In Studying the Bible and in Medicine, Data/Context Must Be Available and Studied

Watch the TED Talk from 2010 below. In it, Doctor and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre shows how witholding test data on drugs is being used to push drugs on the market, to say that certain drugs are better than others, and that a drug will do a certain thing most of the time. This is bad science.

As a student of the Bible (both as a Christian and as a student in a University’s Religion Department) there is one thing in particular that this video made me think of.

A classic example will flesh this out for you.

A young man is in a dating relationship with a young woman. This young man is uncertain about how to proceed with the relationship. So, like any good young man, he looks to God. He first stumbles across 1 Corinthians 7:36c, which says, “They should get married quickly.”

His heart rate goes up. God wants me to ask her to marry me! But, when?

He then stubmles across John 13:27, which says, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

His questions answered, and having heard directly from God on what he should do and when he should do it, he closes his Bible and goes to sleep, dreaming of marrying his girlfriend.

What’s the problem with this? Well. Everything actually. What he read is in the Bible, yes. But, what he read has what we call context. If there is one thing that should be drilled into every Christian’s head when it comes to teaching, preaching, and learning from the BIble it is that context determines meaning.

If our eager young man would have bothered to read the context surrounding his snippet of text he would have noticed two things. First, that Paul was writing a specific instruction to a specific people. There was a problem in the Corinthian church of engaged couples acting as they shouldn’t (like married couples). In this light he says, “GET MARRIED!!” Second, after this verse (v. 36), there is a conjunction…”but.” Our young man should have continued reading. Paul instructs that if the young men are able to practice self-control and have decided to not marry, they should not. He concludes by saying this, “So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better” (v. 38).

And, obviously, John 13:27 is a quote of Jesus telling Judas, he betrayer, to do what he is going to do quickly, his betraying of Jesus, which has nothing at all to do with marriage and thus does not apply to our young man’s question of when to marry.

Context, context, context. In light of the video above, data, data, data.

“We cannot make decisions in the absence of all information.” – Ben Goldacre

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