Bible verse subtweeting is practically its own art form.

Last summer, many speculated that Marco Rubio was subtweeting Trump with verses from Proverbs, including Proverbs 23:33, “Your eyes behold strange sights, and your heart utters incoherent things.” When former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador, former FBI director James Comey tweeted from Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Whether that was merely coincidental timing or a skillful subtweet, we may never know.

Pulling out a Bible verse as a response to any given situation is appealing to the user for the same reason it’s so aggravating to everyone else: it mixes plausible deniability with external authority. “Don’t blame me, the Bible said it!” It doesn’t require careful interpretation of Scripture to fire off a verse that (without context) perfectly responds to some argument, event, or cultural trend. (Or maybe it was just coincidental.)

We pull quotes out of context to justify or support any argument, often with little care to how the larger narrative (of Scripture or of Dr. King’s life and work) would help us interpret the one little snippet we want to use.

It turns out that we don’t just use the Bible this way, either. During this year’s Super Bowl, Dodge ran an advertisement that played portions of one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons over shots of American workers. Dr. King is one historical figure that receives this treatment quite often and most egregiously. We pull single lines from his inspirational and lengthy sermons, letters, or speeches and creatively interpret them to fit whatever point we’re trying to make.

Dodge’s advertisement was a particularly troublesome example for many viewers. It was played during the largest event for a sport that has become the source of much controversy over issues of racial justice, particularly concerning “appropriate” or effective forms of protest and activism. King frequently criticized consumerism; the use of his words to sell cars was quickly deemed tasteless and even exploitative.

The uproar was justified: King’s words were used without the permission of his family or the King Center, the nonprofit founded in his name to promote non-violent activism. Not only were his words pulled from context (an inevitability for a short TV spot), but it’s also clear the context wasn’t even considered in choosing to use the words. Later in the same sermon, King directly criticizes such advertisements, saying that advertisers “have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.”

It would be comical if it weren’t so heartbreaking. Even without a thorough study of King’s life, just a cursory glance at the full text of the sermon should have told Dodge’s marketing team that this ad was a bad idea. But Dr. King’s words have become so easily manipulated, accessible for anyone’s argument or cause, that it’s unsurprising that they made this choice.

The way that Dr. King’s words are used closely mirrors the way Scripture is often used, by subtweeting politicians and regular people alike. We pull quotes out of context to justify or support any argument, often with little care to how the larger narrative (of Scripture or of Dr. King’s life and work) would help us interpret the one little snippet we want to use.

And “use” is right—too often, we approach both sources with the same kind of desire for utility. Instead of carefully studying, appreciating, and evaluating Dr. King’s work, our desire to use his cultural power for our own advantage causes us to search for the one-liner that benefits us the most. It’s the same with Scripture. We come with our questions and look for answers, instead of realizing that it’s often giving us answers to questions we weren’t even asking. We google “Bible verses about X” to find lists of verses without their context because we’re often more interested in using Scripture’s authority for our own purposes than giving its Author authority over us.

These two sources are obviously very different. Dr. King’s legacy is complicated not only by this tendency to cherry-pick, but also by continued racial injustice and a desire by many to use his words to criticize black activists and civil rights leaders today. And handling Scripture correctly has much greater weight, as we’re dealing with the inspired Word of God. But both tendencies expose something about how many of us think about sources of authority, celebrity, and inspiration. We selectively consume much of the wisdom of our leaders—picking and choosing, diminishing the parts that make us uncomfortable.

More than our desire to elevate some parts at the expense of others, our tendency is to read particular situations, questions, or moral dilemmas into these sources. It’s unfair to ask sermons or speeches that Dr. King gave 60 years ago to function as perfect responses to current events. It’s silly to search Scripture for answers to questions it isn’t trying to answer. Sometimes the Bible verse “subtweeting” isn’t even subtweeting at all, it’s just a verse.

In one of my seminary classes recently, a teaching assistant was translating Ephesians 2:14 (“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”) and made a comment about how Jesus wasn’t a fan of walls. A man a few rows ahead of me started booing, and the professor asked, “Are you booing the verse or… ?”

No one had made a direct comment about immigration policy or President Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, but the faintest reference to a current event had put this student on the defensive. The comment about Jesus breaking down walls was a true one, pointing to a deeper truth about God’s new relationship to humanity because of Christ’s work on the cross. But instead of studying how that massively important reality affects the way we think about actual barriers (including walls) in our cultural context, the questions and answers were presupposed. We don’t have to study Scripture to figure out the right questions when we think we already know the answers.

We have deep and important truths to gain from Scripture, truths that will have a profound impact on all areas of our lives. Including consumerism. Including lying lips and lustful eyes. Including immigration policy. Including manipulating another’s words for personal gain. But those truths are found by figuring out the right questions, falling in love with the entire narrative, and meeting the God of the universe in the pages of His Word.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting conversation. What are the right questions, then? I am all for eliminating proof texts and spiritual platitudes, but by what measure do we argue for “scriptural authority?” Do we keep it (s.auth.) in-house espousing Christian ideals to other Christians with the subtext of cultural and/or Christian life? Can I quote outside material (Dostoevsky; Emerson; Nietzsche) unless I add an abstract or a disclaimer of some kind? I think your right, in so far, that we have presuppositions about the answers without the s proper questions; but, indeed, there is nothing in our life that isn’t shaped by our experiences. Also I agree that shooting off a verse as an attempt to strengthen or end a conversation is epistemologically lazy. However, I think this boils down to what “we” perceive as authoritarian and supplementary—atheists won’t budge at the quoting of scripture, and Christians (tend) to dismiss anything outside of scripture. Before we send our next tweet maybe we should think about who we are talking with, as well as, easing off the self-appointed audacity. Does it really matter that much if Dodge uses MLK to sell cars? Good read.

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