Literary critic Stanley Fish identifies a theory known as “fragmentation” by which a specific passage, paragraph, or even a single sentence is isolated from the rest of the document. As a …
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Literary critic Stanley Fish identifies a theory known as “fragmentation” by which a specific passage, paragraph, or even a single sentence is isolated from the rest of the document. As a fragment, these selected words may contract or subvert the overall meaning found in the larger text. Readers may be familiar with the idea of fragmentation as “cherry-picking” a Bible verse, meaning plucking a verse out of its context and using it in an argument. This mode of interpretation is generally frowned upon.
Yet the truth is that we all interpret through a form of fragmentation. Biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza noted that everyone has “a canon within the canon,” meaning we all have our favorite verses in the Bible that we value more than others.
I know that people of good faith are divided over social issues. Some select certain verses to make an argument, while others cite different passages. Evidence for either side can be found with the pages of scripture. Sadly, many churches resemble the partisan divides that we see in our country’s politics. This fragmentation of the Bible often fragments communities, splitting churches and denominations.
What if, before we cited a Bible verse, we honestly considered our motives for quoting that passage? How do we think that the person we are addressing will hear those words? What do we hope will happen as a result? Long ago, Augustine of Hippo said, “Anyone who thinks to have understood the scriptures, but cannot by that understanding build up the double love of God and neighbor, then that person has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”
A few years ago, a parishioner lay dying in the hospital. Her body was riddled with cancer and she had elected for palliative care, sometimes known as “comfort care.” But she was not comforted. She agonized over this painful decision.
Imagine my surprise when I walked into her room the very next day and found my friend sitting upright in bed with a beaming smile! She told me that, just before I had arrived, a doctor had come to check on her. And this doctor shared a Bible verse: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.
I recognized that verse as Philippians 4:6. I was also wary about cherry-picking this scripture for her at this particular time. “Do not be anxious” may be good advice, but it might seem flippant, as if you are not acknowledging a person’s feelings. Furthermore, I had been praying for healing with this parishioner for over a year. To imply that she should now be thankful seemed inconsiderate, if not downright spiritually abusive.
The parishioner shared the whole story of the doctor’s visit. Upon entering the room, the doctor had sat on the bed, held my friend’s hands, and listened for almost an hour as she poured out her anger, anxiety, and heartache. Only when my friend had felt like a dry creek bed did the doctor speak, sprinkling the words of the Bible. And so, the fragment known as Philippians 4:6 was spoken with support, care and love. May we all speak with the intention of doing the same.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the poet pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church and the author of the book “Gently Between the Words.”