Frequently in life, we find that in order to understand something properly we must understand it in its context. The gap between the importance of this and the lack of frequency in which we do this is quite remarkable. There are often many layers of context that must be properly understood if we are interested in understanding something or someone, and there are plenty of people who have an active interest in eliminating this context in order to twist the perception of others. In order to prevent this, we must be vigilant about seeking context so that we may be less easily manipulated by those who twist and distort communications to push a harmful agenda. As someone who sees this sort of problem happen regularly, it is worthwhile to include a couple of examples of context in order to illustrate the point, although many more could be added.
Earlier this week there was a bit of a kerfuffle when a note conservative figure made a comment about the phenomenon of the working poor. When the entire segment was taken into account, it was obvious that the person was saying that there was a straightforward way for people to avoid having to work multiple minimum wage jobs that advised some rather obvious things like not having kids out of marriage, finishing high school, and the like. Predictably and lamentably, this nuanced but rather straightforward discussion of how it is that very few people who have marketable skills and education and a good work ethic end up working for minimum wage for very long ended up being twisted into a “let them eat cake” sort of moment that provided fodder for the class envy of a great many leftists. One of the ways to avoid contemporary outrage culture is, instead of immediately piling on people who are being ridiculed in social media is to simply seek the context of what was supposedly said and to recognize that the person being made fun of was saying obvious but sometimes unpopular or unpalatable truths, or something anodyne that was taken out of context to inflame tensions and hostility.
Understanding context can not only help us avoid the temptations of being a mindless internet troll, but it can also help us to build empathy for others and to understand their sensitivities. Continuing our theme of contemporary political brouhahas, two Congresswomen were recently denied entry into Israel. Now, normally, most of us expect to be able to peacefully travel wherever we want to go. If we want to fly to Western Sahara or Somaliland and poke around in such places, we expect to be able to do so with a certain amount of safety and freedom. Nevertheless, regimes tend to be a bit hostile when someone wishes to travel into their country who is doing so for political purposes of a dark and unpleasant kind. The small country of Nauru, for example, charges journalists a very high price for entry ($500, about ten times its normal visa cost), largely due to the treatment the island has received from journalists grousing about its deals with Australia concerning the housing of illegal immigrants. And the two Congresswomen were hardly innocents, seeking to travel to do some political grandstanding in support of an independent Palestine on behalf of an organization that is relentlessly hostile to Israel in particular and Jews in general. Should Israel be obligated to permit anti-Semitic political grandstanding? No. Are there countries that would probably not appreciate my own presence as a sharp-eyed and sharp-fingered blogger. Probably.
Quite frequently I get questions about the meaning of various biblical scriptures, and these questions often prompt blog entries in reply, to the extent that I have several series of blogs that relate to such questions. And frequently when one gets a question about what a particular verse means the most obvious solution is to look at that verse in its immediate context, get a sense for what the writer is talking about, and then examine the possibilities for its meaning and significance by looking at the whole biblical context in light of one’s knowledge about the specific meanings of words in their original language as well as the context of the writer’s time and audience. It should be noted that knowing this context does not make something less relevant for today. When we read biblical law, for example, it is not acceptable practice to argue that such laws are obsolete merely because we wish to break them. On the contrary, such laws remain a challenge to our own decadence and moral corruption and our own continuing rebellion against God’s ways. They point us in the direction of what godliness looks like in practical living, and to the ways we will be led to act if God’s spirit is indeed working with us. And so often it is necessary to understand this context lest our antinomian tendencies get the best of our attempts to properly understand, interpret, and apply scripture. Sometimes the layer of context that is necessary to understand is our place as being judged by and subject to the scriptures rather than being the judges of scripture.
And all of this ought to help us better understand the sorts of context that help us to live better and wiser. For one, we need to be aware of the context of what is quoted to us, because frequently an examination of that context will allow us to better understand what is said and react to it a lot less negatively than we otherwise would. Additionally, understanding the context of why people behave the way they do–including an understanding of personal or collective history–can make one more understanding about how certain things are interpreted. Finally, it is of vital importance that we remember where we stand. It is easy in our contemporary society to see ourselves as self-appointed judges of corrupt elites and corrupt authorities and all kind of wrong-headed people we see around us, especially online. It is hard to remember that we will stand at the bar and have to answer for every idle word we have ever uttered by any means–and a lot of us (myself definitely included) will have a fair amount to answer for. Let us not forget such necessary contexts, so that we may find ourselves restrained from evil thereby.