspect, too, but that’s a different post.)

So I can’t help but come at the Bible from a literary background. That doesn’t mean I am reading it “as literature.” It just means I’m bringing my understanding of how to interpret texts to scripture, too. As I’ve tried to wrap my head around reading scripture carefully and thoughtfully, the best rubric I’ve been given is this: judge scripture by other scripture and judge everything by way of Jesus. Okay. I can work with that.

So now I’m commenting on my FB frustrations from a couple of days ago. Bin Laden died and people celebrated. That struck me badly. I couldn’t go there and I couldn’t really understand that as a first reaction, but, I don’t know, maybe that was unfair of me. So then people started posting the “love your enemies” verses and I “liked” them because I was so bothered by the other postings. But then people started responding to those posts with other scripture such as Proverbs 11:10 “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish there is jubilation.” Now, I would interpret this verse as “it is human nature to…” rather than “it is a good thing to…;” nevertheless, there it was. And people were going back and forth defending rejoicing or misquoting MLK or slamming the president and none of it was nuanced because, face it, this is Facebook we’re talking about. So none of this has been sitting right with me, and it’s my frustration of people just tossing out scripture verses with no context and applying them to any and every circumstance, using the scripture–much as my classmate did the Emily Dickinson poem–to defend a foregone conclusion. The word for that is proof-texting (or prooftexting or proof texting), and no one really defends the practice, but people do it anyway, not maliciously I hope, but unthinkingly.

Since the first flurry on Facebook, I’ve read many more nuanced responses to both the military action and the rejoicing about it. The RevGals are linking their responses today on the Wednesday Festival (and the one by Muthah+ that Songbird picked to highlight was one of the best I read over the last few days) and my pastor responds here.

Of course, the story that has been most interesting to me as a composition instructor is that of the MLK misquote. Someone posted her personal thought followed by an MLK quote. Someone requoted it with the quotation marks around the whole thing. Then, just the first part, the personal thought, was tweeted as if it were an MLK quote. And it went viral. Here are three pieces from The Atlantic that discuss it: “Out of Osama’s Death, a Fake Quotation is Born”; “Anatomy of a Fake Quotation”, and “The (Shy) Woman Whose Words Accidently Became Martin Luther King’s”. Fascinating!

So that’s what’s been rattling around my head these last few days.

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2 Responses to on proof-texting

  1. Kimmery says:

    Thank you for an insightful post! I’ve had a similar reaction to the recent flurry of verse-quoting. There’s also an excellent post about hatred over at http://christiangirlatcollege.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/lets-talk-about-hatred/#comment-418 that may interest you.

    Found you through my Blogger stats and am honored not only that you featured my image but even more so that you accompanied it with a well-written explanation of proof-texting and the risks it involves. Mind if I link back to you?

    Peace to you,
    Kimmery

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