Monday, July 2, 2012

Context Matters

I am currently participating in a public conversation with my friend Neal Campbell via our respective blogs. The idea behind the conversation is that Neal grew up in the culture of Christianity, and has always known the faith. However, over the past couple of years Neal has experienced some of the most painful things life has to offer. As a result, and after a period of soul searching, Neal has rejected Christianity, the Bible, and the Judeo-Christian concept of God. (Read his intro here.)

On the other hand, I grew up possessing a more rationalistic, skeptical perspective. Although I was exposed to Christianity, I grew up using religion as a tool. I didn't buy it. The world of science and empiricism made more sense. Faith? Ha. Give me cold, hard facts. But after 26 years of cynical empiricism God hit the reset button. As an adult I came out of that mindset (thanks to the Spirit) and have come to faith. (Read my intro here.)

Neal has called this conversation "Shift Happens." The idea is to talk about how he as an adult came to his senses and left the faith, where I as an adult recognized the futility of empiricism and came to the faith. Now you have some background. The conversation took an interesting turn earlier this week when Neal turned his attention to the character of God as a way to discredit the faith. He used various texts from the Old Testament to paint a picture of a cruel, capricious, and corrupt deity. (Neal's post)

That brings us to the topic of this post. Context matters. The name of this blog, Christians in Context, is intentionally ambiguous. You could take it any number of different ways - but one of the ways it can be taken is that we are to be Christians who study Scripture with a desire to be ever aware of the context of the text in relation to it's surrounding verses, chapters, books, and the over-arching meta-narrative of Scripture as a whole.

I felt that Neal's verses, as they were lifted out of context, should not be the subject of my primary response. Instead I focused on the character of God. However, I felt that I should deal with the specific texts he used to make his point and demonstrate the importance of looking at the text in context, and not verses in isolation. With that in mind, I wrote a follow-up post to demonstrate the textual fallacy of using verses out of context to illustrate a point.

A good friend visited me this week and asked me if I thought the "context argument" would carry any weight with the opposing viewpoint. On one hand, no. I don't think it will because I have seen atheistic authors throw context under the bus claiming it is a cheap technique used by Christian apologists. On the other hand, how can they not acknowledge it?

Using a verse out of context to prove a point that the text as a whole does not affirm is a logical fallacy (Abstraction or Accent, more specifically Contextomy) used to build a Straw Man. The God that Neal was attacking simply does not exist! The combination of verses he used paint a picture that is not a fair representation of what the text actually illustrates when read as a whole.

If I take a beloved figure such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and quote a snippet of one of his speeches out of context, I can make it appear as though he was a hypocrite—or worse. Consider this hypothetical example:
Martin Luther King was not an advocate for civil rights at all! In fact, he is on the record as saying, "the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content." He was opposed to civil disobedience and resistance, and felt as though the status quo was just fine. Now that they had blown off some steam, they will now be content and peaceful with things as they are.
 Ludicrous! But MLK did say what is quoted above. But in context, we see his true meaning:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. (emphasis added)
We see this everywhere, particularly during an election cycle. Misrepresentation is a tactic used to construct Straw Men, but the opposition is always quick to bring up the context issue to set the record straight. That is, until they choose to construct their own Straw Man. At that point, context is a cop-out.

Bottom line, context matters. Creating a characterization from textual snippets that don't fairly represent the whole is a tactic that belittles and demeans the conversation, whether that be in the political or religious arenas. Let's engage in meaningful and honest conversation and debate, leaving cheap tricks behind us. This doesn't just apply to me and Neal as we have our discussion over the next several weeks, but to all of us. The same thing happens within our own family. Calvinists misrepresent Arminians, Orthodox Christians misrepresent Free Church Evangelicals, ad nauseum. If we believe in the validity and strength of our position, we can represent it and the opposing view fairly. May Colossians 3:14 characterize our communication with one another, and may we represent Christ to the unbelieving world by conducting ourselves in a manner that is reminiscent of Him and gives the Father glory.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Greg Koukl has a video entitled 'Context Relativism'( as well as teachings on 'Never Read a Bible Verse' posted on his site STR.ORG. After working in Christian retail stores for years, I, too, am saddened, frustrated, and burdened for the many Christians who take verses out of context and the Christian business of haphazardly slapping verses on plaques, t-shirts, etc. that misrepresent the actual meaning of God's word. We must apply the rules of reading any literature to the Bible. As a Literature teacher, I know there are proper rules of interpretation that must be applied to any book, and most importantly the Bible.
Thank you for your post.