The Problem with Cherry-Picking


In my previous post, I attempted to clarify some confusion caused by differing views on biblical interpretation. Today, I’d like to address another subject that often complicates this further; Selective interpretation, otherwise known as cherry-picking. Here’s the thing about it in Christianity: everyone does it to some extent, but many of us are unaware of it. Most reasonable people will admit to points of confusion in their own attempts to interpret scripture, but others will become very defensive. Much like the assertion that “The bible is true” can mean several different things, “Cherry-picking” has its own problems associated with it in conversations about belief.


Here’s a personal story by way of explanation: As a teenager, I took biblical knowledge very seriously. I’d read the entire Bible multiple times; I competed in a competitive biblical study program; I could recite entire books verbatim in King James English. I prided myself on knowing scripture, and was more than willing to discuss my religious views. But if someone brought up cherry picking, my first response was to feel deeply insulted. The reason for this was that I was raised in a literalism tradition, and when someone asked about cherry-picking, what I heard was this:

“You haven’t read the Bible for yourself.” or “Why are you lying to me about your beliefs?”


In reality, what was usually being asked was: “To what degree are you a literalist?/Do you agree with the traditional interpretation of passage xyz?”


I won’t try to excuse my own defensiveness, it was the product of immaturity and arrogance. The reason I bring it up now is because my biblical knowledge actually made it harder to get over. Because I was well-versed in biblical literature, it was easy for me to dismiss alternative views. It took me a long time to realize that I, like everyone else, organize information according to my own agenda because I was swamped with information. I see similar things happen a lot among my fellow Christians. Some of the most hard-line literalists are also the most educated about he contents of scripture and its historical context. The problem of creating productive dialogues isn’t as simple as educating people.


I don’t believe that I have a final answer to this problem. At this point I’m very open to suggestions. Apart from that, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:


In your opinion, is there an equivalent to dogmatism in the secular community? If yes, what is an appropriate response?



  • August 30, 2013 - 1:50 am | Permalink

    My first thought is that literalism—both as a cultural heritage and as a troublesome activist movement—is not exclusive to religious texts. Everyone in the U.S., for example, most notably each Supreme Court justice, interprets the Constitution and its Amendments (number 14 in particular), the Declaration of Independence, and other founding documents in their own way, and to serve their own ends.

    From what i’ve (over)heard, a case could be made that the Humanist Manifestos are similarly claimed for various submovements of humanism, including those that emphasize the individualism and transnationalism and those that champion the need for social welfare programs among others. There have always been sharp political differences among organized humanists, and while i have no evidence but heresay, my impression is that much of the specific calls to importance in Manifesto II were very deliberately trimmed in the lead-up to Manifesto III. I’d love to have reliable sources on the politics behind the updates.

    Ultimately, though, i don’t think that a “final answer to this problem” is what we should be striving for. We should view such founding and guiding documents as these as founding and guiding, rather than settling or terminating. It helps to know what text the originators of our movements thought most vital to include in their precious space, but the movements are ours now, and we owe their founders the effort of shaping them into better forms than they could be at their outsets.

    Perhaps for many Christians that attitude is unacceptable, and i know that for many atheists a Christian who adopted it would only be demonstrating their own hypocrisy or blindness. But i don’t imagine that such Christians and atheists should be particularly relevant to this type of decision in the first place.

    • Jaime Wise
      August 30, 2013 - 1:51 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good point. End-goal thinking can often cuase more harm than good. I have noticed the problem with non-literlists being labeled as hypocritical by all sides. I think this happens becuase some of the most vocal Christians are literalists, and it creates an impression that Christianity is this rigidly defined thing with only one tradition, or that tradition is the only honest way of going about it. Once or twice I have been told by people that I don’t beleive what I say I do, because “Christians don’t beleive that”. While thsi is an unreasonable response, and I agree that it shouldn’t be relevant, it often is because of the volume of people pushing this idea. It makes conversations on both a cultural and individual level difficult, and can stir up animosity between Christian groups as well. I think this is one of the reasons many Christians respond to extremists by asserting their own beleifs, instead of addressing the victims of extremism. So while they aren’t relevant to individual choices, they often are on a broad scale. That’s why I think’s it’s important to address, but it’s also possible that I get side-tracked by it on occasion.

      • September 7, 2013 - 3:58 pm | Permalink

        That’s also a good point! I’ll retract my statement about relevance. It was typed with animosity anyway. It’s especially helpful to view self-described not-that-kind-of-Christians as playing into that same kind of sentiment.

        • Jaime Wise
          September 9, 2013 - 9:10 pm | Permalink

          This is a bit of a side-issue, but do you think that one of the problems with legalistic or literalistic approaches to things like politics and religion (or anything, really), stem from an desire to be changed or transformed by something bigger than yourself? I know this idea runs through a lot of Christianity, especially Protestantism. Have you noticed it in other social movements?

          • September 11, 2013 - 2:37 am | Permalink

            I don’t feel that that’s the case, anyway. The people i know who are passionate in social movements tend to also be passionate about learning more about these movements, and even challenging their own assumptions (or at least being willing to hear challenges to them). Then again, the people i know tend to be progressives, whereas literalism seems to be more of a reactionary phenomenon. So it seems more to me that literalism is a symptom of a more central ideological orientation. Maybe from the inside it feels different; maybe it does feel “transformative”, like “cleansing” oneself of corruption or “returning” to a morally idealized previous era (Eden, the 1940s, whatever). Speculating here….

  • Jaime Wise
    September 11, 2013 - 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Well, in my experience, the idea of transformation (or cleansing, or starting over, etc.) seems to float between differing sub-sets of ideologies and get mixed up with whatever current agenda each group has. Often, it’s nostalgia for the idealized past, but it can just as easily be paired with futurism, intolerance, or progressiveness. I’d really like to see (maybe conduct, if I’m lucky) a study about this; I only have anecdotal information at the moment, and I’m curious if it really is as pervasive as it seems from my point of view.

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