One morning recently, at the crack of dawn, I was walking my dog when I saw my neighbor Sally walk across the street and pick up the newspaper from my neighbor Jane’s driveway, and head back to her house. I thought WHOA! Sally is stealing Jane’s paper! I bet her own paper didn’t get delivered this morning! Interesting and a bit amusing.
But Sally she stopped in her own driveway and picked up her (identical) paper, and I suddenly realized, OH! Jane must be gone for a few days and Sally is picking up her paper so it won’t be obvious she’s away. Sally wasn’t doing something slightly nasty but something very neighborly.
And it made me think how the *context* of an action is completely determinative of its meaning. The very same action, in a different context, means something different and can have, in fact, precisely the opposite moral worth.
Naturally, I started thinking about other actions along these lines. ‘Cause that’s the kind of thing I do when I walk my dog.
What does it mean if someone decides to burn some incense? In the contexts I’m sometimes in, it means that the person wants to be in a relaxed mood, maybe to meditate or do some yoga. In another context – e.g., in some times and places 1800 years ago in the Roman empire – it could mean the person had decided to apostasize from Christianity and was performing a cultic act of worship to the Roman emperor to avoid being imprisoned or executed. Now *that’s* different! So what does burning incense mean? Depends on the context.
Or consider a simple human gesture. What if you see someone with their arm lifted straight up over their head and their index finger pointing up. What does that mean? If the person is a football player who has just scored a touchdown, it means “We’re #1.” If she is at a Christian evangelistic rally singing a powerful hymn at the end of an emotional plea for people to commit themselves to Christ, it means “There’s one way to heaven.” If it’s someone in a small town in Montana not far from a nuclear silo it means, “Look! There’s another one of those damn spy balloons.”
Every day of our lives we often wonder what something means. Maybe we don’t often enough think about how something means. How do things mean what they do? The question applies obviously to written and spoken words –but also to human actions. Any human action means what it does depending on the specific historical and cultural contexts within which they occur.
Later that day – the day of the apparent newspaper theft – I did an interview for my weekly “Misquoting Jesus Podcast.” Normally for the podcast, my (brilliant!) host, Megan Lewis, interviews me on some topic or other connected with the New Testament, early Christianity, or related topics (doing things similar to what I do here on the the blog but in podcast form). Sometimes, though, I’ll interview someone myself, an expert in one thing or another of these. This time I was interviewing my longtime friend Jeffrey Siker, New Testament scholar and emeritus professor at Loyola Marymount University. The topic was “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?”
Jeff has edited two books related to the subject (look him up on Amazon) and has a definite opinion about the matter: It is simply WRONG to use the Bible to condemn homosexuality in the modern world. His main argument: the biblical contexts are so radically different from ours that the ancient injunctions about same-sex sexual relations simply don’t mean today what they meant then.
Jeff, I should say, is a committed Christian, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and still active in the church. He also, for what it’s worth, basically agrees with me on the kinds of things I say, write, and teach about the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the development of early Christianity, and so on. I don’t mean we agree on everything: like any other two scholars on the planet, we have lots of things we disagree on. But we see eye-to-eye on most of the big issues that matter to blog readers: the Gospels have numerous contradictions, they are not always reliable guides to what Jesus really said and did, the book of Acts is often historically inaccurate, Paul did not write many of the books ascribed to him in the NT, early Christianity was crazily diverse and what we think of as orthodoxy is a later development, doctrines like the Virgin Birth were not original to Christian thinking, and so.
Many of you are now asking: then how can he be a committed and active Christian? And the reason you’re asking that is because the fundamentalists have won the argument over what it means to be a Christian. Instead of being the outlandish way-out-there group they used to be, they have now dictated what people in society at large think a Christian is; it must be someone who holds to the complete and literal accuracy of the Bible in its very details, who subscribes to specific doctrines of the church (literal virgin birth, e.g.), who thinks everyone who disagrees is going to hell, and so on.
But Christianity has not always been like that and lots and lots of highly educated Christians – including lots of biblical scholars – don’t accept such views.
Jeff agrees that there are six passages in the Bible that appear to forbid people from have same-sex sexual relations, or that at least are used to that end (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Gen. 19; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9; and 1 Tim. 1:10). But oh boy are those problematic – both individually and as a group. Why? It all has to do with context.
The literary context of each one, the historical context of each, the cultural understanding of same-sex relations behind such prohibitions, and on and on.
I won’t be detailing the problems here (watch the Podcast–it will be posted March 13 on my YouTube channel), but I will say that I find it extremely dismaying how people in our world – I’m thinking specifically of 21st century America just now – have ZERO problem with cherry-picking verses/passages from the Bible that advance their own social, cultural, or political agendas while ignoring verses/passages in the same biblical books or even chapters that are completely contrary to what they think and do. And want others to think and do.
Approaching the Bible this way is not using it as an authority. It is using it to promote one’s own authority. In fact it’s using the Bible in the bad sense (like “using” a person), not listening to it or trying to understand it as a set of books written in a different time and place, addressing contexts / issues different from ours, with presuppositions and assumptions different from ours. I am a big believer in seeing how the Bible might be relevant for modern situations – just as I’m a big believer in seeing how Homer, Plato, Stoic philosophers, or Shakespeare, Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh (my current kick) – can be relevant for our lives in completely different situations.
But in every case a *translation* has to be made. Not just from other languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Elizabethan English) but from other contexts. You can’t just rip words (of the Bible, say) or actions (certain kinds of sexual activities) out of their own historical/cultural context and assume they mean the same thing in your context. The same actions (taking newspapers, burning incense, pointing upward, or have certain kinds of sex) mean different things in different contexts. If you want to understand what it meant in a particular context, it is a big mistake to assume it meant the same thing as it does in your context.
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