Careful With The Quotes

il_fullxfull.322866568As an aspiring historian I have a few personal pet-peeves when it comes to anything related to history, including things that people supposedly said.  One reason being that Google (and iPhones) affords us the advantage of having most information easily accessible, at our finger tips, so I feel it ought not be too difficult to research something that someone supposedly said.  The other reason–and closely related to the first–is that it comes across either sloppy, desperate, or dishonest; characteristics not befitting an historian, much less a Christian.

At first glance one could accuse me of being rather pedantic, but let me try to show why this should be a concern for all Christians:

Imagine, if you will (and it shan’t be difficult), a conversation with an unbeliever you are trying to convince of the love of Christ and of the Church, when they retort, “Oh yeah? Like the inquisition? Witch trials? Crusades? [insert personal anecdote].”  Now you will attempt to explain how these people were not following the word of God, and you’d be right, but at this point your argument has lost some element of credibility due to the actions of others.

Now back to the point, because maybe that example may be difficult to connect.  Let’s say you are speaking to someone about the issue of….gun control, so naturally you make an appeal to the infallible Founders and their perspicuous Constitution, saying, “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.‘”  A fine quote indeed, with one problem, Jefferson never said it.  Whether you knew this or not is beside the point, let’s say they do know.  Whatever your point may have been, whatever rationale argument you may have had, has been jeopardized due to an inevitable doubt of credibility.  Is it possible to see where this is going?

Let me show you a few more examples, why it could perhaps be damaging to the credibility of the one saying it and, perhaps inadvertently, to every other Christian that unbeliever runs into:

Continental_CongressThomas Jefferson is possibly the most quoted, and misquoted, person in the history of the American nation (as far as politics is concerned); after all, the Founders are the trump card.  If they said it, it best be heeded, lest ye be declared un-American (there is danger enough in this already, because it comes dangerously close to an appeal to authority for defense of a truth).  This even extends to defending the “Christian nation” belief.

A few examples, from unnamed sources, attempt to make a Christian out of Thomas Jefferson:

“I am a Christian in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others.”


“I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”

The problem with these quotes is that they are attempting to make Jefferson say something that he did not intend.  It’s called contextomy; at its best it is a fallacy, at its worst it is deceptive and misleading.  Here is the full quotation with respect to the first (in an 1803 letter to Benjamin Rush):

“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be [that is, the sense in which Jefferson thinks Jesus would have meant it]; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other” (emphasis mine).

The second quote is in an 1816 letter to Charles Thomson, the same letter in which Jefferson describes making a smaller Bible that scraps out the doctrines he did not like (find it here).  I think this well enough shows that even if Jefferson did write something to prove himself a Christian, these certainly are not the passages to go for it.

Moving on we come to another oft-misquoted individual of Christianity, Charles Darwin.  This example will not just further my case but it will succeed in proving my point entirely, namely, that it is wrong for Christians to use such approaches to quote mining.

I happen to enjoy the movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” for what it’s worth.  But when I show it I always give a caveat at a certain point; it is the scene where the host Ben Stein is walking through Darwin’s house and a quote is being played over the scene.  This is that quote, but with the omitted sections in red:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Obviously if Darwin had said what “Expelled” claimed, it is a foolproof evidence that he could be directly linked with the events of the Holocaust (which is the thrust at the end of the film).  It is inflammatory, unthinkable, and repugnant to the sensible mind; yet, sadly, it is also a prime example of quote mining.  Don’t get me wrong, I still disagree with what Darwin said here, and I do think a connection can be made between Darwin and human extermination.  However, this quote has sparked no small amount of controversy, and the whole of the film is now discredited despite any good points it may have made.  But you may object, “these are unbelievers, they will twist anything put in front of them.”  Valid.  But does that make it write for us to lie?  But perhaps it was not a lie, maybe it was just ignorance of the true quote.  But in order to put a movie in production you would assume a reasonable amount of research went into it, so all that is left is the word sloppy.  Either way, again, it is not befitting good history (or any discipline), much less Christianity.

Let me try to bring it home now, because there may still be those unconvinced of the need to be precise, careful, and honest in our quotations.  They may think me a nitpicker.

What might be your response to common catchphrases either found in the Bible but misused, or not in there at all?  Such as:

“Judge not…” [to justify any behavior]

“God helps those who help themselves.” [not there]

“Money is the root of all evil.” [a misquote]

“God loves me no matter what I do.” [see above]

Hopefully your response would not be to pass over it lightly for fear of being a nitpick.  After all, Satan deliberately misquoted the words of God in the wilderness, and Jesus corrected it with Scripture, context, and truth.

Here’s the point: If we are going to be a people professing truth and the virtue/benefits of it, with a leader calling himself “the truth;” if we are going to profess a desire for honesty, and we are seeking to dispel deception and error, then we need to start with ourselves.  We must be people who endeavor to be truthful and knowledgable when we seek to ‘win’ an argument.  To win at all costs (lying, deceiving, assuming, pretending) is the way of the world; it is not the way of Christ.

This principle should guide what we say about ourselves, about others, and even how we use quotations that supposedly favor our side.  Like I said, most of the time we do not intend to do this, we just don’t take the time (literally 10 seconds) to do a small amount of research, and in those 10 seconds we lose credibility for ourselves and possibly others.

I’ll leave it with some verses to think about with regard to this subject:

“You shall not bear false witness against [or perhaps, about] your neighbor.” -Exodus 20:16

“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.” -Proverbs 12:17

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” -Matthew 5:16

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” -John 14:6

“Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” -Titus 2:7-8

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” -1 Peter 2:12

May it suffice.




~ by TSL on January 29, 2013.

2 Responses to “Careful With The Quotes”

  1. Again, outstanding. Inaccurate quotes are a peeve of mine, as well.

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