Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Biblical Context

Today's post is also the blurb from our parish newsletter, The Church Mouse. To read the whole newsletter, click here.

At lunch yesterday I sat with someone whom I had not seen since I returned from Africa. “Jambo!” she exclaimed joyfully and boldly. “What?” I asked, having failed to process what she was saying. She repeated her exuberant greeting. This time, I paused, certain that I had heard her correctly but still confused as to what she was saying. Turning to her neighbor, she said, “He doesn’t speak Swahili.” “Oh,” I said, finally understanding what she meant. “Yes, hello to you, too, and, no, I don’t speak Swahili.”

Context is everything. Although my time in Kenya is still close to the surface of my mind, I do not walk into every room prepared to be greeted in Swahili. Even though people still ask me about my trip and even though I used the word “jambo” dozens of times while I was there, clearly I am caught off-guard when my familiar context bumps into one I am not ready for. In my mind, Swahili belongs in Kenya, and hearing it in Decatur sounds as out of place as “Roll Tide!” sounds in Limuru.

One thing I learned during my trip to Africa is that context is everything. Contexts are like permeable bubbles that we carry around with us everywhere we go. My bubble is filled with the things that define me. Some of them are fairly generic—American, Christian, husband, parent, college graduate, etc.—and some of them are very specific—Alabamian, Episcopal priest, eternally disappointed Cubs fan, etc.. When we meet and spend any considerable amount of time together, we share perspectives from our own context, and we hear others speaking from theirs. If our contexts are relatively similar, we are able to speak with one another seamlessly, but, if we come from totally different perspectives, we may need a cultural translation in order to make sense to one another.

I spent four days in Kenya talking with Christians from North America and Africa about human sexuality. Each of us tried to speak only for ourselves, acknowledging for the group how these issues related to our own experience of faith. As such, this was not an opportunity for debate but for mutual exploration. Even though almost all of us were Anglicans, we heard words like “family” and “marriage” and “homosexuality” and “faith” and “gospel” in very different ways. Halfway through the conference, having listened to theologians and church leaders from several different countries, I realized something: my context was closer to that of many of the African participants than that of the North Americans.

During a session in which the larger group split up by region, one of my American colleagues remarked that he had been “searching for Anglicanism” throughout the conference. He expressed frustration and bewilderment that we had focused exclusively on scripture and not brought the other legs of Hooker’s three-legged stool—tradition and reason—into the conversation. Silently, my internal voice screamed out, “Not every Anglican thinks that way!” What he had not realized is that even within the shared history and heritage of the Anglican Communion our experience of Anglicanism differs widely. And what I had not realized was how emotionally connected I am to the way we talk about the bible.

I come from a place where scripture is king. That is my context. Although the other warrants of tradition and reason are important, we lead with the bible. I am reminded that there is a reason we call the place in which we live the “Bible Belt!” Conversations with other Christians in our community must start (and usually end) with scripture. That is not true of other Episcopalians in North America. Even though I would guess that almost every participant in the conference would identify himself or herself as “progressive” or “moderate” and would agree on many of the issues we discussed, the way in which we carried out that discussion and the ways in which we used the bible to express our beliefs varied widely. That is because we come from different contexts, and the real discovery for me during the trip was that those contexts are not always contiguous with continental boundaries.


How do you read the bible? What role does scripture play in your faith? What role does it play in your daily life? Each of us is shaped by the influences around us—family, friends, politics, community, experience, etc.. All of those things work together to give us a context, and that context affects how we read the bible. Yes, we read the same words on the page, but what they say to us can be wildly different. As you read the bible or hear scripture read in church, what is the word of God saying to you? How are you hearing it? What does that say about scripture, and what does that say about you?

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