Sunday, July 06, 2008

Text and Context


Text versus Context or Text plus Context?©

The Christ in our Context by McGill theologian Douglas John Hall is speaking to me rather directly—and I might add, disturbingly—about the theology that guides—or doesn’t guide but ought to—our lives in the Western World today—pardon the plethora of ellipses. I’ve read only part of it so far, in preparation for a discussion group session a week from now. It’s become my habit to apply little, semi-transparent sticky tabs to the pages rather than underlining or highlighting passages that strike me particularly, and it’s becoming apparent that I’ll run out of these before I finish the book.

Today, I’m struck by the concept of text vs context discussed around page 57. The idea is that we Christians possess a text; this text includes the Bible, our traditional communal understandings of God and Christ, writings of our scholars, cultural habits, etc. That is to say, the authorities we refer to when we preach, teach or debate issues, or even when we privately decide what is and what is not ethical in our behaviour.

We also live in a context, namely the world as we find it, so different in so many ways from the world in which our texts generally came into being. I think, for instance, of the matter of baptism and how the text for my own Mennonite denomination was “written” in a time when rebaptism as adults was a powerful political choice in that it defied church/state authority over the citizenry. In our context, baptism may not have lost any of its significance, but it is no longer a political statement as it was. The question than becomes: is the Mennonite text on baptism an anachronism, and does it govern our thinking to the point where we are blind to contextual clues about what baptism means today? How would John the Baptist or Jesus baptize people coming to the faith today, as opposed to the time of the Reformation, or the Jordan River episodes in the gospels?

Point is, we Western Christians have struggled with the text/context thing, and have often failed to witness properly to the world in which we live because we put text over and above context, and have preached a gospel to the world that their circumstances make it impossible to embrace. The missionaries that worked among Canada’s aboriginals, for instance, preached a text, with some exceptions, of course, and tried to alter the context to fit it. Seeing that that wasn’t working, the church and the country reverted to a forced assimilation policy and the residential school system was born. We have just learned again how brutal applying text to the backsides of aboriginal children became in the end.

Recently, our church had a visitor from a Mennonite Church in Colombia. The contrast of their meager resources, their political constraints, their context when compared to ours made me squirm. I learned more about context from Amanda’s visit than I will from the book, probably, and the members of our congregation who visited this group in Colombia did even better in this. Without context, text can turn into a hollow reed, sometimes even a sword—but that’s a whole other subject.

I look forward to the rest of the book.

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