Context is Essential

I recently found an accurate quote from CS Lewis on a web page devoted to what is termed “Progressive Christianity”. Any regular reader knows my opinion of the movement is one of well meaning but ultimately misguided people, but that’s another topic.

I’ve seen posts before, of course, but what hit me about this one was how the words had been twisted to suit the meaning of the person using the quote rather than the intended meaning from the author.
The quote was:

If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are wrong all through

Alarmed, I went to my CS Lewis collection – Google – and typed in the quote. There came up before me the entire passage from Mere Christianity:

If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.
When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic – there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.”

Relieved, I calmly read the entire context over again.

Lewis is right, of course, in that there are religions very close to the Truth out there. It’s what makes them so plausible. I was told by a convicted con-man once that the best lies are 90% truth. Any more lie and it becomes too far-fetched. Any more and it’s too easy to spot the lie.

The most important thing we can do as Christians is to be mindful of the context of the Bible and the people who wrote it. John never imagined television. But could it be that the Second Coming will be televised? Revelation 1:7 – out of context – suggests it. “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him”. Of course, Revelation isn’t saying CNN will be there to capture the Rapture. It simply implies that all will see Him – perhaps “see” would be better interpreted as “recognise”? I’m not a Greek scholar and I won’t pretend to be. I know a few words here and there, but not the one translated as “see” here. But in the context of the whole passage, recognising Jesus for who He was and is makes as much, if not more sense than literally seeing.

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself“; “Go and do likewise“; “What you do, do quickly”. The three quotes out of context could build a suicide theology. Perhaps a comic twist, but it makes the point. The words of Jesus must be understood in the context of His entire ministry. Similarly, Paul’s letters and the rest of the entire Bible must be taken in the context of the time and place.

But we must also look and understand them within today’s context.

Covering her hair was the modesty of a woman in 1st Century Jerusalem. The women who showed their hair were usually prostitutes, so what Paul actually means when he writes that women should keep their hair or head covered was to not dress like a hooker – a very different statement. Similarly, whilst commanding women to obey their husbands he says husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church. In that context, loving our wives as sacrificially as Jesus loves us is a very difficult challenge. To make every action we undertake a selfless act to help grow and nurture our spouse’s very existence is very different from being a dominating and overwhelming taskmaster to her. The writing is to encourage mutual respect. Paul emphasises the roles of men and women as different, but of equal value. Each is a reflection of God, and taken in the context of the letters this should be obvious.

Context is critical to everything we say and do. Politicians claim their words are taken out of context on a regular basis. Sometimes they are, and sometimes not. I’m sure I take words out of context despite trying not to. It’s almost impossible to get everything in the context it was originally intended to be understood in. Sometimes a joke is only funny at the specific moment it’s told. Recounting the story later fails to capture the essence of the moment.

I’ll keep trying to see the whole context of Scripture. Parables, history, poetry and dialogue all interwoven with the time they were transcribed and the understanding of the writers make it hard, but we owe it to them and ourselves to see the whole Truth in the words. I love the Amplified translation of the Bible because for words with multiple meanings it gives a deeper understanding of the English words. The Greek word for romantic love, “eros”, bears no relationship to that for brotherly love, “philio”, communal love,”storge”, or Godly love, agape. But all are translated as “love” in English.

There may be examples where this is reversed and English words have multiple understandings to foreign tongues.

So we should all keep looking for context and subtleties in the Bible and anything else we quote to bolster our argument so we tell 100% of the story.

Surely striving for that is what Jesus would have us do?

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