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Published Date: November 9, 2022

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What You Risk by Reading a Text Without Context

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Top 5 Winner!

Research shows that, contrary to common perception, online discussions can and do subtly influence people’s opinions. So I occasionally engage in debate with complementarians on Facebook. I remember one discussion where my interlocutor was outraged at the way I kept talking about first-century Greco-Judaean cultural norms, Greek word usage, contemporary events in Ephesus . . . you know, all the relevant information when it comes to understanding Paul’s epistles. “You just can’t over-contextualize this stuff!” she reprimanded me.

And I thought, “Over-contextualize? Is that a thing?”

I thought back to all my university liberal arts classes, and high school before that. None of my teachers ever seemed concerned that we might somehow learn too much about the context of a text. In fact, many American readers (and possibly internationals) will probably recognize the SOAPSTone exercise I was often required to go through. In both history and literature classes, we would need to identify the Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, and Tone of any text as a simple matter of course before embarking on any other sort of analysis. To me now, the idea that we shouldn’t do the same for Paul seems strange. But I, too, was once uncomfortable subjecting the Bible to this level of scrutiny. How then could I respond to this woman?

“Let me give you an example of the dangers of under-contextualizing,” I replied.

When We Don’t Have Enough Context

My mother worked for several years as an English professor teaching freshman rhetoric and composition at the University of Arizona. One of the texts she liked to teach was Alice Walker’s “The Flowers.” In this short story, a little girl named Myop wanders into the woods one day to gather wildflowers, only to encounter a human skeleton with the rotting remains of a noose around his neck. The end reads, “Myop laid down her flowers. And the summer was over.”

My mother would instruct her students to read the text without any other information. Then she would ask them, “What is this story about?” And almost invariably, year after year, her students would reply that it was obviously a story about suicide; a little girl’s childhood innocence is shattered when she discovers the body of a man who had hanged himself in the woods. On the face of it, the students’ interpretation makes sense! Death by hanging is an iconic form of suicide. Discovering the reality of suicide would certainly destroy childhood innocence. And tragically, suicide is a leading cause of death among university students in the United States, so a certain percentage of the class probably has some personal experience with it.

There’s just one problem: “The Flowers” is not a story about suicide. It’s about murder.

Context Shines a Light on a Text’s Meaning

Alice Walker, for those who are unfamiliar with the name, is the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (in 1983). She grew up in rural Georgia, where her parents were sharecroppers. “The Flowers” is set in a similar locale, and it is full of clues to indicate this: mention of Myop’s family’s “sharecropper cabin,” the kinds of crops they grew, the little girl’s “dark brown hand.” To pick up on these clues, however, the reader has to have a certain amount of background knowledge. They must know where you could expect to find “corn and cotton, peanuts and squash” being cultivated. They must know about the sharecropping system in the American South. They must know the role that African-Americans played in this system. And to put together the rest of the pieces, they must know about the United States’s long, sordid history of racism and hate crimes, and the reality, not of suicide, but of lynching as a tool of terrorism and oppression against the South’s Black population. Myop’s skeleton is not that of a man who had killed himself in a fit of despair, but of a man who was murdered for the color of his skin.

To those readers who are familiar with all this history, as well as with Alice Walker’s identity and the theme of her other writings, the point of “The Flowers” seems so obvious that it hardly needs to be spelled out. But this understanding requires context. Quite a lot of it, actually. My mother’s mostly white, mostly middle-class students in the early twenty-first century were already so divorced from that context that they completely failed to recognize the point of Walker’s story.

You have to wonder, then, what readers 2,000 years from now will make of it.

How Much Does a Text’s Original Meaning Matter?

Of course, you might be tempted to ask, “So what? What’s the harm if, now or in two millennia, readers reinterpret it as a story about suicide?” The first and most obvious answer is that the power of the text would be lost. No one is likely to argue, now or ever, that we should not work and hope for a world where little children never have to stumble across the tragic reality of suicide. This is not controversial.

Walker’s story exists precisely because a society once existed where making such a statement about lynching was controversial indeed. Someone actually had to create a story to illustrate the impact of hate crimes and targeted murder on her community and the children in it—because otherwise, privileged, white, middle-class people like myself might be allowed to go about their existence in blissful ignorance of their neighbors’ suffering. Worse, readers like myself might consciously or unconsciously take part in perpetuating that suffering. We can only hope that in the future, enough context to Walker’s writing will survive that readers will be able to grasp this story’s powerful message about hate crimes and violence, and be motivated to see it and take action against it in their own societies.

Applying All of This to Paul’s Writing

But we don’t just risk losing the power of the text when we lose its context. When we read Paul today, but refuse to examine the context of his writing, and instead use his words to promote patriarchy and the systematic suppression of women, it’s the equivalent of future readers of Alice Walker using her writing to promote racial segregation and violence. We are not just missing the point; we are using the text to promote the very opposite of what the writer intended—doing harm to the people the writer wanted to protect, and thereby doing violence both to the writer and the God they served.

I am not suggesting that we should elevate Alice Walker to the level of biblical canon! But today, there are a lot of popular catchphrases about the Bible that obscure the fact that it is fundamentally a text. And for every text there is a context, as much for Peter and Paul as for Alice Walker.

In my Facebook debates I encounter many complementarians who claim the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible” without having any real understanding of what those doctrines mean. They say it’s “God’s love letter to humanity,” as if that means it’s a letter written to you and me as individuals today. They point out the myriad ways in which the Bible is unique, unlike any other book, while skipping over the fact that it is still a book. (An unequaled, God-breathed book, but a book nevertheless.) They end by telling people like me that we’re “over-contextualizing.” And by doing this, they can make the Bible say whatever they want. They can even forge it into a weapon to harm their sisters and brothers made in the image of God.

My interlocutor wasn’t happy with my argument, but she did have trouble coming up with a response. “Okay, okay, I get it,” was how I remember her concession. But even if she didn’t seem receptive, I pray that my point will stick in her mind, and the mind of anyone else reading. I pray it will come back to her when she opens her Bible, when her pastor attempts to use a proof-text to dismiss her personhood, or when she watches the evening news. I pray that, even if she is simply motivated to prove me wrong, she will seek out more information about Paul’s context. And that one day she too will come to recognize her full value in God’s kingdom.

Photo by Etty Fidele and Sora Sagano on Unsplash.

Related Reading

Ancient History? Cultural-Historical Context Helps Us See That Women and Men Are Equal
The Gospel According to Zeffirelli
Context and Words Matter: Reexamining 1 Corinthians 14