When Tom DeLay argued for federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case on Palm Sunday 2005, he compared her situation to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In doing so he mixed up references to the solitary, despairing Jesus of the Gospel of Mark (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and the serenely confident Jesus of the Gospel of John (“It was for this very reason that I came to this hour!”).

When James Dobson of Focus on the Family answered an online question about how children should be disciplined, he cited several New Testament texts, only one of which actually uses the word “discipline,” and proceeded to summarize the theme he perceived to unite those passages. Whether his reading is reasonable or not, that ain’t literalism. (And when asked specifically about spanking children, he relies on personal reminiscence and anecdote.)

These are two of the many examples that Margaret M. Mitchell examines in an essay on how the Christian Right actually uses the Bible. Mitchell is an expert on the first four centuries of Christian thought and a professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago. Her specific point is that “what most characterizes the Christian Right’s biblical interpretation is no single method, but rather its selection of passages and topics.”

Her more general point is that there are way more than just two ways of reading and understanding the Bible, and everyone uses it selectively to argue for their preferred conclusions. The conventional wisdom that there are just two ways, reading the letter and reading the spirit, plays into the hands of the story the Christian Right is determined to tell.

(Hat tip to “Talk to Action.”)