Connect-the-dots interpretation: Stop that.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 August 2017

Just because your brain sees a connection, doesn’t mean it’s real.

Your brain is designed to recognize patterns.

It’s how the brain stores data. It takes a memory, breaks it down into “what I know already” and “what’s new,” stores what’s new, and stores links to the memories we know already. And they don’t have to precisely be memories we know already; just stuff that’s close enough. If it sees a similarity, or pattern, in what we experience, that’s close enough.

That’s how we pack 50-plus years of experiences into a 100-terabyte brain. And explains why some of our memories are kinda sloppy: Our brains were pattern-matching things which weren’t accurate matches.

Our brains pattern-match inaccurate things all the time. Sometimes for fun: Ever played the game of “What does that cloud look like?” Or had to put up with your mom insisting that so-and-so looks like some celebrity, but you can’t see it at all? Or been startled by a shadow which kinda looked like a stranger was in your house, but turns out it wasn’t?

Psychologists call this tendency apophenia: Your brain’s making a connection which isn’t really there. Happens all the time, and a lot of the time we realize this and are amused by it.

This person is pretty sure the word “love” is written in his cat’s fur. I see more of an “HXICVW,” but you know how people tend to see what they wanna see. Reddit

But other times we’re deliberately looking for connections. Like detectives trying to solve a case, like mathematicians looking for a statistical trend, like gamblers looking for a lucky streak, like conspiracy theorists searching for a cover-up. They wanna find a connection so bad, they’ll jump right on top of anything. Including all the bad matches our brain makes.

Yep, we Christians do it too. When we want a sign from God badly enough, we’ll settle for anything; we won’t even bother to confirm it. Or when we’re scouring the bible for truths and revelations, and find coincidences… and if we wrongly believe nothing is meaningless, we’ll insist these can’t be coincidences; they’re revelations!

Happens all the time. Generates a whole lot of really bad bible interpretations. So it’s something I gotta warn you about, lest you stumble into this trap yourself. Or be led into it by an overzealous preacher.

End Times preachers in particular; many of ’em are just the right combination of conspiracy theorist and connect-the-dots misinterpreter.

The bible’s “secret codes.”

Give you an example. There’s a popular theory going round Christendom that the ancient Hebrews had a list of codewords and phrases which were kind of the key to interpreting parables and apocalypses. Only certain knowledgeable Hebrews knew the key, knew what all these words really meant, and could decode all the mysterious stories and visions in the bible. And while that key was lost in antiquity, clever Christians can figure it out if they just put their heads to it. ’Cause the bible left us clues.

Fr’instance when Jesus initially told his story about the four seeds, his students hadn’t yet been clued in to the secret code. So Jesus had to sit ’em down and explain “seed” means word. Mk 4.3 Remember that for later, ’cause from now on, every time somebody mentions seed in a parable or vision, it means word. Got that?

Believing this, codebreakers will even go digging through other parts of the bible, and try to read “word” into all the other stories about seeds.

Genesis 1.11-13 KWL
11 God said, “Sprout sprouts, earth. Sow seeds, grass.
Fruit trees, make fruit which has seed in it, by species, on the land.”
It was so. 12 The earth produced sprouts, grass sowed seeds by species,
trees produced fruit which had seed in it, by its species. God saw how good it was.
13 It was dusk, then dawn: Day three.

Yes, this passage has a literal meaning: God created seed-bearing plants. But codebreakers believe since the codeword zerá/“seed” is in there, there’s also a secondary, allegorical meaning built into it. There’s a whole ’nother dimension to the bible—one which only they know—which permits ’em to use this passage to talk about how God spreads his “seed”/word all over the world. Using

  • Grass. And since other scriptures use “grass” to refer to flesh, or humanity, Is 40.6 this passage means God uses people to carry his word.
  • Fruit trees. Obviously you’ve heard of fruit of the Spirit. God can use our spiritual fruit to spread his word too.
  • Herbs. That’s how the KJV translates esév/“grass,” and you might recall Jesus used parables about herbs—like mustard—to describe how his kingdom grows. Lk 13.19 The kingdom definitely spreads the word.

There y’go: From this one passage about God creating plants in Genesis, I extrapolated a three-point outline for talking about how God gets the word out.

Even though that’s not at all what the Genesis passage is about.

Yep. I simply took a rubbish idea about secret codes in the bible, used it to make a connection with random scriptures, applied that idea to these scriptures out of context, then claimed it was revelation. As if God himself intentionally put it in the bible for anyone with wisdom to find.

True wisdom is knowing this is a wholly illegitimate way to study your bible. Yet for loads of Christians, this is exactly how they study their bibles. Exactly how they’re discovering “new, profound truths” every single day. They give the Holy Spirit credit for connecting the dots for them: “Look what God led me to discover today!” And of course the Spirit did no such thing. It’s the product of pure human foolishness.

True, this lesson sounds pretty benign… other than spreading the false idea this is a legitimate way to study one’s bible. God does indeed communicate his message through people, our good deeds, and his kingdom. It’s not heresy. But you realize the only reason it’s not heresy, is because these preachers previously learned the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, and deliberately avoided any interpretation which’d slide into heresy. Other preachers are hardly so cautious. They’ll follow whatever trail their brains lead ’em on (and again, credit the Holy Spirit for this), even when they’re led astray. Or they never did learn what’s orthodox and what’s not; or feel they have every right to question orthodoxy if it feels wrong to them. In the wrong hands, this method can go very, very wrong.

Ain’t no codes.

Back to the Four Seeds story. One of the seeds fell on rock, and Jesus explained it thisaway:

Mark 4.16-17 KWL
16 The seed planted in the rocks:
These people, when they hear the word, quickly receive it with joy.
17 But they’re flighty: They themselves have no root.
Next time trouble or harassment comes because of the word, they suddenly find it offensive.”

Okay, so rock refers to shallow people, shallow thinking, those who can’t handle difficult teachings, those who compromise as soon as they encounter any pushback. Got it?

Now let’s bounce over to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which he summed up like so:

Matthew 7.24-25 KWL
24 “So whoever hears these words of mine and does them
will become like a sensible man who builds himself a house on bedrock.
25 Rain came down, rivers rose, winds blew, all against that house;
it didn’t fall because it had been founded on the bedrock.”

Now rock refers to solid people, foundational thinking, those who might be shaken or buffeted but won’t fall over when they encounter rough times.

Wait, “rock” can mean multiple things?

Yes. Because every metaphor, every allegory, every apocalypse we find in the bible, has to be interpreted individually. In the Four Seeds story, rock denotes shallow people. In the House on Rock, or when Jesus said he’ll build his church on people like Peter, Mt 16.18 solid people. And don’t forget the stone the builders rejected, Ps 118.22 who turned out to be Jesus. Ac 4.11 How do we know which meaning to apply? Context. Wisdom. Commonsense. Codebreaking ain’t commonsense.

Every once in a while, I like to shake codebreakers out of it by reminding ’em how Jesus once compared himself with a serpent.

John 3.14-17 KWL
14 “The Son of Man has to be lifted up, just like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,
15 so all who trust in him might have life—
in the age to come, 16 for God likewise loves the world.
Therefore he gave his only-begotten Son, so all who trust him might not be destroyed.
Instead they might have life in the age to come.
17 God didn’t send the Son into the world so he could judge the world,
but so, through the Son, he’d save the world.”

’Cause to codebreakers, every instance of a serpent is code for the devil. But here’s a great big obvious exception. Once which they recognize as an exception, and have pasted a great big blindspot over it. But hardly the only exception, ’cause Jesus also taught his followers to be wise as serpents, Mt 10.16 by which he doesn’t mean we’re to use devilish thinking.

You don’t have to believe the bible’s full of secret codes, to stumble into the same wonky way of thinking. I wrote this piece a few days ago. That morning, one of my Facebook “friends” commented about a profound idea which occurred to him as he was reading Proverbs 31—that if we Christians are the bride of Christ, Rv 21.1 maybe the description of the productive wife is how we all oughta behave.

While I’d agree with him the woman in Proverbs 31 is definitely a role model (for women and men alike), reading the bride-of-Christ idea into it just because your brain skipped a track and made a connection: Weak. Not solid. Not profound. Sounds clever to him… and all the other shallow Christians who quickly approved of his idea. But apophenia is not spiritual insight.

Truthiness, not truth.

Truthiness, as Stephen Colbert defined it, is when we believe something to be true because we feel it to be true. Because we want it; because it makes us feel safe, scared, proud, clever, or righteously angry. Because it makes our flesh react.

The reason people embrace connect-the-dots thinking is because there’s so very little actual thinking involved. Just let the brain do its thing of finding connections where there aren’t any. And the stronger the connection startles us—the more it makes us say, “Whoa, what’s that all about?—the more likely we are to imagine it’s a God thing. Because Christians aren’t always so aware there’s a big difference between the Spirit and the emotions.

So if a teaching or “revelation” makes us feel something, that’s when we’re more likely to swallow it. Even if it might actually be poison.

All the more reason we need to listen to the actual Holy Spirit, and the doubts he gives us whenever we hear something which appeals to our flesh much too much. There are such things as coincidences; might this be one of them? There is a difference between a word’s meaning in a parable and a word’s meaning in other genres; are we overlooking the context? There are real connections which can be made, like when a practice we see in the New Testament is based on a command from the Old Testament; what’re we missing? Worse, what’re we missing in favor of some harebrained yet popular theory that passes for interpretation?

Actual bible scholars regularly get criticized because we dare to say, “Actually the popular interpretation isn’t true; if you look at the history and the original text, it says this….” People don’t object because we did our homework. They object because they invested a lot of self-importance and pride in knowing a little something about the bible, and we just proved their “knowledge” to be rubbish. They take offense. It’s like we personally attacked ’em.

That’s not our intent. Well, shouldn’t be; I’ve known some really unkind scholars who love puncturing egos. But humility should also be our goal, ’cause what do we know? Even so, what we do know is our knowledge must be based on real connections between one piece of information and another. Not imaginary ones which provoke our flesh.

So people are gonna react with bile and anger. Be prepared for it, and come back at ’em with kindness and patience. They don’t mean to be wrong; show ’em how to avoid it in future. And avoid it yourself.