Context? Who needs context?

by K.W. Leslie, 27 October
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’s not from the bible, although from time to time someone will claim it totally is, and therefore it’s a divine command. It’s actually from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act 1, scene 3. Might not be bible, but Shakespeare’s no slouch either.

Why do people quote it? ’Cause they literally mean it. Don’t borrow; don’t lend. If you don’t borrow money, you won’t go into debt. If you don’t lend money, you don’t have to fret when your friends never repay you. Simple, prudent advice. Words they think we oughta live by.

Okay, so why’d Shakespeare write it?

Well, we don’t give a rip. We know what we mean by it. Don’t borrow; don’t lend. We assume 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 where it came from: The wily King Claudius’s adviser, Polonius. He says it to his son Laertes, just before he sends the boy off to university. And if they recall anything about Polonius, they’ll realize… it’s actually not good advice. Polonius thought it was, but Polonius was a dunce. Every other thing he advises in the play turns out to be wrong, bad, foolish advice.

“Okay, Shakespeare put it in the mouth of an idiot. But it’s still sound advice.” Is it? Considering the source, it comes across as way more self-serving and stingy than when people assume it comes from God.

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 St. Martin Luther quoted St. Paul 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, he’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 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 gave him a megachurch because he preached the truth, right? (So… what’d it mean when God took it 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 KWL
3 Time will come when people won’t put up with solid teaching.
Instead, those with this infection will collect teachers to listen to who stroke their ears.
4 They’ll abandon listening to truth, and chase 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 do. 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; that our opposition is ’cause we’re such good Christians, so the devil 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, 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 they’re 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 if 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 at their time? What rights did they have? What sort of jobs could they do?

What books of the bible did they already have and know? What 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. Be sure the commentary does actually have some history in it, ’cause most of ’em focus more on literary context (which I’ll discuss next) and their interpretation. Of course, if their interpretation has zero basis in history, I’d have my doubts about it.

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 it?—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 disobedience. Sounds like that to God, too.

Lastly, has it been translated properly? And yeah, that’s a tricker question, for those of us who don’t know the biblical languages, and aren’t qualified to answer that question. (Darned if some of ’em don’t try to, just the same.) My best advice: Compare bible translations. 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.” Read several translations—ESV, ISV, KJV, NASB, NET, NJB, NLT, NRSV, and even some translations which don’t consist of initials, like the Amplified Bible. Figure out the consensus. If most translators came to the very same conclusion, it’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 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.