Minimum Necessary Context

Yesterday, after returning from the picnic in St. Helens, I chatted at some length with a few people about the issue of writing a memoir or a sympathetic biography, with the humorous jokes about how people would be characterized depending on who was writing the account. All joking aside, though, I have never seriously thought to write my own memoir largely on account of the fact that I consider my life far too grim and gloomy over the course of its entire existence to make for an enjoyable account to write. Even if one focused on the more uplifting spiritual aspects of my life, my defiant determination to remain honorable despite everything, even despite the fact that it has been so far spectacularly unrewarded in my life, there is still a lot of context that would have to be explained, context that is embarrassing and painful to read or to reflect on. For this reason, I have not desired to write a memoir that would require me to put my own intense suffering into any kind of context that would require me to relive the horror of my existence over and over again. Should I ever be noteworthy enough to draw the attention of biographers, I would hope to have a sympathetic one who had a stronger stomach for such unpleasant matters.

As someone who writes and often critiques the views and interpretations and works of others whether one is dealing with verses and passages and chapters of the Bible, or books and movies and songs, I have long seen that the way to solve problems best is to expand the contrast. As I write somewhat often, either explicitly [1] or implicitly [2], the way to solve a problem best is often to make it larger. This is because when you add detail and add information, you prevent yourself from being stuck in looking at one word or one phrase or one sentence alone. Assuming that a given writer or artist is relatively consistent in approach or worldview or language, the more context you can put in, and the more seriously you take his (or her) words, the better able you are to solve the difficulties presented by any one particular part of a text. If possible, one can ask questions of the author of the text, but this is seldom done, as most people trust their own skills of interpretation, even if these are definitely lacking at times. Still, our textual understanding is at least increased when we view a larger context, helping us to avoid beclowning ourselves by looking too narrowly.

So, what is the minimum necessary context in a given situation? Although it is admittedly a somewhat subjective judgment, the minimum necessary context is that context which is necessary to understand the most doubtful statement made in a given text. It can usually be better understood afterward in that a mistaken interpretation that attempts to take a given verse or phrase or sentence out of context can be made to look ridiculous and illegitimate by those who better understand appreciate the context. Examples of this abound, as when people attempt to use isolated verses in Mark 7, Acts 10, and Romans 14 to attempt to contradict a biblical law that is still valid [3], none of which are dealing with the issue of clean and unclean meats, all matters that are very plain when one looks at the larger context, up to the level of a chapter or two. In general, so long as we see that a given author is at least trying to wrestle with passages and the overall structure of a given text, we can be sure that they are at least attempting to meet the minimum necessary context. Those who are content to quibble over isolated words and phrases and show no larger awareness of the structure of a text, especially when they are using that prooftext to attack other sections of a text or the integrity of the author of the text, usually do not understand what they are criticizing, and fail to establish the minimum necessary context to be credible interpreters of the text.

There is a balance that is ideal in any form of communication. If we take too wide a view, we may be lost in broad generalities that are not tied enough to specific details, leaving us with vague and specious words that can be argued over inconclusively. Yet if all we have is narrow specific matters with no context, we are left in the same boat of possessing only isolated incidents that can be interpreted many different ways depending on our own worldviews, our own interests, our own biases. It is only when we adopt a view that connects detail to a larger explanatory context to which we can be held accountable for understanding correctly, or not, and where our larger viewpoints are supported by specific details, that we are able to come to an understanding of the texts that we are dealing with, be they poems, personal notes, or solemn texts from scripture. The question for us is, are we willing to put forth the work that is necessary to understand the context that an author is working with, so that we may properly understand and interpret a text, or are we content to willfully misunderstand because we will not take in enough of a text at the same time to understand exactly what is said, or because we will not ask the text or its author the right questions, because we do not desire to be right with them but only convince ourselves of what is already in our own mind? Let our behavior, and the care by which we seek to be fair and just in our dealings with texts and authors, speak whether we communicate our interpretations or remain silent.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Minimum Necessary Context

  1. Pingback: Burden Of Proof | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Shared Context And The Length Of Writings | Edge Induced Cohesion

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