There’s an old story about a gunman down in Texas who took aim at the side of a building and fired off the contents of his revolver. Once the weapon was emptied, he grabbed a paintbrush and bucket, walked up to the side of the building, and painted a bullseye over the bullet holes. He then proceeded to brag about his aim to all passers-by, pointing to the wall as evidence. The story seems laughable, but this sort of behavior is surprisingly common in our world.
In the field of behavioral economics, the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy” refers to an improper thought pattern where we do our research backwards– we arrive at a conclusion on our own and then go hunting for unrelated bits of information to back it up. It’s not surprising to see this kind of behavior among conspiracy theorists or cable news pundits, but there’s another group that are all too prone to this fallacy: us.
As Christians, we seek to approach the Bible humbly and glean meaning from its contents, but sometimes we can’t help but read our own ideas into it and find “evidence” there to support our own points of view. This is why we encourage reading Scripture prayerfully in groups, referencing books and commentaries regularly, and never ever taking single verses out of the context of the whole passage; these are habits which protect us from the Texas Sharpshooter method of reading Scripture. There’s one book in particular though where it’s tough to avoid this pattern of thought: Revelation.
Truth be told, I wince a little whenever the book is mentioned. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the contents of Revelation. I love the guidance offered in Christ’s letters to the seven churches. I love the words of caution against false teaching and corruption. I love how the church and the martyrs persevere through earthly suffering. I love the eventual triumph over evil and the arrival of the New Jerusalem– it’s beautiful! What bothers me is when people cherry-pick sections of the book and say things like, “Ah, the beast with the ten horns is obviously the European Union.” or “Ah, Pope Francis is obviously the Antichrist.” or “Ah, the False Prophet is already among us, and it’s obviously Oprah.” My personal favorite was when a Bible Study teacher tried to convince me that the horse-sized locusts in Revelation 9 were obviously Apache helicopters. Even as an 8th grader living in fear of Y2K, I could tell that one was a little off.
Revelation is a book where it’s all too easy to paint our own bullseyes, and people do it all the time.
This is on my mind because I stopped by Walgreen’s to grab an iced tea after leaving church Wednesday night, and it turned out to be a longer shopping trip than anticipated. As I walked to the cooler, I overheard a guy about my age talking to a couple of the employees, and I couldn’t help but overhear the name “Esau” in their conversation. Since I’m teaching on Jacob and Esau next week, I decided to eavesdrop a bit, and before I knew it, I was sucked into a conversation with a man whose beliefs might strike you as a little… odd. Here are the highlights (with my own comments italicized):
– Religion is evil. Instead, we need strict adherence to the Law, proper doctrine, and belief in Christ (which apparently don’t constitute religion in this man’s line of thought).
– God exists in a Trinity, but the three persons are not of one essence and are ranked by importance: Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit (which, for the record, is not our understanding of the Trinity at all). Also, each has a secret name that has only recently been recovered. (The “secret names” he told me were just Hebrew.)
– The King James Version is the only acceptable translation of the Bible because King James was deeply moved by the Spirit (even though his treatment of the early Baptists makes him kind of a monster in my book, and King James himself had almost nothing to do with that translation project).
– Modern black people descended from Jacob (the Israelites), while modern white people descended from Esau (the Edomites). God used the Atlantic slave trade to get the all-black Israel to America to witness to the all-white Edom. All other western nations are composed of the scattered Tribes of Israel. (This is just all kinds of Biblically, scientifically, and historically inaccurate, and so are the next several points, so if you’re not already sitting down...)
– The European Union is the Beast, America is Babylon, China is Gog and Magog, Obama is the Antichrist, and Obamacare is the Mark of the Beast. Apparently, when you go in for medical procedures now, your doctors are being forced to implant you with a chip that bears the mark, and mainstream news is keeping the whole thing quiet.
– MLK, Malcolm X, Tupac, and Michael Jackson were all silenced for knowing too much.
– 9/11 was an inside job by the secretly united Republicans and Democrats, and the government shutdown is part of their master plan to usher in Doomsday on October 17th.
– There are no other planets or solar systems to explore; all of that stuff is a cover-up. NASA is really developing weapons to fight against Jesus at Armageddon.
– Hollywood is named as such because they practice witchcraft on an unsuspecting public. Holly branches are a common component in pagan rituals, so the name “Hollywood” is extreme irony.
– FEMA is running secret black concentration camps in every state where people are regularly beheaded by guillotine.
– Star Wars was made to brainwash us into fighting Jesus when he returns from the heavens. (And, yes, it was this man’s demonizing of Star Wars that finally made me get a little mad, but I did my best to keep my composure.)
Now, at first glance, this all seems comical, but it also strikes me as tragic. For two hours, I had a friendly debate with a guy who was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was reading the Scriptures correctly and that the Bible foretold all of these things (Obamacare, 9/11, Star Wars– all of it). He hadn’t arrived at any of this lightly either. His Bible was in tatters. Every single page bore highlighting and pen marks. It looked as though he had read it backwards and forwards many times, and, candidly, he knew a lot of it better than I did. We debated Genesis and Obadiah and 1 Corinthians and Galatians and Ezekiel and Revelation and Isaiah and –in a truly weird twist– 1 Enoch. (Don’t look for 1 Enoch in the Bible; it’s not there.) Store employees frequently looked my way and nodded sympathetically as my legs and brain grew tired; apparently, he’s a regular there. As the conversation finally ended, we each turned down an invitation to the other’s church, and he took off across the parking lot.
The conversation had shaken me a little. This guy had a Bible verse to back up everything he said, and his constant boastful refrain of “See? I just proved it!” stung in my ears. Still, something about it seemed contrived. Everything fit together too neatly– like bullet holes under a painted bullseye. Modern events were being read onto ancient words instead of allowing ancient words to speak timeless truth to modern readers.
On my way to my car, I paused to chat with one of the cashiers who was taking a cigarette break just outside the door and had observed the whole exchange. This cashier and I had talked before when I asked him about his forearm tattoo, so my stopping to talk now didn’t seem strange to him. He doesn’t readily embrace the label of Christian, but he believes in God and prays often and believes that you should always put yourself in other people’s shoes before judging them. The two of us talked for about ten minutes about the big picture of Jesus’ life and message: dependence on God and forgiveness of one another (just as we ourselves are forgiven through Christ and commit ourselves to his instruction). We talked about how Jesus would always welcome the outsider at his table and how we’re called to do the same. We talked about how all humans have an innate drive to seek truth, and we talked about how that often gets twisted when we try to connect dots that aren’t really there. Both of us were referencing Scripture, but we felt no need to cite chapter and verse; this wasn’t a debate, just a conversation. Our questions were not over the specific interpretation of specific verses but rather the general question of how to live like Jesus based on the stories of him we knew. We parted amicably.
Looking back on these conversations, I can’t help but think of Paul’s words in one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Ephesians 4: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of doctrine and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
The truth is that it is folly to try and predict the hour and the day of Jesus’ return, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive constantly for the Kingdom and take every chance we have to spread the Gospel. How many hours have been wasted on trying to guess the future? How much ink has been spilled trying to argue for interpretations of Revelation that have more to do with modern politics than the words of Scripture? Romans teaches that we have all missed the mark, so when we read passages of Scripture that we don’t immediately understand, let’s not paint a bullseye around our mistakes and pretend we’re right. Instead, let’s trust in God to deliver the answers when the time comes and, in the meantime, keep seeking to fulfill Christ’s most basic commands: at all times and in all things, love God and serve neighbor.
Grace and Peace,