The Context Trap

In 1983, when I first became a Christian, I was very zealous about sharing my faith. As I did so, I often heard unbelievers telling me: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged.” Because they didn’t seem to be know the context of that passage, I was quick to bring it to their attention. In so doing, I came across as even more judgmental, thus only validating what they thought of me in the first place.

Many times since then, I have heard people employ the use of Scripture, only to be told by someone that the Scripture was “taken out of context.” But there is a trap here. Many biblical Scriptures reflect universal truths. As such, they are applicable both in and out of context — because they are simply true.

Not too long ago, a Lutheran friend whom I’ll call “George” posted the following Scripture on his social media:

“When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” — Leviticus 19:33-34

Instantly, George received a retort from “Gary,” a member of a large evangelical church. “Of course, George, you are taking those verses totally out of context!”

Naturally, my friend George asked his friend Gary: “What is the context?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “I’ll have to look it up.”

While this may be amusing, it points to a phenomenon that I find a bit disturbing. The idea that someone is taking a biblical passage “out of context” is often used as a bluff. It’s very possible that Gary figured he knew the Bible better than George did. But when George called his bluff, he came up empty-handed.

We have to be very careful before playing the “context card.” In this case, the Scripture is a good example of something that is true outside of its specific context, because it conveys an absolute standard. If a foreigner comes into our land — whoever we are, and whoever they are — we are to treat them as an equal — as one of us.

If a person is particularly obsessed with context, they might object. “Well no – it applies only to the ancient Israelites, who were literally foreigners in the land of Egypt.” But that objection doesn’t hold water in light of a deeper study.

Many times “Egypt” is typed in Scripture as a former place of bondage. Similarly, Sodom is typed as a place of gross departure from the ways of God. This is why Revelation 11:8 refers to a place “figuratively called Egypt and Sodom, where also our Lord was crucified.” Yet we know that our Lord was crucified at Golgotha. He wasn’t literally crucified in either Egypt or Sodom. These references are figurative.

So we have a couple broad considerations here that may serve to lift us out of the Context Trap. Many biblical passages can be taken both literally and figuratively, and many verses can be taken both in and out of context.

I have to confess that I sometimes become frustrated when I see someone “wielding” a Scripture in order to win an argument. It seems to happen all too often. Also, the instances of this abuse of Holy Scripture are not restricted to Christians of any specific leaning. Ecumenicals and Evangelicals alike may be prone to this tendency. To my way of thinking, this is an abuse of something that we are to hold sacred. The Bible is largely intended to teach us how to live — not to teach us how to emerge victorious in a theological debate.

When I become sufficiently frustrated — as I was after hearing the dispute between George and Gary — I have a tendency to scour the Bible immediately to confirm what one might perceive to be my own bias or agenda. In other words, I want to “win.” I want to “prove” that I am “right.” In doing so, am I any different from the other believers whose approach I have found objectionable? Not at all.

A better approach would be for me to ask myself, for example: “How do I treat someone from another country when they move their family into my neighborhood? For that matter, how do I treat a Californian when they move up to Idaho? Am I welcoming of people of all races, genders, orientations, ages, and abilities? Or am I threatened by them? If I am threatened, what is it that threatens me? Do I regard all people as equals, as “one of us?” Or do I see them as somehow unequal — as the “other?”

These are the kinds of questions I feel we should all ask ourselves, whenever we encounter powerful passages from our holy books. How do these words apply to our own behavior, in a world full of conflict, suspicion, and distrust?

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Gratitude List 1542

(1) Just ran 2 1/2 miles on a gorgeous afternoon.   That’s three days in a row I’ve managed to run.    Am now at a pit-stop on my 12 mile bike ride.  Good thing too, since sheltering in place has had a way of making me fat.

(2) I was again gifted with a month’s worth of groceries through a combination of two Winko’s cards that people gave me.  I’m all stocked up now with a variety of foods, and glad the monthly trip is out of the way.

(3) Connected with my daughter this morning, which was positive.   Good that she is in my life, and nice that I’m on terms with her boyfriend now, as well.

(4) Grateful for the “soft opening” of local businesses and, in particular, this pleasant cafe where I have alighted to find a free doppio awaiting me, courtesy of an appreciative regular customer.   Happy to be granted a glimpse of the friendly faces of the many like-minded souls whom I have come to know and love during nearly four years of sojourning in this charming little community.

(5) The fellow who helps me do the piano recordings has agreed to show up with his iPhone every Thursday to help.   They will probably only be audio recordings for a while, but I’m grateful to be back in the groove.   Moreover, I feel my playing has been helped for the break — I’m still loud, but less furious in my passion.   I guarantee you, however, I’ll still be loud.   (Some messages are best heard at higher volumes.)

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.”
   —  Bertrand Russell

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A little bit goes a long, long way. 

 

Rosy

Happy Independence Day, to whomever it may apply.   It applies to me in numerous ways, not the least of which is that I finished  a working script and score to my musical Eden in Babylon on Independence Day, exactly one year ago today.  And now, may I present you with a third version of my song “Rosy.”  This is from last Friday’s open mike.

Andy Pope on the Yamaha at the Open Mike
at the One World Cafe, Friday June 29, 2019.
“Rosy” from In Lies We Trust.
Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Michael Pope.  All Rights Reserved.  

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A little bit goes a long, long way.  

 

(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 4

Here’s the fourth talk in our Talks 2018 series of talks on the Homeless Experience. In this talk, I share my personal story of how I finally escaped twelve years of homelessness and for the past two years have effectively maintained a dignified place of residence in a favorable climate.  

Homeless No More

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Published Again in Street Spirit

I just received this very pleasant email:

Hi Andy,

I published another of your really well-written reflections in the October issue of Street Spirit. I’m sending you the pdf version now, and I’ll send a link to the online edition in a few days when I post it.
 
Thanks so much for your insightful, thoughtful writing.
 
Best,
Terry

and now where
And Now Where?

I’ve uploaded the pdf on this link if you want to check it out.  I’m on p.3, the story entitled “I Remember Who I Am.”

He uses the illustration to the right, a lithograph by Rockwell Kent named “And Now Where?” in conjunction with my piece.  The piece itself is taken almost word for word from The God Who Believes in Me, earlier posted on this site.

The “Author’s Note” is taken from editor’s notes on that entry and also on the one entitled An Incredibly Empty Place.

In the past three months, since I have been fortunate enough to have had some of my short pieces published in Street Spirit, I have come to admire Terry Messman, the publisher, and Sally Hindman, the Berkeley activist and Quaker minister who connected me to this unique opportunity.  It’s interesting that I never knew either of them when I actually still lived in Berkeley.  Maybe I was too busy dealing with the extenuating circumstances described in these articles.  Rarely did I extend myself toward people with whom I might network, as though I had something distinctive to offer, and was interested in making a contribution to the community.

When I moved up here to Northern Idaho, all of that changed.  I told the personnel director at my church that if I had to summarize the difference between my life today and my life back then, I would say that previously the idea around me was that I had some kind of huge problem, and so how can we possibly help Andy solve his problem?  The idea in the here and now, on the other hand, is that Andy has something to offer.  How can we help him to offer it?

I would think anyone in their right mind would prefer the latter of the two scenarios.

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Any and All Contributions are Appreciated.