Monday, July 02, 2007

Context is everything!

This blog spurred some interesting thoughts:

http://mysteryofiniquity.wordpress.com/2007/06/27/christianity-and-women/

I’ll reiterate the jist of what I said in my comments. In short, Christians usually try to make sense of the Bible by saying that to properly interpret it, you need to understand the context properly (and then whoever has just said that to you will proceed to tell you the proper way to understand whatever verse or passage you’re looking at).

What is implied in such a statement is that today’s interpretation is somehow the right one - that God finally cut through the clutter and misunderstandings of countless generations of earlier Christians, and now we've finally got it.

Under this view, Christians of older generations who justified slavery or the oppression of women somehow got it wrong. Yet, how can this be? How can today’s Christian who is full of love and compassion be so sure that God, throughout history, has always opposed slavery? And if he did, why did he allow his Word to be written in such a way that slavery could very very easily be justified for hundreds or thousands of years? How could he allow his Word to include a lot of “women must be silent and submit to their husbands” rants from Paul if what God really meant for us to understand is that women are absolutely equal to men, and he wants it to be mutual submission, no hierarchy involved?

I’ll repeat here a comment I made on MOI’s entry above:

I used to be a big fan of the “but you must understand the context” explanation. Used to offer it up, myself, sometimes with that slightly patronizing smile of ‘I know better than you; now let me help you understand’.

But the more I think about it, the more I think “context” is a thin excuse to re-interpret the Scriptures to fit the contemporary mores. It’s the work-around so the Bible doesn’t sound so awful; it’s like arguing what “is” is. “No, no, genocide in the OT was okay because God was justified in wiping those people out. That’s divine justice. What we have today is manmade genocide - clearly very bad and wrong.”

I would love to see a longitudinal study of how messages from the pulpit have changed over the years in explaining the proper “context” of a given passage of Scripture.

17 comments:

lowendaction said...

hey goodgirl -

Excellent observation (or should I say, "Excellent observation of an observation?"...ok, so what if I'm a little bored at work?!!??).

I think the "context" line is, as almost all churchisms, abused and misused. In and of itself, it is only logical to encourage someone to study the larger context of a particular scripture or verse. But what is also equally as important, is to take into account the "context" of the translation. Many of our western english translations are really no more than a few feeble (and often biased) interpretations of complex languages and cultural nuances. The ignorant "modern" American church-goer, is a big fan of taking their favorite translation and leaning on each word as though they were infallible.

Though it is my belief that the intended word of God is perfect, what has been passed down to us is far from it. I don't look at this as another one of God's fumbles, but more as a challenge to our own personal faith and dedication. Just as any good scolar will not simply rely on any first read, but will dive into the text, then research the context and historical merit, as well as cultural background, to fully understand the meaning of the author, so are we as Christians challenged to dig a little deeper than our fancy gold leafed bibles safely nestled in their leather fish embossed bible carriers.

Steve said...

Lowend...
I don't look at this as another one of God's fumbles...

Of course you don't... but there's hope that you qualified as "another one"... implying that there are others.... there's hope for you yet! God couldn't be wrong coud he? But then that's another discussion we are already embroiled in.

All: Christians tend to pick and choose and use the Bible to support any number of issues we personally believe in at the given moment. For example, the Bible is used on each side of the homosexuality issue to support both sides.

Bible student said...

I agree that to **understand the meaning of the author** deserves due diligence.

Each of us will look at the scriptures in the light that we are comfortable with. We rationalize. Since they are His words I recommend looking at them from His point of view. **Genocide in the OT** is far removed. Easy to criticize without all the facts. But since these events are published as fact, does a cataclysmic Armageddon seem so far fetched?

Genesis 6:13 says, “After that God said to Noah: “The end of all flesh has come before me, because the earth is full of violence as a result of them; and here I am bringing them to ruin together with the earth.”

If this is how He felt then, how does He view this young millennium?


The big change I have seen in my lifetime is the acceptance of homosexuals into the flock. Not only acceptance, but a selling point for a denomination or congregation. Maybe it was the attraction of their ample disposable income, since few were raising children. I’m curious how scriptural opposition was overcome in those elder meetings.

Heather said...

**Christians tend to pick and choose and use the Bible to support any number of issues we personally believe in at the given moment.**

If you want to get technical, everyone does this about everything. That's why I find the concept of the Bible being inerrant kind of useless -- it may very well be that way. But since we all have subjective viewpoints and biases, our interpretation of that will never be inerrant.

Slapdash said...

***Though it is my belief that the intended word of God is perfect, what has been passed down to us is far from it. I don't look at this as another one of God's fumbles, but more as a challenge to our own personal faith and dedication.*** (LD)

I guess I still wonder why God would set up a system whereby his intended word winds up being so confusing to us mere mortals. Our trouble interpreting it has contributed big time to the proliferation of hundreds, if not thousands, of Christian denominations: a very visible manifestation of the *disunity* of the Body of Christ. How does this disunity serve God or his purposes? Why did he choose not to make his word more clear?

***That's why I find the concept of the Bible being inerrant kind of useless -- it may very well be that way. But since we all have subjective viewpoints and biases, our interpretation of that will never be inerrant.*** (Heather)

Which for me then begs the question of what the Bible is good for. If I can never be sure that I'm understanding God's Truth because of my human limitations in understanding what he says to me, what's the point?

lowendaction said...

steve - please don't get your hopes up on my account, I was merely paraphrasing a comon "God-doubter" phrase. However I do appreciate you lookin out!!

One should of course not forget that the intended use of the bible is to enable closer relation to God through understanding. Studying the bible is a part of the conversational process of growing closer to God. And because this relationship is designed and built upon individual relationships, I believe that everyone is supposed to glean something slightly different. Though there are a number of universal truths (open for debate...), I think that this idea of unique interpretations isn't all bad. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, bringing varying needs and issues to the table, and it is my belief that His word will "speak" to your situation uniquely, where for the next person that same passage might have a completely different meaning.

This speaks to another on of those fundamental belief structures that you either choose to accept or not, and that is that the bible is far more than just a semi-historical collection of some peoples stories.

Heather said...

Slapdash,

** If I can never be sure that I'm understanding God's Truth because of my human limitations in understanding what he says to me, what's the point? ** For me, I have received peace from reading portions of the Bible, and do feel that I've received answers from God. But I can't use that to push my experience on anyone else, because as you say, it's completely subjective.

I've found that inerrancy in the Bible tends to go in two camps: the first camp says that even the translations can be trusted and inerrant. Except if you read three Bibles, it's interesting how they don't seem to agree. First, Greek doesn't capitalize or have grammar, and a comma can alter the meaning of a sentence. Second, some words just don't translate well. Third, words and culture change, so to get an accurate picture, you need the original langauge and the culture.

That leads us to the other camp: the originals are inerrant, and the Bible is inerrant and we need the culture context. But this seems to defy logic, because shouldn't something so necessary for eternal salvation stay the same, no matter what the translation said? Shouldn't someone be able to read the Bible and get all the answers, rather than read it in context and realize how much gets misquoted or mistranslated?

To me, neither works.

jennypo said...

**What is implied in such a statement is that today’s interpretation is somehow the right one - that God finally cut through the clutter and misunderstandings of countless generations of earlier Christians, and now we've finally got it. (Slapdash)

The problem is, the Bible has always been recruited in support of what people want to believe or want others to believe. This has been possible because it was decontextualized and/or not read at all. The Christian community has not "finally got it" - as a whole, we're as messed up now as we ever were. While this clearly condemns "the church" as it is known in our culture, it makes no commentary at all on the Bible itself.

The Bible, if it be truly God's revelation of himself, and if it be read with a heart alone before God and unconcerned about people's theories and opinions, is well able to explain itself. The one "right" church and the one "right" pastor have not yet arrived - and if God does not reveal himself, who ever could?

Anonymous said...

***Each of us will look at the scriptures in the light that we are comfortable with. We rationalize. Since they are His words I recommend looking at them from His point of view.***(biblestudent)

Finally, Someone who knows the minds and thoughts of God- - - !!!

Slapdash said...

***The Bible, if it be truly God's revelation of himself, and if it be read with a heart alone before God and unconcerned about people's theories and opinions, is well able to explain itself.*** (jennypo)

Do you really believe this?

Take Heather, for example, who frequently comments here, and on your blog, and has quite a different 'take' on God's revelation than you do.

You're both reading it with similar attitudes, no? Yet you have very different interpretations of what it means.

Has God's revelation merely spoken differently, but equally validly, to each of you?

jennypo said...

Sorry, slapdash, I can speak only for myself. I like and respect Heather, but I can't see her heart or draw any conclusions based on what her attitude may or may not be, nor is it my right to do so.

In addition, neither of us has yet come to the end of what God is teaching us.

I promise you, if I didn't absolutely believe that, I have more pride than to post for all to see what must appear to you as, at best, childish superstition or wishful thinking.

Slapdash said...

Thanks for that response, Jennypo. I really respect where you're coming from. :)

SocietyVs said...

I think context is part of the dilemma though - and soemtimes we have to figure out what the interpretation is of something by disposing of so much other useless stuff (dogma and tradition) to get to the truth of what was written. It's not that we 'know better' than other theologians of times past (they enlighten me all the time) - but neither are we stuck in such narrow views about this faith or world - which happened to many a good theologian in times past.

This may seem a little egocentric but it isn't - I am not interpreting nothing in light of Catholic debates or evangelical ones for that matter - push all the dogma aside that helped shape some theological works and we can start perusing the issue ourselves - clearly and unabated. This is my goal - sometimes it works - and sometimes I have to continue to 'chip away at the stone' some more....but I try.

But to be honest for context not to be considered would be the most grave of mistakes with regards to reading and interpreting (such as history, writer's collective works, language used, genre, etc). One could say anything by betraying context - thus we could have more Jonestowns, Klan movements, Abortion shootings, Jerusalem syndrome incidents (ex: Koresh), etc. I see grave errors in each of those incidences that easily answered in theological study and looking at historical and literary context...and in Christian solidarity to discuss these movements theologically with these people (if only to try stop them).

I am not so quick to move away from this area - although it does get betrayed a lot - there is still merit in searching for meaning in the scriptures without betraying context - at least this is what I believe. But if I am wrong - then we can discuss this also - I mean - I am only writing after all.

Slapdash said...

***all the dogma aside that helped shape some theological works and we can start perusing the issue ourselves - clearly and unabated.***

Hey, I think that's exactly what I am in the process of doing - shaking off 25 years of dogma. But what happens if I pursue an issue "clearly and unabated" and come out with some conclusion that is polar opposite of YOUR "clear and unabated" examination of the same issue?

I just think Christianity is not well set up to accommodate this kind of "slippery relativism" of interpretation if you will. Christianity claims a lot of Truthiness for itself, and as is obvious from my blog and the many others who are dipping toes into these issues, we get into some pretty heated debates because, underneath it all, we think there IS Truth out there to be known.

I am moving toward a place of believing that if there IS Truth out there, nobody's got it. Or if they do, they have no way to prove it. And so, I will end up cobbling together whatever Truth makes the most sense to me, whether it squares with anybody else's dogma or not.

Slapdash said...

I also think there is something else to this "context" discussion. Maybe you can't throw 'context' out, but context is clearly subject to new interpretations all the time, and thus you get the church continually changing its stance on stuff. A few examples off the top of my head:

-today it's about "mutual submission", not wives submitting to husbands;
-today, most Protestant congregations are ok with artificial birth control though originally that wasn't the case;
-today most churches trumpet equal rights for women & minorities (except homosexuals)
-show me a church that supports slavery today; yet until the modern anti-slavery movement I don't remember hearing a single church rally against it.

In practice, then it almost seems like (conservative) Christianity is officially set up to treat the Bible like a strict constructionist treats the constitution (and many conservative Christians claim they actually DO treat the Bible and their faith that way); yet in practice the church, and most Christians, acts much more like an active judiciary, re-interpreting the Bible to fit contemporary norms and what everybody can live with *today*.

Slapdash said...

Um, I think I just re-iterated what I said in the original post. Heh heh. Guess things are getting circular for me in here...

SocietyVs said...

"But what happens if I pursue an issue "clearly and unabated" and come out with some conclusion that is polar opposite of YOUR "clear and unabated" examination of the same issue?" (Slapdash)

Then if the context backs it up I think there is little more to do than for me to change my way of thinking. But this is all dependant on the issue and what passage someone quotes to use for that issue - but I am more than open to this type of thinking and closer look at interpretation.

"but context is clearly subject to new interpretations all the time, and thus you get the church continually changing its stance on stuff." (Slapdash)

Well, actually - context is not subject to varieties of interpretations - the writer had a core issue he/she was addressing and that is the point within the writing (historically speaking). The fact the church changes stances on issues is because their justification in the first place held 'no water' and we need to continue to look at the issue they support - maybe more don't?

"re-interpreting the Bible to fit contemporary norms and what everybody can live with *today*." (Slapdash)

But isn't that beauty of the idea of 'truth' as the Jewish people use the term? It is not a stuck and stopped term - but one that is alive and fashions itself to the hearer - so truth in general - will be something we hash out amongst ourselves until we get a view to work from. Love as a term can be looked at in a variety of ways - but what does it mean to you and how does this look for you in daily life? Obviously, I agree with the idea of love but the way we both see it might have variances within we can learn from one another - thus you see frienships get built.

I think this is the greateness of this faith - the norms can be used to be molded to the times we 'have to live in' - even used to change the 'times' if things are so out of sorts they require it. I don't read Jesus as such a static bunch of teachings - but things that are 'alive' and can come into a current scenario to make 'light' within the situation - make something 'alive' that may have been dead (ex: ethics like patience or fairness) - which is also basically Paul's idea's in a 'living resurrection' ideal.

I actually admire that aspect of this faith - it's ability to change and to help change the conditions around it.