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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Curse of Knowledge/Understanding in Context


Yesterday, I was watching tv and somehow stopped on that great philosophical program, the World Poker Tour. I stopped just as poker pro Tony Dunst began a segment explaining what happened in a previous hand. He started by mentioning a concept that, as soon as he said it, I perceived had a broader life application than just poker playing—The Curse of Knowledge. In the hand Tony was explaining, the situation was near the end of a tournament, one of the top pros was playing against a recreational player who entered the tournament and had advanced to the last four. The amateur was dealt a good hand, and made a move that signaled it. The pro, used to playing people as skilled as himself, discounted the obvious and finally played, eventually playing himself into losing the hand. Tony's commentary was that it was an example of The Curse of Knowledge—that it is difficult to imagine what it is like to not know the things you know.
Somehow, I have never heard that thought communicated, even though I've certainly experienced it on both ends, and had a gut feeling this was not a unique thought of Tony Dunst, so I looked it up on the net. I found a more general explanation written in a blog by Maggie Summers at www.sliderocket.com/blog/2012/05/presentation-tips-curse-of-knowledge . There, and possibly down a little bit of a rabbit trail, the writer quotes Albert Einstein, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”
This only too well applies to my experience in following Jesus, but so does it's converse. I grew up going to a Calvinistic denominational church where a master's in divinity was demanded to be allowed to be hired as a pastor. I heard many sermons which I later learned were not that different from seminary lectures. Only when I was married did my wife point out that most of those sermons went over everyone's head to a large degree. I can look back now and see that the problem was compounded by a tradition that no one was expected to actually ask questions, and then further compounded by the simple fact that the speaker had spent hours preparing the presentation, but the listeners had no clue the subject they would be hearing about until the speech started (or maybe when they was the sermon's title in the bulletin, although sometimes even that wouldn't be a help).
On the converse side, I spent some time in some traditional churches of the pentecostal variety in which leadership was based on gifting with (usually, not always) some basic Bible School training. It actually isn't that hard to build up a half hour or more by connecting via a speech a number of verses that are apparently related. Before Jesus, in the days of the Old Testament rabbis, this was called “pearl stringing.” That a method is that old doesn't make it valid. As I wrote previously, a verse can be taken out of context. When we have been told this, the person speaking usually means literary context, that the way it is spoke about is something other than what it means when one reads it as part of the chapter or so it appears in. That, though, can be easily seen by reading the passage in the Bible. Those previous to us in the faith, or unbelievers, for that matter, can have an easier time seeing this today, than those previous to us that either were illiterate, like most of the believers in the days of the New Testament, or did not have access to the Bible, like most persons from that day through to the trend of universal education in the West, which brings us up to the last few centuries.
Only in the last couple of years have I come to learn that there are (at least) three types of context—literary (which I just mentioned), historical, and cultural. For the last two, one needs more than just a Bible. In sermons and “teachings” (as some are long on getting people excited and devoid of actual teaching), one hears and I have heard examples of both, but the idea that they are types of understanding a scripture in context is a relatively new revelation to me. For example (and, since this is the Christmas season and that story is on my mind, I'll use examples from that story), historical context tells us that where Jesus was born was politically controlled by the Roman Empire, and as Israel rebelled semi-successfully against Rome in 166-164 B.C., the Romans didn't trust the Jews. Those of us who have been believers in Jesus for a significant period of time have heard that, but I never heard any teacher flat-out label that fact as part of understanding the Bible in context.
Here's two examples of cultural context in one sentence. In Matthew 1:19, it says (NKJV), “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.” In our culture, a man isn't referred to as a woman's husband until they are married, but, at that time, they were betrothed, which is similar, but not the same as our culture's term “engaged.” One difference is in the next phrase, “not wanting to make her a public example”. In Jewish culture (I'm not exactly clear how being occupied by Rome affected this), if a betrothed woman was found to be pregnant by her future husband (to use a phrase appropriate to our culture), and he knew it didn't occur by him, he could have her stoned to death. From that fact, Mary's reply to the angel in Luke 1:38, “ Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be according to your word.” showed extreme faith, particularly in comparison to Moses and Gideon, in how they reacted to God's supernatural direction. That Mary was so faithful at only 12 to 14, probably, leaves me in awe, but maybe that's because I didn't come to follow Jesus until I was 15, and still, at 60 feeling that I'm playing catch-up when it comes to learning how to hear and be obedient to the Spirit.

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