context and usage.

19 Jan

context and usage determine meaning.

this mantra was repeated daily in our classroom during my undergrad schooling in ‘hermeneutics’ (the study of interpretation theory, and can be either the art of interpretation, or the theory and practice of interpretation).  essentially, it’s a fancy way of saying how to study the bible.

the bible ALWAYS has to be interpreted.  it is not possible to read the bible ‘unfiltered,’ as it were.  we always bring to the scriptures certain assumptions about what the words mean, about what issues we feel it’s addressing, about the context and the historical setting of the text, our philosophical and theological biases, et cetera.  we always view it through a certain set of ‘lenses’ if you will.  it’s simply our nature as human beings.  it’s unavoidable.

it’s important to recognize this because whenever we read the bible we shouldn’t necessarily assume that our interpretations are the correct ones.  we should always seek to try on different ‘lenses,’ to analyze different interpretations in order to correct, challenge, or test some of our own misunderstandings.  the point isn’t that we will eventually find the one perfect set of lenses, but that we consistently possess and embrace the humility to check our point of view against the insights of others — both those who have come before us, and those who are leading us into the future.

context and usage determine meaning.

the next few postson the WayWard follower will point to some helpful hints in approaching scripture that i’ve learned along my journey.  i’ll first start with some thoughts on context:

to best interpret a text we need to understand the literary, textual, historical, and cultural context (and remember, this isn’t just for pastors and preachers – all of us interpret the bible, each and every time we open it’s pages):

• literary context means understanding the kind of genre a particular part of the bible is.  is it — poetry? a biography? a letter to a community of faith?  a letter to a particular person?  a prophecy?  a historical narrative?  a mythic narrative? et cetera.  once we’ve established the type of genre the particular passage is, it must be interpreted according to the rules of that genre.  God is a creative writer, and he communicates to his people in a variety of different types of literature.

when we approach scripture with an inappropriate literary lens, we come up with all sorts of wildly wacko interpretations as to who God is, what he’s doing (what he’s done in the past, what he’s doing now, and what he’s going to do in the future), who we’re called to be, and what he expects from us.

• textual context means we shouldn’t just pull verses out of the bible at random to prove our points; rather, we should look at what they mean in the context of whole passages, chapters, sections, and books (as well as the context of the over-arching narrative of the entirety of the scriptures).  we have to look at the big picture of a passage and determine the point the author is trying to make.  proof-texting with individual verses ripped out of their context is a fantastic way to misunderstand the bible and really make it say whatever you’d like it to.  as we’ll explore in future posts, this misunderstanding most often happens when we approach the scriptures as a constitution rather than a divinely inspired theologoical library (courtesy of brian mclaren’s illustration in A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith).  as mclaren writes in that book,

Read as a constitution, the Bible has passages that can and have been used to justify, if not just about anything, an awful lot of wildly different things.  For example, let’s say we approach the Bible with this question: How should we treat our enemies? Matthew 5:44 tells us to love them.  Romans 12:17-21 tells us to do good to them and never seek revenge against them.  First Peter 3:13-17 tells us to suffer at their hands and set an example for them.  Psalm 137:9 says we should joyfully dash their infants against a rock.  Psalm 139:19 says we should hate them.  Deuteronomy 7:1-6 says we should destroy them utterly and show them no mercy.  If we want to call down fire on them, we can reference First Kings 18:20-40, but before we do so, we’d better checkLuke 9:51-56, which condemns that kind of thinking.  Similarly, we could find verse precedents in the Bible to justify polygamy and celibacy as equal to or better alternatives to monogamy (Genesis 4:19Exodus 21:10Deuteronomy 25:5-10Titus 1:6First Corinthians 7:1-7, 29) not to mention a wide array of rules governing dietary, sanitary, clothing, personal grooming and agricultural matters.

• historical context means we have to understand what the bible would have meant to the people who first heard it (recognize: they didn’t first read it; rather, these words were typically read out loud, in community, followed by lengthy discussion regarding what it all meant).  what was going on in their lives?  what were the situations being addressed?

it also means that we may need to sometimes (often? always?) strip away 2,000 years of interpretations of the text and do our best to get back to what the original audiences would have taken it to mean.  there have been some amazing advances in this area in just the past few decades, particularly among scholars who are fleshing out the first century context of the new testament.   many are now recognizing how some of our traditional interpretations of the NT have unfortunately been more about 16th century debates between catholics and protestants than they were about the challenges jesus and paul (and the rest) were making to the differing sects of 1st century judaism.

• cultural context is similar in that we need to recognize what the text appears to mean to us as 21st century americans (or other western nations) is not necessarily (and perhaps more accurately and honestly) not what it would have meant to people during the time of the writing.  they looked at their world differently then, which clearly would have affected how they understood the bible.

for example, as relatively wealthy westerners (even the poor in america have greater wealth than approximately 90% of the rest of the world), we often tend to side with the rulers and wealthy landowners in jesus’ parables.  when he tells a story about a vineyard owner, or a ruler who distributes ‘talents’ to his servants, et cetera, we automatically and usually unconsciously assume they are the ‘good guys’ in the story.

yet, what if you were a galilean peasant whose ancestral land, your family home for centuries, had been unscrupulously taken from you by wealthy jewish aristocrats in Jerusalem when you could no longer pay your taxes to the violently evil, oppressive roman invaders?  if you were hearing jesus tell these stories for the first time would your  inclination be to side with the wealthy landowners who come and kill all the rebellious tenants, or would you side with the tenants who are simply trying to feed their families and get the land back that was promised to them by God in the old testament?  either way, how you hear and interpret the story will be very different depending on your cultural and social context.

we always interpret.  it ought to be our goal to do so responsibly.

context and usage determine meaning.


4 Responses to “context and usage.”

  1. John Hoxeng January 24, 2011 at 7:44 AM #

    Great article! I believe this is critical to understanding Jesus more fully.
    Dr Kenneth Bailey spent a lifetime bringing cultural and literary context to the parables and certain books of the Bible. It has changed my understanding and deepened my faith in many ways.

  2. Annette Marsella February 8, 2011 at 8:32 PM #

    An fascinating discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write much more on this topic, it may possibly not be a taboo subject but normally individuals are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  3. the WayWard follower February 21, 2011 at 11:47 AM #

    @ john; yes, bailey’s work is extremely helpful in seeking to understand cultural and literary context. it amazes me how many of us will dive into an interpretation of what one of the parables (or any other passage, for that matter) means without first considering the context. in most cases (if not all), it can drastically change the assumed meaning of the text.


  4. mega February 21, 2011 at 12:53 PM #

    Fantastic job here. I really enjoyed what you had to say. Keep heading because you surely bring a new voice to this subject. Not many people would say what youve said and still make it interesting. Well, at least Im interested. Cant wait to see more of this from you.

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