About literary context (3)

A horrible illustration we mustn’t forget
Perhaps the most infamous illustration of the violence that can be done by taking words out of their context is the stringing together of these two Bible “verses”:

Judas went out and hanged himself.

Go thou and do likewise.

We all “get” that context is important.

Bible verses don’t just “mean” something outside their contexts.

But what do most of us ever do about context, aside from paying lip service to the general idea?  Do we actually pursue the framework for understanding that contexts alone provide?

We laugh at the very idea of imitating Judas, and then we move on, so often glibly unaware of literary context.

What two scholar-friends have written (putting flesh on the bones of “context”)
Gary Collier has cogently asserted the primacy of literary context over historical and other contexts:

However important historical research is (and I think “very”), it is always incomplete.  How could we possibly uncover or rightly understand everything there is to know about something in the distant past and in some distant place?  At best, historical background is always incomplete.  It is a mistake to think that any supposed “historical background” that we think we know is a full picture.  It is easy to force something onto a text and thereby change its meaning.¹

And in another place, Gary has said,

The literary context is always the first and most important consideration in reading any text.¹

Further on the necessity of paying attention to the “book-level” literary context in order to hear God’s “voice,” Greg Fay has offered this:

Sometimes, when people talk about the context, they are referring to a chapter or to a paragraph, a set of verses before and after a particu­lar verse.  This is not what I mean by “literary context.”  I’m talking about the book as a whole—the over­all, big-picture of the book as a whole.  Of course, there are smaller paragraph- or chap­ter-level con­texts, and reading a verse in context certainly means seeing it as an inte­grated part of that context—its immediate context.  Any intelligent reading requires that; otherwise, you don’t really have com­muni­ca­tion at all, just words or even letters, if we take the logic far enough.

The literary con­text of a verse certainly includes its imme­diate context, if we want to understand it properly.  But—if I may be elementary for a moment—a letter is connected to other letters to make a word.  Words are connected to other words to make sentences.  Sentences    . . . to sentences—to form paragraphs.  Para­graphs . . . to paragraphs—to make a letter, or an essay, or a book.  Breaking apart any of those connec­tions risks the ability of the context to control the meaning.  

So, yes, the literary context includes the immediate context of a sentence or verse, but it also includes the rest of the book.  That’s the heart of what I’m trying to say.  Separating the verses or paragraphs—the immediate con­texts—into individual pictures is the start of inkblotitis.  (Think shat­tered mosaic.)  What we want to do is learn to see how the immediate contexts fit together as smaller, but integrated pictures into the land­scape view of the book as a whole.²

Speaking personally now . . .
I can’t adequately summarize or crystallize the things I’ve learned in recent years about biblical interpretation.  Although Greg and Gary are more than equal to this task, I’m not equal to the task of setting forth a hermeneutical hierarchy or prioritizing principles used in interpretation.

I can tell you this one thing, though:  terms and phrases and paragraphs are infinitely more meaningful when considered in their book-level contexts.  When we pay attention to those contexts, we hear God better.


¹ Dr. Gary D. Collier, private group e-mail, used by permission.  coffeewithpaul.com

² Dr. Gregory L. Fay, Inkblotitis:  Christianity’s Dangerous Disease, Book 2: Rediscovering the Books of God (2013).  http://inkblotitis.wordpress.com/inkblotitis/


About words (2)

Words are obviously important when we seek to understand written language.  Consider this passage as an illustration of what could happen when we are called on to interpret the words of scripture.

What does the word “score” mean?  And what does it mean “to score”?  The meaning depends, doesn’t it?  How many ways are there “to score”?  Scoring in football is completely dif­ferent than scoring in—say—ping pong. . . .  There are multiple ways to score in American football, but not in baseball (the only way is to have a base runner touch home plate).  Every sport is different.  On the other hand, if a high school teenager were asked if he “scored” after an evening out with the prom queen, the picture is quite different.  And—to continue the rela­tional (or should I say sexual) image—a young Don Juan might scratch a mark into the side of the bed­post or headboard to keep tally of his conquests.  Teachers give us scores on tests; musicians compose scores. Sometimes, the word refers to a degree of indebtedness (what you owe me), and I just might “even the score.”  Do you remem­ber that a “score” can refer to a group of 20—”Four score and seven years ago . . .”  How about a groove cut in wood for a rope, or a crease or perforation so you can fold or tear a piece of paper?  It can refer to the state or facts of the present situa­tion, or a suc­cessful robbery or drug deal.  And there’s more. By itself the word is pregnant with poten­tial meanings, but we don’t know the specific length, weight, health, even the sex of the child to be born.

Bottom line:  you have to have more context to know what’s really intended.

– Greg L. Fay (adapted)

There’s no doubt about it:  interpretation happens.  It happens when Bible versions are produced; it happens when commentators write and when preachers preach; and it happens when you and I read our Bibles.

I would say that the following items are part of well-founded interpretation:

  • Awareness of the “range of meaning” of a word
  • Ability to define that word through understanding of its literary context

(To be continued . . . )

About words and contexts (1)

I assume that all of us who study the Bible have a few things in common—including reverent love of God and respect for the written words that constitute our Bibles.  Most of us have grown up in churches that would not shy away from being labeled “People of the Book.”

Moreover, almost everyone would get the multiple-choice question about “context” correct on an exam.  We all do understand, on some level, that context is important; we could affirm its importance without a second thought.

But what do we mean when we agree that context is important, and what do we do about it?

Through the years, when studying biblical documents, it has become increasingly clear that some important concepts seem to be ignored in most Christian circles.  One is the question of the genre, or type of document/book, such as historical narrative, letter, poetry, etc.

Another concept that is often apparently overlooked with regard to letters (and certain other documents) is their occasional or situational nature.  By “occasional” I do not mean to imply any casual manner or approach.  Far from it!  I mean that there was a specific situation, or set of situations, that led to the occasion of writing the letter.

I do take (most of) the biblical writings as God-directed (in some way), and the writers as God-inspired (a factor that is also beyond explanation).  These assumptions are baselines for most of us.

On the heels of the belief that God has been involved in the production of what we call “scripture,” though, must come a principle:  that understanding the meaning of an ancient document in its original context comes first, prior to attempting to apply that meaning to the current day.  That context includes both the historical situation in which the document was written and the self-contained literary context of the document itself.

(To be continued . . . )

Highways in context

Among many other things, my dad taught me to think about geographies and topographies.  Roads would often make him think of other roads, and areas of the country would be like, or not-so-like, other areas.  Features such as hills and winding roads and skylines would take on personalities of their own.

Where we currently make our temporary dwelling, Rt. 19 is the main road.  It’s one of 2-3 roads of consequence in our entire county, actually.  Rt. 19 reminds me a little of a few Delaware roads, such as Frazer Rd., near the MD line, or sections of old Limestone Rd. (near the old Lowe’s, that later became a church-house, or maybe that little section no one travels near the PA line).  Our Rt. 19 may be even more like Rt. 71, between Lum’s Pond and Red Lion “proper” (is there a Red Lion “proper”?).

Rt. 19 is a nice road, really.  It stretches the entire length of our sizable county, from the Pennsylvania border, south of Wellsville, then running alongside the Genesee River, all the way to Fillmore.  There, it forks:  19 heads northwest, then north again to Pike, and 19A meanders northeast to Portageville, which is the southern gateway to Letchworth State Park, containing a remarkable gorge, just into Wyoming County.

Rt. 19 is traveled by quite a few 18-wheelers and all the rest of us who go anywhere from time to time.  Being beside a river, it’s relatively flat, and has a goodly number of curves.

At face value, Rt. 19 is a standard, two-lane highway.  There’s nothing really remarkable about its size, shape, or construction.  But it defines and supplies a lot about Allegany County, and adjacent areas.  It is a reputable, dependable marker, and we depend on it.

I’m grateful that the highway maintenance crews take care of Rt. 19 as they do.  But they, like all of us, need to be a little more aware of context.  You see, when autumn was expiring, the crews came out to do their pre-winter work, fixing some of the little potholes, presuming to protect the road from the coming winter damage (snow, ice, salt, blades).  

In their zeal to do an extra-good job, they did something new this year:  instead of simply digging out loose macadam and patching holes one by one, they put new asphalt down over long stretches, parallel to the solid white line on the right.  Seems like a good idea, right?  Looks pretty nice, all considering, and provides for a bit smoother ride if you set your wheels to the right.

But they forgot something about our local context.  This might have been fine in the dryness of Colorado or Arizona, but here, we get lots of moisture, and we do depend on this road.  The seam is at just the wrong spot — it’s just where the right tire rolls, for moderate- or small-sized cars.

Hey, guys!  Remember, we have a lot of rain and snow here, and the water and slush will build up on the seam where the new asphalt meets the old.  I’ve already almost hydroplaned a time or two.  You’ve actually created a hazard with the way you fixed the road.

Durn.  Welp. . . .  This winter, people just gotta be extra careful.  I guess we can get out there in April & do something about this after the snow melts.

Wonder what happens when we forget our contexts at our jobs, in our churches, and in Bible study.  We try to fix things, but some damage lasts a while, no matter what we do.

Slogans in context

My undergraduate institution, Harding University, toward which I still feel some fondness and loyalty, once used this slogan on its advertising materials:

Educating for Eternity

I think this slogan was coined before the days of so-called “public relations.”  Perhaps those more skilled in advertising would have nixed this idea because of its double meaning.  Sure enough, some rogue-comedian student wrote something in the student newspaper about the 5th- and 6th-year seniors who were engaged in an apparently eternal education process.  The parents who were footing the bill probably weren’t amused at the double entendre.  🙂

In the context of the Church of Christ of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, though, that slogan was an apt one.  Most of Harding’s constituencies, I’m convinced, would have latched onto the idea of “educating for eternity” fairly easily.  The slogan wouldn’t have drawn many outsiders, but it wasn’t supposed to.  Subsequently, though, Harding “progressed” and began to revision itself, for better or worse, as the “Harvard of the South.”  The constituencies were broader and more numerous; the context for the slogan therefore changed, and eventually, so did the slogan.

Here’s another Harding slogan.  I’m pretty sure this one had its origin in the servant heart of one very likeable, charismatic (in the non-miraculous sense), little, white-haired, charming man.  It’s so simple that it’s almost timeless, context-less.  But the logo aspect appears passe, doesn’t it?

[Aside:  I don’t recall if any of the graduate institutions I attended for one or more courses had slogans per se.  No matter what the marketers think, for all their well-intentioned work, those costly wordings and images don’t stick with some of us.]

~ ~ ~

The institution at which I now teach, Houghton College, had this slogan emblazoned on its fleet vehicles and letterhead when I arrived five years ago.

A Higher Purpose in Mind

I kind of liked that one.  But when it went the way of the mammoth and mastodon, I realized that it, too, was a slogan that had outlived its contemporary context.  Actually, it was probably ill-advised at the outset, not unlike “Educating for Eternity.”  Yes, I get “higher purpose,” and the inclusion of the mind is clever for a higher-ed institution, and especially one that has way-above-average aggregate SAT scores.  But … imagine the constituent of another “Christian institution”¹ as the Houghton van passes by.  “Hmm.  We are trying to be Christian, too.  Do they think they’re better than we are?”  Or, worse, imagine the basic, secular person who might have heard of Houghton but who knows nothing about it.  The phrasing “Higher Purpose” might have sounded differently cocky and/or out of touch.

~ ~ ~

Postcript   These educational institutions’ slogans bring to mind that education occurs regardless of marketing.  Personally, I’m learning some tough lessons recently, and I’m not learning them very easily or willingly.  I’m also learning biblical Greek in a much more intentional way than ever before.  What are you learning these days?


¹ Strong, well-founded feelings of lots of Christian college teachers and administrators to the contrary, I’ve been unconvinced for more than 20 years that the “Christian institution” notion is one grounded in reality.  The people are generally much more than nominally Christian:  most at Harding and Houghton, for instance, are more serious than the average bear about their Christianity.  It’s that the organizational workings of an institution are so often at odds with the needs of individual Christian disciples, and a world apart from the priorities of the Kingdom of God.

Context: pre-knowledge

Even in areas of life other than scriptural/spiritual ones — musical, in the case below — it must be recognized that understanding something thoroughly necessitates grappling with its context.

Beethoven’s Eroica  . . . is more than a mere piece of genius music; it’s got a position within the system of cultural development of its time, of which the composer could not have any knowledge.  But when analyzing a piece of the past, it is so important to be aware of what the piece means to us today and what it meant to people then.  That’s the main thing that a performer has to have internalized before producing one note of the Eroica — because the revolutionary aspect of this work today is almost impossible to recreate without this pre-knowledge.

– Vladimir Jurowski, Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, quoted by James Naughtie, BBC Music Magazine, November 2011

We could debate the significance of Beethoven’s lack of knowledge of his own present, and of the future trajectory of his music — and how parallel all this does, or doesn’t, run to the experience of the apostolic writers of New Covenant scripture.  The analogy would seem to break down on the point of recreating, which isn’t an often-applied description of what biblical interpreters do, but which is often stated as an aim of performing musicians.

The main parallel is in interpretation:  a performer of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is an interpreter, and so is a reader of scripture.  What Jurowski called “pre-knowledge” of the original meaning could be rendered “contextual awareness.”  Knowledge and awareness of the original historical and literary contexts is integral in valid interpretation.


Prior posts related to context in scripture:








Not to toot my own horn, but I came upon this kind passage recently:

“We owe a great deal to Dr. Casey for his planning and keen insight, along with his ability.”

The sentence was penned by a respected icon in my vocational field—H. Robert Reynolds.  I’ve listened to Reynolds teach, been inspired by his lectures, read many of his words, watched him conduct, and learned from other conductors that Reynolds taught at some point during his venerable career.  Imagine how gratified I was to read what he’d written.

How nice!

How affirming!

How unexpected!

And how completely not about me.

This passage was written in a foreword to a book by Joseph L. Casey, not Brian L. Casey.  I suppose I could quote Reynolds in my next tenure review document, but the quoting would be bogus.  It would be taken out of context.

Ever heard a scripture passage taken out of context?  No?  Then you must not have been to church last week.

Journalism and exegesis

Bill Moyers is the telejournalist who did the much-sung PBS piece on “Amazing Grace.”  I don’t know, but I think he’s in the league with Ken Burns, of Civil War and Jazz and Baseball documentary fame.  Moyers is thoughtful, thorough, and non-incendiary.  Yesterday evening, I caught 5 minutes of his being interviewed by, of all people, Jon Stewart of the Comedy Central channel.

[The punchy Stewart, incidentally, is probing in a different way from Moyers.  If Stewart’s language weren’t so often foul, I think I’d watch him more often, because he pokes at the right only 200% more than at the left, instead of 900% more, like the more legitimate, non-comedic remainder of the news media.]

In contrast with the recent interview with Bill O’Reilly (who lost face and was off his game with Stewart, who hit the target with his jabs at Mike Huckabee’s ill-begotten jam session with Ted Nugent), Moyers almost left a respectful Stewart speechless.  Part of the reason for Moyers’s success and status appears to be that he hasn’t gone for cheap, hyped, cutting-edge news-generation.  Rather, he’s moved in and around those who want to be thoughtful, reflective, and honest with news and other subjects.

One Moyers comment struck me for reasons that will be obvious.  It went something like this:

My process has always been this:  I shoot extended interviews, and then I spend a lot of time editing to get to the gist of the message.  In forty years of journalism, I’ve never once been called by an interviewee for taking him out of context.

Wow.  Forty years.  I don’t think I often go a week without hearing scripture taken out of context.

If only all Christians (preachers, speakers, teachers, and everyone else, too) would aspire to–and attain to–such a contextually sensitive record with scripture.

John 12:32, as Rorschached

Although I continue to be inspired by the pages I’m scanning of the Sweet/Viola book Jesus Manifesto, I do find periodic non sequiturs and unjustified assumptions.  For example, their introductory mention of John 12:32.

John 12:32 is a “verse” I’ve known for most of my teen-to-adult life.  It says, roughly, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.”  In order to understand more fully this “verse” in its context, one might need to take into consideration such things as

  • John’s life
  • his association with Jesus
  • the date of authorship
  • other historically contextual matters
  • literarily contextual matters such as
    • John’s purpose in writing his gospel
    • symbolism and themes of the gospel (logos? light? truth? etc.)

But even a cursory reading of 12:32 and immediate context (I won’t begin to deal here with any deeper contextual questions, analysis of John’s literary themes, or the like) shows clearly that “when I am lifted up” means when I am crucified.

There’s this gospel song titled “Lift Him Up.”   My parents used to sing it with groups of close friends, and we sang it at church a few times.  The first stanza queries,

How to reach the masses—men of ev’ry birth?
For an answer Jesus gave a key:
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

Fair enough.  Simple enough.  And profundity aplenty.

But the chorus repeatedly invites the singer/hearer to “Lift Him up!  Lift the precious Savior up!”  And thereby, for decades, congregants have run afoul of scripture.  John 12:32 is not about conceptually “lifting” the notion of Jesus and holding it/Him high, i.e., “exalting the Christ,” for all to see!  Exalting Jesus, calling attention to His lordship, etc., are generally good ideas, in my opinion, but John 12:32 has nothing directly to do with them.

Doesn’t it strike you as laughable that this song essentially has Christian congregations shouting “crucify Him!” because John 12:32 was treated as an inkblot to be “interpreted” subjectively, instead of understanding “lift Him up” in context?


New Covenant document scholar Greg Fay has noted, “Paul’s letters are sometimes called ‘occasional documents’ to highlight the cutting-edge, real-life context of their production.”

For my part, I could meander through a bunch of epistles, stumbling around to finding tidbits as examples of occasionalness. Rather, I think I’ll ask this simple question:

When we “do Bible studies” that use Paul’s letters, do we fully comprehend the reality that each was written to a specific audience, at a specific time, in a specific historical context?  Context really does make a difference.

The word of us

I’m going to go out on a limb here. (I think they’re building me a condo there, and with good reason, given all the time I spend there.)

If we select a short Bible passage and use it out of context, to support our points or programs, chances are it’s “the word of us” as much as it’s “the Word of the Lord” that the people hear.

Thanks be to the people who put together the nice program, but perhaps it’s not as in order to respond with a perfunctory “Thanks be to God” as we’d like to think.

As my dear friend Greg Fay has said:

The treatment for our [handling-of-scripture malady] is to quit turning verses into “inkblots” and to learn to read them in their book-level contexts. The treatment is to quit using the Bible as if it were a pile of disconnected sayings or aphorisms or proverbs or prophecies or analogies or … spiritual fortune cookies … but to sit down with God and listen as He spoke with and to us … to stop interrupting Him when He speaks.  (Dr. Gregory L. Fay, 2009, manuscript in progress)

So be it.