Context? Who needs context?

by K.W. Leslie, 01 February 2023
CONTEXT 'kɑn.tɛkst noun. Setting of an idea or event: The larger story they’re part of, the circumstances or history behind them, the people to whom they’re said. Without them, the idea is neither fully understood nor clear.
[Contextual kən'tɛks.tʃ(əw).əl adjective.]

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

It doesn’t come from bible, though from time to time someone will claim it totally does, and therefore it’s a divine command. But nope, it’s not scripture at all. Comes from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act 1, scene 3. Shakespeare’s no slouch, but it’s still not bible.

Why do people quote it? Typically because they literally mean it: Don’t borrow! Don’t lend! Because if you never borrow money, chances are you’ll never go into debt or bankruptcy. If you never lend money, you won’t have to fret when your friends can’t repay you. Simple, prudent advice. Words people think we oughta live by.

Okay, so why’d Shakespeare write this line?

Well… actually we don’t care why he wrote it. We’re only interested in what we mean by it: Don’t borrow! Don’t lend! We presume Shakespeare meant the very same thing. It’s straightforward enough, isn’t it?

But a Shakespeare scholar, or anyone who’s stayed awake through Hamlet, will recall exactly where it came from. The wily King Claudius’s not-as-wily adviser, Polonius, is giving advice to his son Laertes before he sends him off to university. If they watched any halfway decent performance of Hamlet, they’ll remember Polonius was kind of an idiot. All his other advice in the play turns out to be wrong, bad, foolish, and fatal.

“Well okay, Shakespeare put it in the mouth of a dunce. But it’s still sound advice.”

Is it? Look at the life stories of certain billionaires, and you’ll notice nearly all of them, in order to start the company which made ’em a billion dollars, borrowed money. (The few who didn’t borrow money, already had money, or had wealthy relatives.) You’ll also notice nearly all of them lent money, and made a bunch of money that way too. As for lending, should I not buy treasury bills? Should I not put my money in long-term certificate of deposit accounts? Should I not invest in businesses and people I believe in?

Really, I find the only people who quote it are self-serving or stingy people. And if they claim it’s godly advice, it’s really not. Bible doesn’t back up Polonius at all.

You see the problem. Context is important. We should care where our quotes come from. We might be giving bad advice. Or, when quoting the bible, we might make a divine command out of something which was never meant to be one.

But everybody’s doing it.

I’ve written many, many, MANY times about context. Both as a journalist and a bible scholar. Every time somebody makes a statement, it’s important we recognize what’s going on when the statement was said or written. Otherwise we’re gonna misinterpret it. We’re gonna quote someone, and while it’s definitely what they said, it’s in no way what they meant.

But people don’t care about context.

Because we’re selfish. We don’t care what the other person meant. We only care what we mean. We’re trying to get our point of view across. We don’t care about their point of view.

And everybody does it. It’s the standard practice of humanity. We did it in ancient times; we do it today. We do it with every writer: Shakespeare, St. Augustine, John Calvin, Geoffrey Chaucer, Noam Chomsky, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickenson, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, C.S. Lewis, Karl Marx, John Milton, Jean Piaget, Sunzi, and Mark Twain. And, of course, the bible.

Christians quote bible out of context because we see other Christians do it. Including Christians we respect. If Martin Luther quoted Paul of Tarsus out of context, we figure it must be okay; it’s Martin Luther! If John Wesley played fast and loose with John’s letters in order to make a point… well Wesley’s a saint; he knew God better than most of us, right? If Mark Driscoll claims Song of Songs must be about a married couple, because he assumes patriarchal, polygamous, concubine-taking men of Old Testament times like the many-married Solomon, thought precisely like 21st-century Americans about non-marital sex… well, God granted Driscoll a megachurch because he preaches the truth, right? (So… what’d it mean when God took Driscoll’s previous megachurch away?)

If Pastor horribly misquotes the psalms to make a more important point, we figure Pastor knows what he’s doing. If one of our Facebook friends posted an Ezekiel verse to slam our least favorite political party, we cheer ’em on. And if we wanna do likewise… hey, everybody else is doing it.

But what about the people these scriptures were actually written to?

Pfft. Who cares? Only nitpickers care. Only bible scholars whose “head knowledge” is getting in the way of our good clean self-righteous bible-quoting. Besides, we have the Holy Spirit within. So we have the truth on our side. And the scriptures, now that we’re quoting them this way, sure sound like they back us up. Didn’t the Spirit inspire these scriptures so we could use them as billy clubs against our foes?

Itching ears.

2 Timothy 4.3-4 NRSVue
3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound teaching, but, having their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

This isn’t an End Times prophecy. This is happening now.

This happens every time a know-it-all Christian shows up in church, and insists the preacher can’t be interpreting the bible right, ’cause she heard some guy on the internet or radio, or read a blog or book, and the guy said otherwise. And since the know-it-all likes the other guy more, the preacher must be wrong.

Paul used to be this very person himself. He listened to the antichrists. He joined, even led, their persecutions. Then Jesus straightened him out. Then Paul preached the gospel to synagogues throughout the Roman Empire… and in turn got a faceful of people just like himself.

But we’re all like that. Myself included. I have many interpretations of the bible which I’m really fond of. (Read TXAB long enough, and you’ll notice they’re the interpretations I tend to repeat most often.) If I’m wrong, I’d be very annoyed to learn it. Hopefully I will learn it, take the correction, and not fight the truth in favor of my favorite prejudices.

Yet many Christians totally balk at truth. Again, myself included. In the past, I was shown I was wrong, and it was a struggle to change my mind. I liked believing otherwise. It felt righteous to fight for my mistaken view. That’s part of the problem. We like to imagine we’re martyrs and underdogs; that when we face opposition it’s ’cause we’re such good Christians, so Satan has to knock us down a few pegs. We can’t imagine the Holy Spirit is the one trying to correct us. No no, we insist; that’s not a good spirit rebuking us, but an evil one. (Yikes.)

Look, if we’re truly gonna follow Jesus, we have to be receptive to the Spirit’s corrections. Have to be. Because we’re not right; we’re wrong. I don’t wanna insist upon my beliefs so strongly, so resistantly, I turn them into little idols which keep me away from Jesus. I need to test them. If they’re really from God, they’ll stand up to scrutiny. If they’re not, they don’t.

One of the tests they should always be able to stand up against, is whether our proof texts are quoted in context.

Three kinds of context.

Nope, there’s not just one kind of context. That’d be easier, right? But we can bunch them into three categories. Some other time I’ll discuss each of them in greater detail, but we’ll start with three.

1. HISTORICAL CONTEXT. When you’re reading any passage of the bible, be aware of the following: Who wrote it? (Often we don’t know—but when we do, it comes in handy.) Who’d the author write it to? Why’d the author write it to them?

What culture did the author and intended audience come from? (Hint: Not ours.) What was their lifestyle and geography? What was going on in the world in their time? What rights did they have? What sort of jobs could they do?

Which books of the bible did they already have and know? Which religious and secular philosophies influenced them?

If you don’t know any of this stuff, that’s okay. That’s why Christians write bible commentaries. Get one. More than one, if you can afford it. Be sure the commentaries actually discuss biblical history, because way too many of ’em are purely devotional—and if they never bother with history, I’d have my doubts about ’em.

2. LITERARY CONTEXT. Remember when you learned reading comprehension in grade school?

…No? Well, no surprise there. Time to learn it again.

What genre is this text?—commands, correction, wisdom, worship, theology, history, gospel, prophecy, apocalypses? Is it part of a larger discussion, or a logical argument? ’Cause if it’s meant to be worship poetry, it’s not meant to be interpreted as a divine commandment, no matter what your youth pastor claims. If it’s a parable, it’s not meant to be taken literally, no matter what your favorite radio preacher insists. And if it is a command from the Father or Jesus, reinterpreting it as an allegory—“Oh we don’t literally have to do this”—sure sounds to me like someone’s weaselling out of obedience. Sounds exactly like that to God too.

Lastly, has it been translated properly? And yeah, that’s a tricker question if you don’t know any biblical languages at all, and aren’t qualified to answer that question. (Darned if some people don’t try to answer that question just the same.) My best advice: Look at multiple bible translations and look for the consensus. Don’t just read the passage in one version, like one of those know-nothings who insist, “The King James Version was good enough for Moses, and it’s good enough for me.” Compare as many translations as you can. Bible websites make it easy. (Bible Gateway will let you compare every translation they host. If you look up a single verse by itself, like John 3.16, they’ll include the line, “John 3:16 in all English translations,” and yep, you can read all of them.) Figure out how most translators agree the verse should read; that’s likely right.

3. GOD’S CHARACTER. Lastly, don’t interpret the bible without looking at it through the lens of Jesus. God’s actions all come from his motives, and his motives from his character… and his character is revealed in Jesus.

So study Jesus. Understand the fruit of the Spirit. Develop the fruit in yourself; it helps a lot.

Those are the three contexts to consider. Drop any one of them, and you might accidentally stumble upon the truth anyway. But don’t count on it.

See, I grew up Christian. I’ve heard more than five decades’ worth of sermons, from all sorts of preachers: Educated, uneducated, self-educated (both well and poorly); cautious and careless. Some did their homework, so they knew what they were talking about. Others didn’t know a thing, and were just repeating what they were told. Which sounded good, and appealed to everyone’s itching ears. But it was out of context, it wasn’t based on anything factual, and it was false teaching. I know; the preachers honestly didn’t mean to be false teachers, but that’s just what they were.

Thanks to these preachers, I have in my brain an odd mixture of useful information… and rubbish. So do you. So does just about every Christian. There are a rare, lucky few who were raised by solid bible scholars. I’m not one of them. I know dozens now, but I didn’t meet my first legit scholar till my teenage years, at a conference. And he’d be the first to tell you even he made mistakes. All good scholars know we’re fallible.

So whenever I teach, I do my homework. If I don’t, I’ll just regurgitate what’s in me: Garbage and gems. Jewels and junk. God’ll use the useful, but our sin nature will cling to the rest like grim death, and repeat it ad nauseam unless the Spirit intervenes. That’s why we keep passing down the garbage to every new generation of believers, and stunt their Christian growth.

Of all people, those of us who are pursuing Jesus have to care about context. Have to. Even if it gets in the way of some cherished beliefs—especially those, ’cause they’re the false teachings we’re most likely to pass along. Truth must take priority over truthiness. Facts must take priority over pleasant falsehoods. It matters very much what the original author meant to say—for the inspiration of the original author is the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth.