Monday, June 25, 2012

Context, Context, Context

Yesterday at Arlington, we explored the last "episode" in the great narrative arc of the Bible by exploring the Book of Revelation in its historical context and pondering what it has to say to us as we are living out our own chapter in the great story of God and humanity.

You can listen to all nine episodes of the "Living the Story" series on our website, at our channel, or subscribe on iTunes. Below is audio of Sunday's message.

One of the main points we emphasized is that all the books of the Bible were written to people in a specific time and place, so that the original audience could understand what the author was trying to say. If we approach scripture with no knowledge of who the first hearers (not readers, per say, as these were largely pre-literate societies) were, we won't have a clue what the author is trying to say and we'll end up reading some things that were never meant to be taken from the text.

Of course, God can and often does speak through these texts in fresh ways- that's why we call the Bible the "living Word of God" after all- but very often reading an ancient text with no historical and cultural context does more harm than good.

I listened to a sermon today that illustrates this point beautifully. My colleague, Pastor Ed Zeiders of St. Paul's UMC in State College, PA, preached an amazingly pastoral and prophetic message yesterday, in the wake of recent events in their community.

Jerry Sandusky, a former football coach at Penn State and a member of St. Paul's, had been convinced just days before on a long list of charges relating to the intentional and systematic sexual abuse of young boys over many years. This situation has profoundly affected their church and their community, as well as getting the attention of the rest of the world.

The thing is, though, if we didn't know anything about what had happened with Mr. Sandusky and the Penn State football program, this sermon wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to us. Living in the same time as these events makes it easy to know what he's talking about, but people a century or a millennium for now might not know what we know. The absence of this knowledge would put them at a serious disadvantage, and their conclusions might be helpful, or the might very likely do more harm than good.

Take the time to listen to Pastor Ed's message, and bear in mind how you would be hearing this differently if you didn't know what was on everyone's mind that Sunday.

Knowing the context in which this sermon was preached is crucial to understanding what the pastor is trying to say. The same is true for all of us when we approach Holy Scripture. Let's have enough respect for the Bible to do a little homework and find out who these texts were written to. Let's take the time to see what was being proclaimed about God to the original audience, because that helps put us in a place where we are ready to hear what God wants to say to us through this text today.


Bamboo said...

Thanks for your article. I really appreciate your perspective and writing about the amazing sermon we had this Sunday. I just wanted to let you know that our church is actually St. Paul's UMC in "State College" instead of "College Station". It would be nice if you could change that...It's probably not a biggie but just so that you would have everything correct on your blog :)

Unknown said...

Oops! I've made the correction. Thanks for pointing that out, and thanks for reading!