Twisted Stories

Featured, Religion — By on July 17, 2012 at 7:00 am

Oversimplification. Exaggeration. Outright fabrication. Where will you find all this? Aside from the obvious answers, I’d like to add a couple more: Church sanctuaries during the Sunday morning sermon. Bible studies. Youth groups. I can’t count the number of times a Bible story has been subtly (or not so subtly) tweaked to better convey a point the speaker wishes to make. I’ll bet you’ve had similar experiences: Maybe it’s David, the master of bare-handed bear and lion wrestling,  portrayed as a tiny weakling (think Tiny Tim without the crutches), or maybe it’s this dude who’s been crippled his entire life being held up as a world-class example of whiny whiners. A complex individual who really existed is twisted, warped, and reduced to a single characteristic (which may or may not even be true), all for the sake of making a point.

There are a variety of reasons to avoid this sort of scholarship, but here is a big one: it’s dishonest. No sermon or lesson, no matter how good, is ever worth dishonesty, especially from the pulpit or another position of biblical authority.

The point being made is often a good point. It could be that “Man looks at the outside appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Perhaps that complaining doesn’t change anything. It might be anything, any true and excellent life-tip, theological insight, or what have you, except for one thing: a point is no stronger than the premise it’s built on. If it occurs to your listeners that you’ve built your point on false statements, then your entire lesson is weakened, almost to the point of irrelevance. Using a false or exaggerated statement to make a point does not make the point stronger, it merely introduces a crucial weakness into your previously strong lesson.

Let’s go back to David. When people hear that David was out “watching the sheep,” they imagine a little kid playing a harp or something while watching fluffy white sheep bounce around the pasture. Maybe the kid is singing, maybe he’s teaching the sheep to dance, I don’t know. But let’s hear David’s account of his life as a shepherd.

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and killed him. Your servant has struck down lions and bears.” 1 Samuel 17:34

Bears, people! And lions! David killed lions and bears with his bare hands! That means that any attempt to imply that he is weak, or puny, is not just a misleading exaggeration: it’s a blatantly false statement.

And here’s the important bit, the really, really important bit: David was a real person. He really lived. He was really a shepherd, the youngest son of Jesse.  He really did throw down with bears and lions. He is not a parable. He is not an object lesson. He is not a made-up character in a made-up story.

That’s the real problem: we like to think of them as parables. We like to think of David and Peter and Gideon and everyone else in the Bible as characters in stories that are told primarily for our benefit. And so we can easily fall into the trap of telling a story not to get at what’s really there, but to get at something we want to talk about; since the story doesn’t naturally convey what we want to talk about, we have to twist the story a bit, make it fit.

And so we oversimplify, and say that Gideon was too busy throwing himself a pity party  to do what God asked him to do. Or we exaggerate, elevating one characteristic of a biblical character far above its proper place, because it’s easier working with caricatures than people. Or we outright fabricate and paint a picture of David that’s entirely devoid of bare-handed death matches with wild animals.

In doing so, we slowly weaken the relationship the Bible has with reality. After all, we’re apparently not worried about what actually happened in the Bible, so why should our audience be concerned? If David and Peter and everyone else are just fables, characters to be twisted for our benefit, what can we really learn from them? The Bible becomes just another story divorced from reality, not suited for consultation in our day-to-day lives. But if David was a real person who did what God required of him, if Peter and Gideon were real people placed in difficult situations–then we can learn. Then the Bible can give us hope and comfort in times of trouble. Then, and only then, the Bible is alive, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”

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  • Boonton

    Hate to say it but aren’t you doing the same thing? Nothing in the passage says he wrestled bears with bear hands. It says he grabed it by its ‘beard’ and saved the lamb. Only if the animal ‘rose up’ against him did he kill it, but all he says is that he ‘struck down’ lions and bears. At no point does he claim he carried no weapons, had no stick or spear or knife or rock in a hand to help him. In fact, even if you think of him as a real boy who was pretty touch, it’s probably highly unlikely he didn’t carry something to help him against predators.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    That’s a somewhat fair critique: I really should have seen that coming, shouldn’t I? Thanks for the feedback: I really appreciate it.

    But I have to say I do think there’s a distinct difference. I think the obvious, overstated hyperbole I’m using doesn’t run the same risk–the risk of a false statement being believed as fact. I don’t believe anyone could read this post and come away with the thought, “Huh. Mackenzie wants me to believe that David literally wrestled bears. Well, shame on him for trying to mislead me!”

    I wanted to have a little fun with this post, and I don’t think I was misleading. In 1 Samuel 13:19, we’re told there are no blacksmiths in Israel. In 13:22, the only spears or swords in the entire Israelite army are Saul’s and Jonathan’s. No sword, no spear. If David has a dagger, then it’s a flint dagger, basically a sharpened rock (it’s doubtful a shepherd could afford bronze). And when you’re taking down a lion, that’s not gonna be much comfort.

    So you are right: I am guilty of exaggerating in order to make a point. But I don’t believe my slight exaggeration was misleading in the slightest, and I think that’s really important. In my opinion, the key difference is that my manner of presentation (that is, clear hyperbole) makes any misunderstanding extremely unlikely. I don’t believe that people will walk away from this post with a false understanding of David: I think they’ll laugh at the hyperbole and still get the meat of the post.

    What do you think?

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  • Lein Gnos

    I really enjoyed your post in ultimately seeing how honesty when presenting a sermon or lesson is crucial.. ultimately because we’re not here to prove a point, but to honor God and serve Him first.

    Although maybe a lot of times the issue is that we’re not careful in studying the word before we teach? looking at vv39-40 or v42, people misinterpreted it as david being too small to fit the armor or maybe misinterpreted Goliath’s view of David to think that he’s A LOT weaker than he really is?
    or going back to Boonton’s comment, it could be a misunderstanding that we thought He actually REALLY strong based on v34?

    Keeping in mind that the main point of this article is about intentionally twisting biblical stories into exaggerated fairy tales (and thus placing our point over His word and the truth), i definitely agree its very important to keep our integrity, especially as we’re placed in charge of speaking TRUTH into people’s lives. Keeping in mind 1 Samuel 13:8-13, its definitely not about getting our point across (or in saul’s case, the burnt offering), but keeping our lives/ character in line with His word and His will, chasing after God’s heart first.
    I guess in addition to that, its definitely important to be very careful with our reading and interpretation of God’s word, lest we lead many astray because of our negligence.

    But iron sharpens iron right? as we’re continually growing, we can all the more be sharpened by our communities and grow to be better teachers of God’s word! Thanks for the post! definitely sharpens me to keep my integrity when teaching His word!

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelKares Michael Kares

    Mackenzie,

    Good post. As a Pastoral Ministry student long ago (okay, as an undergrad) I noticed this ‘device’ more and more as I studied sermons–and found it frustrating. I also called my pastor on it and got the exact response you mention above–focus on the overall point of what was said, not the details. If the point is true, don’t challenge the methods.

    While I’m not sure if I’m particularly comfortable with this justification, I do have to admit there is Scriptural precedent to do so. Paul tends to use this same device from time to time. Paul will rip an Old Testament quotation out of context, drop portions the quoted passage, and tweak the wording, all to make a point. A good example that I need to look at as part of my thesis is 1 Cor 14.21. Paul quotes Isaiah .10-11 to support an arguement that tongues is an ineffective evagelistic sign. However, he has substantally modified the text and/or taken it from a Greek translation that differs from the LXX; it neither matches the Hebrew Old Testament or LXX.

    1 Cor 14.21: In the Law it is written, l“By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord. (ESV)

    Isaiah 28.11-12: For by people of strange lips
    and with a foreign tongue
    the Lord will speak to this people,
    12 to whom he has said,
    m“This is rest;
    give rest to the weary;
    and this is repose”;
    yet they would not hear. (ESV)

    by reason of the contemptuous words of the lips, by means of another language: for they shall speak to this people, saying to them, 12 This is the rest to him that is hungry, and this is the calamity: but they would not hear. (Brenton LXX)

    The article I’m reading on the passage makes a couple good observations. “We should note further that the omission of the intelligible message has the effect of making the object of the hearer’s refusal to listen, not the intelligible message as in the [Masoretic Text--Hebrew] or [Septuagint--Greek translation of the Hebrew], but the unintelligible speech of ‘foreigners’ through whom God says he will speak” and “Paul’s version of the text with the omission of the intelligible messages found in the MT and LXX seems to be motivated by the fact that his argument is concerned primarily with unintelligible tongues” (p. 182)

    Paul ignores context and is selective about his source to prove a valid point. One could say “Paul was inspired by the Spirit,” but we should hope and pray our ministers are speaking the message the Spirit gives them to utter! So, while the exegete and preacher within me feels more comfortable when preachers stick to a text and recount the text correctly, there is precedent to have a free hand with one’s text.

    P.S. Yes, Narrative and (in this case) diatribe are different genres, but the modern preacher uses the characters of narrative in the same way Paul uses the Israelis of 700 BC–as an example to commend or condemn a certain course of action. Thus the comparison seems appropriate.

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelKares Michael Kares

    Whoops, forgot to cite my article. So far, (haven’t finished it) its a good read Johanson, B. C.“Tongues, a Sign for Unbelievers? A Structural and Exegetical Study of I Corinthians xiv.20–25.” New Testament Studies 25:180–203.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    That’s extremely interesting: I’d never considered that before. Thanks for that. However, I want to say that I think it’s not just narrative that’s important: It’s people.

    My first reaction is to say that Paul has not spoken an untruth. He’s refocusing the passage, yes, but the fact remains that they didn’t listen to the message, regardless of the vehicle, which ties in to Paul’s point.

    However, when a pastor makes a biblical-historical figure into something he’s not, it doesn’t strengthen the pastor’s point: It weakens it. Here’s an example:

    It’s easier for a pastor to change Gideon from a complex person placed in an extremely difficult situation into a caricature whose only attributes are cowardice and self-pity. This makes the very true point that God can do more than we know: But it misses the absolutely vital point that Gideon, in fact, was a person just like us, in situations many of us find ourselves in every day.

    We are not caricatures, and that means that stories featuring caricatures are of very limited value in how they apply to everyday life. A story of Peter the Buffoon, Gideon the Frightened, or David the Weakling might make a point about God: But it cannot tell us what WE should do, because it’s only a story. It’s the difference between an abstract lesson and real-life example, and the difference is huge.

    This post was actually a branch from a post on my personal blog, where I talk more about this specifically: http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/04/people-or-caricatures.html

    Let me know what you think.