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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On literary, historical, and cultural context


            I have a Facebook account, but rarely look at it.  Maybe its because I see a lot of short comments by people I may know, but are pushing some idea, like “Mabel likes Wal-Mart”.  Yippee.  She sends that to enough people and she gets some little benefit from them.  I, too, like the low prices, and dislike how its pushing many people’s paycheck lower, and, no, most of us don’t believe their “That’s the real Wal-Mart” commercials they air to counteract statements such as I’ve just made.  Somehow, though, I opened up Facebook about a week and a half ago, and saw a blip from a man I used to work with at a traditional church in Florida.  He was associate pastor/youth leader, and my wife and I assisted him.  Before coming to faith in Jesus, he was a bar band drummer for about twenty years.  The founding pastor of that church just felt called, and started a church, albeit without training.  This man came along years later, a few months after coming to faith, was there a few weeks, and told the pastor that he felt called.  The head pastor gave him a responsibility, and then more and more.  My wife and I volunteered to help with the teen class.  Sometimes both the head pastor and the assistant did or said something I felt to be a little strange, but, as they were leaders, I kept my mouth shut, partly because I thought my wife was happy being there.  Finally, a situation came up where we both found out that the other wasn’t comfortable with what was going on, but though the other like being there.  At that point, we left.

            Time went on, we eventually moved to another state, and one day, for some odd reason, I decided to attempt to find on the net people I had known in the past.  This man I found easily, as he had left that church to found one himself a few miles down the road.  This was of no surprise to me, as I learned after leaving that church that many people had had a falling out with that head pastor, so that this man did too, particularly when working with him as close as he did is no surprise. 

            I did find it a surprise that he was into something that I personally believe has wandered into false doctrine, what is known as Hebrew Roots Movement.  Shortly, this thread believes that we believers in Jesus are still to live by the Mosaic Law.  As such, he leads whatever group he heads to meet on Saturdays, and he continually is putting out little blips on Facebook hyping some aspect of his unique doctrinal view.  Anyway, when I opened up the Facebook messages that day,   had a little box with a couple of questions followed by Romans 3:31.  If one looks at that sentence alone, he could maintain that the word “law” is talking about the OT law. I could maintain that what the word “law” refers to is the law of love, walking by the Spirit.

            It got me to thinking about an old fundamentalist clever phrase many have used while sermonizing, “A text out of context is a pretext.”  Only in recent years have I learned that there are actually three (at least) contexts.  What is usually implied in sermons is literary context—how a certain thing fits into the larger group of sentences that it is a part of.  In the case above, reading the whole of Romans 3 indicates that what he was attempting to say with that one verse is the exact opposite of what Paul was saying.  This is also easy to figure out by any believer reading a passage, or, for that matter, any person.  The catchy phrase above actually applies to all kinds of writings. 

            The second type of context is historical context.  As this is Christmas season, when we hear the Christmas story, particularly as it is popularly sermonized, we hear a passage in which the historical context is explained thoroughly, as Israel being under Roman control is key to why things happened as they did.  It needs to be explained to us because we are so far away from that scene in both time and culture.  Still, some aspects are oftentimes passed over, such as why the Romans were so distrustful of Israel.  From modern culture, we perceive that a number of peoples that are under the control of a foreign power wish to overthrow the oppressors.  Rome generally wasn’t that way, but, given that Israel did overthrow them for a couple of years in 166 to 164 B.C., they were distrusted more than most peoples under Roman control.

            The third type of context is cultural context.  Sticking with the Christmas theme, and as I seem to write just about every Christmas, possibly because I see it as an amazing piece of faith, and so foreign to modern culture, in Luke 2, when the angel of the Lord comes to Mary to tell her that she will bear the Christ child, and she speaks words of assent and faith back to the angel, she is doing so at age 12 to 14 probably, with a slight chance she could have been as old as 16, that she does so in a culture in which, if a young man would find that the one he is betrothed to is pregnant, he could have her put to death. That is why we are told that Joseph, before the angel came to him, was going to have her put away quietly, that is, have her go away so the marriage never happens.  When the angel comes to him, and he agrees, God miraculously allows them both to be in a situation which, from normal social mores of the time, puts them both in a position of dishonor.  We later learn that Joseph is, in the Koine Greek, a teknon.  This is normally told to us to be “carpenter”, but is more appropriately a stone mason that may occasionally do carpentry.  Even that has to be noted that, in our culture, a stone mason is a rarer, and therefore, more treasured skill than carpentry, in that culture the opposite is true.

            The trick about all this is that all one needs (at least sometime) to figure out literary context is the Bible, for the other two one needs other material.  I am 60, and have been a believer since I was 15, but only learned about the different types of context a couple of years ago.  I certainly heard things taught which included historical and cultural context over that time, but never heard anyone differentiate the types.  This goes for both intellectualist, even over-intellectualist, leaders, and non- or anti-intellectualist types, such as the man I referred to above.

            Earlier today, I was listening to Wayne Jacobsen’s podcast, “The God Journey”, where Wayne mentions hearing an author from Great Britian who studied psycopathy.  A psychopath does not care what happens to his victims.  The author devised a study.  He found criminals and c.e.o.’s were high on this trait.  He was surprised to find that so were clergy.  This is understandable, as they must protect their organization, just like the c.e.o.  Maybe that’s why I wasn’t trusted it some places where I went for traditional church—I knew too much.  In the church were I met the man referenced above, I was told only after I left that the founding pastor sometimes didn’t understand things that I said, but, given his position, wouldn’t admit it to me (he did to my wife).  Desiring to know the Bible and faith in Jesus in detail, but not desiring to (i.e. pushing one’s way into) the traditional leadership system is threatening to parts of the status quo.  So be it—I have slept with a clean conscience.

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