What is Context?
What is scriptural context and why does it matter? For that matter what is your context and why does it matter? What does any of it have to do with your spiritual life or your faith? Turns out, a lot.
So let’s start with context. It’s dictionary definition:
The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. (From two Latin words which together mean “to weave together.”)
Context matters because without context you cannot fully understand a thing. We all know this, anytime we say that something is an inside joke we are referring to a joke that can only be understood if you understand the context. And yet for the last hundred years or so some religious groups have tried to claim that when it comes to scripture context doesn’t matter.
I’m here to tell you that’s a bunch of malarkey.
The Three Worlds of a Text
When it comes to texts we study there are generally three contexts that matter. (This is true for all texts but we’ll stick to sacred scriptures here.) Which sounds like a lot perhaps, but once you get the concept down it actually makes dealing with a text easier. Context gives you a framework to explore and question.
In literary scholarship this whole concept is called the Hermetical Circle. That’s a fancy name for a simple concept. Three circles, three contexts that we need to pay attention to anytime we’re study a piece of literature.
Also called the world behind the text this is the context that exists in the author’s life. Author’s (even of scripture) lived in the real world. And the real world is always changing. So understanding (even a little) what the world of the author was like can shed enormous light on the text you are dealing with.
This is things like the political climate in which the author is working, religious practices, culture. Things like: can women own property, or is slavery common place are important things to be aware of when studying a text. All of the unconscious things that a writer brings to the text they are creating are living there, behind the text waiting to trip us up.
The further we get from the context in which the author worked the more we need to be careful to be aware.
For example: at the time of the writing of the four Gospels women did not have standing as full adult humans legally. They didn’t count for the minimum number of people required to do prayers, they (generally) could not own property or choose who they would marry. Understanding this will make passages that count people and list only men. There is a passage in Luke that comments “about 5000 men were there.” When we understand context we realize there were probably women and children there as well, but the author wouldn’t assume it mattered or needed to be said.
In Story Context
This is a little complex sounding at first, but it is important to understand that the world an author creates in the text may or may not have similar context to the author’s own context. This is often quite a subtle distinction, though an important one. But here’s a really obvious example.
Tolkien was an Englishman writing in the early and mid twentieth century. It is clear that the context of his own world (two world wars, mythology, etc) informs the world of his books. However the context within the books set in Middle Earth is clearly quite different than his own context. England may be a magical place but it’s trees do not walk and talk (no matter how slowly) and it does not in fact contain giant owls (among other things.)
Being able to differentiate between the world of the author and the world the author has created is vital for understanding their meaning, often the differences between the author’s world and the one they create in their text are our biggest pointers to what they value or the meaning they wish to convey.
Finally we must be aware of our own context because it informs everything we read, think, and do. You cannot read a piece of scripture the way a 3rd century Roman citizen would read the same work. It is simply not possible and that is due to your context as a reader.
But like a fish trying to describe water most of us would have a hard time describing our context. It is simply the reality we inhabit, it is so much a part of us it can be hard to see. And so most people tend to assume they approach a text from a neutral point of view, we don’t.
Everything about you is your context, where you were born, raised, your educational level, your ethnicity, your parents’ educations, your values, your sex or gender, your sexual orientation, your various levels of health or disability, and the list goes on.
Why Context Matters
Why does all this matter? Well think about it this way: the things an author chooses to include (or not) in a story are part of their context. The fact that very few women are named (or get to speak) in scripture (compared to men) isn’t because the Divine doesn’t really have much to do with women, but because the culture in which those stories were told was male dominated.
The authors of most of scripture (there are some bits that are debated) are absolutely male. And so they tend to write about things that men were concerned with. They tell stories about men in which women have supporting roles. They completely ignore all sorts of things that women might have considered important because those things were completely outside their context and experience.
And that matters. Because it allows us to read behind the text, to propose alternate readings (and tellings) of stories from another point of view (like maybe a woman’s). And because it helps us know when we need to draw a line and say “this story is helpful up to this point, but because of it’s context it simply cannot speak to X.”
Checks and balances
Our own context matters because it has just as much impact on how we interpret and apply meaning to a story as the author’s original work. All reading is interpretation, there is no way to interact with scripture (or any other written work) without interpretation. And our context as readers mattes. A straight white man and a queer black woman are going to read the same text quite differently.
A woman from Ghana is going to read a text differently than a child in China. That is the richness of human experience and the miracle of the written word: it is alive, malleable, and each new generation of readers adds to it’s tapestry of meaning.
So. If context is so important why don’t you hear about it more often? The answer is probably complicated but there are a few factors.
First there is the simple fact that exploring context is more work than ignoring it. Doing the research to find out what the world was like in say the 4th century BCE takes time. Digging into your own past and the culture around you takes time. It is straight up easier to ignore the whole thing and pretend it doesn’t matter.
But I suspect there is a deeper reason. Ignoring context let’s you proclaim once and for all that you know the truth. There are a great many pastors and religious leaders out there who will happily tell you exactly what a passage of scripture means for now and always, which is only possible if you completely ignore context.
That works out great for them, but not so hot for their followers.
Here there be dragons
Your own context is the most accessible right now, and can have a huge impact on your reading and study. Becoming aware of what influences your reading does not require study, or a trip to the library. It’s a simple matter of answering some basic journal questions.
It can help you to see your own blind spots, or understand the reasons you are so wary to certain literature. Basically it can tell you where you might be wrong (or at least blind). And it can tell you where your context might be sounding alarm bells to protect you from something legitimately dangerous.
What to Do Once You Know?
You’ve taken the context quiz, you’ve journaled your way into greater self awareness, now what? The rest my dear is up to you. Most of all keep reading, keep wrestling with scripture, history, and tradition. Keep experiencing new things. You have the advantage now, and the responsibility, to apply your understanding of your context to the things you experience.
Speak up when you are aware that perhaps the comfortable interpretation of a text comes out of white, middle class experience rather than say Divine inspiration. Speak up especially if it will cost you some of your comfort. Feel free to wrestle with texts that you now know are problematic. Can your context reframe, refresh, or turn them on their heads?
Call out context when you see it. Especially when you see someone’s context being tossed about as absolute truth, gently but firmly call out what’s happening. You’ll be giving a great gift to those whose context differs but who are often silenced by the assumption that a certain context is “normative.” (This context is nearly always straight, white, male and middle or upper class.)