Text without Context is Pretext
(originally published as a Scholarly Musing Constant Contact email for NBSI)
“Single-issue” Bible interpreters [i.e. homosexuality is wrong because 3 verses in the Bible seem to imply that it is so I’m going to exert MUCH time, energy, effort and money to demonize it whenever possible and ignore the fact that, as Jim Wallis likes to remind us, there are hundreds of Bible verses demanding that we take care of the poor so if I were REALLY basing how I lived my life on what the Bible said I actually should be hundreds of times more passionate about helping the poor than I am about condemning homosexuality … you get the idea] are as short-sighted and as potentially detrimental to society as single-issue voters.
Context/”big picture”/metanarrative is crucial here. Let me illustrate with a story.
Pretend it’s the 4th of July and you’ve decided to celebrate by attending an outdoor concert of a top-notch symphony at a local venue that can seat almost 6000 people in its pavilion with space for an additional 13,500 on the lawn. It’s a big place, and one of your favorites. You pack up a picnic basket with grilled chicken, potato salad, biscuits and melon wedges, throw some beverages, a sweatshirt, bug spray and that old frayed blanket into the car and you’re off with your significant other.
It’s a pleasant summer evening with a tolerable humidity level and a light breeze. You enjoy the food, the company and, of course, the patriotic music. As darkness settles over the concert grounds the symphony brings the musical selections to a close with the song that’s always used to conclude a July 4th concert: John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. This time, however, the rendition is so rousing and the mood “just right” among the almost 20,000 in attendance that, almost as if it had been rehearsed, a couple thousand rise to their feet and start to march around the grounds, many waving little American flags that had been handed out at the entrance gates. Delighted with this spontaneous response to a cherished song you smile, clap along in rhythm and enjoy the experience even more thoroughly. And just as the final note is played, right on cue, the fireworks start and the hordes of marchers find their way back to their seats as quickly as possible so as to enjoy the colorful spectacle.
About that time you notice 2 girls, maybe around 10-12 years old, who are wandering around near your blanket. It’s clear that they can’t find their own blanket and, because they’re standing amidst a sea of people sitting on the ground, the spectators are starting to complain. “Sit down! We can’t see!!” Not knowing what to do or where to sit they remain right where they are, helpless. Your heart goes out to them. “Are you lost?” They nod. “Come sit here with us until the fireworks are over and then we’ll help you find your family.” Relieved, they grin and scramble over to your blanket and proceed to be transfixed by the pyrotechnic display.
All too soon the show comes to an end with a mighty grand finale. The crowd bursts into applause, the floodlights are switched on and everyone begins to gather their things to go home. You turn your attention to your young charges, preparing to help them find their family. Almost immediately they exclaim with delight, “Oh, there they are!” Turns out their intended destination was only 4 blankets away. Relieved that the problem was resolved so easily you smile as you accept their thanks and watch them skip over to join their family. But instead of a joyous reunion, the father grabs one by the arm, roughly swivels her around and delivers a hard smack to her behind with his open palm. He then does the same to the second girl.
What kind of man do you think this is?
[Seriously, take a moment to visualize this scenario and to answer that question before reading on.]
Well, that man was my dad, I was one of the two young girls and that scenario really happened.
If all you knew about Dad was what you witnessed at Blossom Music Center after my sister and I temporarily got lost one July 4th, you might think he was an abusive monster or, at the very least, had an issue with anger control. Knowing a little context, however, might paint a different picture.
For instance, Dad had been opposed to us joining the marching. He’s a very logical engineer, after all, it was dark and there were thousands of blankets strewn across that vast lawn. It didn’t take a rocket scientist (or an electrical engineer!) to realize that finding our one little blanket amidst all the others would be like trying to locate a needle in a haystack. How in the world would we find our way back? Desperate to join in the merrymaking, we glanced around for a marker and in doing so noticed the enormous flag draped across the back of the pavilion stage. “We’re right in front of the flag,” we reasoned. And we were, smack dab in the middle of it. But so were several thousand other people! Realizing this, Dad still hesitated to give his consent; but our pleading was so persistent we finally wore him down and he begrudgingly relented … only soon thereafter to start beating himself up for having known better but letting himself be persuaded otherwise. This was way before cell phones and we hadn’t made contingency plans in case we did, in fact, get lost, and he had 3 other young children to look after (not to mention a wife who was born to worry). The immediate context (or context immediately afterward) also included the fact that in the car on the way home he apologized for letting his fear temporarily take control. Admitting, in front of his entire family, that he, the “man of the household” (it was a different time!), had been scared was a big deal. So, knowing all this might paint a different picture than the one colored only by witnessing the spanking.
And knowing the larger context would likely paint an even more accurate portrayal of Dad as well. For instance, we were not a spanking family. Dad had never spanked any of us before nor would he again. In fact, his understanding and personal practice of Christianity was so deeply grounded in a non-violent/”Good Samaritan”/showing-compassion-for-and-extending-help-to-others theology that one of the most profound experiences of his adult life was reading a newspaper article suggesting that maybe it made as much sense, if not more, for the United States to have a Department of Peace! This was NOT a violent man! Once you’re privy to this information you might realize that the spanking incident was a bizarre glitch and that making a judgement on his character solely from this one event would be grossly unfair and inaccurate. In fact, this one small example was such an anomaly that you could almost remove it from the broader meta-narrative completely if understanding Dad’s character was your goal.
Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, each one only knows a portion of the truth. Did Dad at one point in history spank my sister and me? Yes. His inability to control his fear and the resulting manifestation of that fear in the form of physically striking us did actually occur. But using that to define who Dad is is like describing the totality of the elephant from one of its eyelashes.
Also, people evolve. Maybe Dad was a total peacenik in his 20s and 30s but slowly changed over the years to the point where eventually he really was an abusive monster [FYI: this is not the case!]. If you only knew him as a young adult, you would never describe him that way nor would you be likely to recognize his later self.
In addition, (hopefully!) people’s capacity to understand actions expand as they mature. Sitting in the car sulking with a bruised pride and backside, his apology was small comfort to me on that July 4th. I’d been utterly humiliated in front of the concert-going crowd and especially the nice couple who had shown us compassion and taken us under their wing. I didn’t care that he was sorry. He was the adult, he was supposed to know how to handle his fear.
Now, as a mature (ahem!) adult myself, I can totally understand how full of panic and fear he must have been. If I found myself in a situation where I was responsible for 5 young children and 2 of the girls got swallowed up in a sea of thousands at night I can’t honestly guarantee that my fear wouldn’t manifest itself in undesirable ways.
So … back to the Bible.
There are certain verses, chapters, and even books in this sacred text of ours that I’m not very fond of. Characteristics and actions are attributed to God that are undesirable, to say the least. This personality profile paints a picture of a God that is very difficult for me to love, adore or worship. Hell, it’s hard for me to even remotely LIKE this God! But rather than completely writing off God and becoming an atheist, I’ve had to constantly ask myself, “Is this one incident the whole of who God is?” “Has God possibly changed over the arc of time?” “Has our (the people of God) ability to understand who and what God is evolved over the years?”*
One of the things I most appreciate about NBS is that, as storytellers, we’re not interested in quoting single verses, especially out of context or devoid of an historic understanding of the story’s origins. By definition (i.e. “storytellers”) we’re automatically interested in something bigger and broader. Narrative implies more … not just more words but more context and, subsequently, increased opportunity for deeper understanding that better maintains the integrity of the text.
Does this mean we always get it right? Doubtful!* But I think the practices of internalization and interpretation that we teach and encourage as an organization position us to gain, perhaps, a more detailed/nuanced/textured picture and, thus, to arrive at potentially less detrimental conclusions than those whose approach to biblical interpretation is more of the pulled-out-of-context/”small picture”/single-issue variety.
It’s been said that text without context is pretext. Pretext implies pretense, a ruse, and is defined by my computer dictionary as “a reason given in justification of a course of action that is not the real reason.” None of that resembles what we as a Network are about! The way I see it, what we are about is seeking out context for the various “texts” of our lives so that we might more responsibly:
~ interpret the Bible
~ live out our faith
~ contribute to the well being of the broader society through our actions, voice, and votes.
To do this ethically and with integrity, context/”big picture”/metanarrative is essential.
I just wish I’d had an opportunity to provide some context/”big picture”/metanarrative about Dad to that nice couple at the 4th of July concert.
* Let’s be honest, can mere humans EVER comprehend who and what God really is??