Romans 1 Part 1: If u aint got context u aint got nothin’

A post by Neil Hart on homosexuality, LGBT, lesbian and gay stuff and the Lutheran Church of Australia.

Hey reader! Are you still there? I’ve had a crappy couple of weeks. Blankets pulled up over my head and all that….and thats been a REAL problem….the blankets i mean….Do you know how HOT it has been under there?…Im gradually learning that there are other ways to deal with depression. Next time im gonna use just the sheet. :)

Anyway…Ive been wanting to talk a little more about the specific Homosexuality text…the BIGGY…from Romans 1. But, I realise that its impossible to launch into any serious exegesis or interpretation of Bible passages without some common ground of understanding. So, as an intro to the whole Romans homosexuality thing, and if you will bear with me, I’m going to try to establish some rules about meaning that we can all agree on.  Please, if you disagree with what I have to say, let me know, coz I think that these rules are critical and any discussion without them is useless.

Exegesis 101: Context is everything. Not languages, not word studies but context.

If you havent got a context then you haven’t got communication.

One of the critical factors in the present American presidential race is the impact of Citizens United. What comes to mind for you, reader, when you hear those words, Citizens United? A group of ordinary people, gathering together? A popular people’s movement? A protest movement like that seen in American colleges during the Vietnam war? Well, sorry, but all of those mind pictures are completely wrong.

Citizens United refers to a Supreme Court ruling that corporations have the same right to free speech as ordinary citizens and that they have the right to invest unlimited amounts of money in exercising that free speech. The effects of this has been that the US presidential race has effectively been hijacked by corporations who are able to pour millions of dollars into advertising campaigns in support of their preferred candidates. The term “Citizen’s United” has come to represent the power of corporations over and against the powerlessness of ordinary people. The term has come to mean almost the opposite of what the combination of words “citizen” and “united” would seem to suggest.

To understand the real meaning in any form of communication, you need to have the correct context. Another example…

Mary opens a letter she has just received. The opening sentence reads,

“Mary, we are very concerned about what has been happening to your family”.

That sentence holds very little meaning to you, reader until i give some context. The next sentence reads…

“As your local member for The Australian Liberal Party I know how much the cost of living is effecting you in the weekly struggle to make ends meet.”.

You now have a context in which to place the opening sentence. The picture in your mind, painted by the words, is coming a little more into focus.

However, what if the second sentence had read…

” Your mother and I are really worried about the way Barry has been treating you.”,

Now your mind holds a very different picture.

Just consider what “context” means in this situation. Context certainly includes the words and extra sentences around the section under consideration but there is something much more basic than the words or sentences. That “something” is your local knowledge, your personal experiences, all of the things that were already in your mind before we started talking about our concern for Mary and Barry.

The minute you read “…member of the Australian Liberal Party…” you immediately knew that the writer had very little concern for the individual circumstances faced by this family. You knew that this was advertising in the form of a circular letter and you now treat the rest of the letter in that way. The words didn’t tell you any of that. Your pre-existing knowledge and experience of advertising, political junk mail and circular letters shaped the meaning that you received when you read those sentences.

Consider the second scenario. “Your mother and I are very concerned about the way Barry has been treating you”. What picture springs to mind? Physical abuse? Financial abuse? Verbal abuse? Perhaps it is no abuse at all? Perhaps Barry is in depression and is lying on the couch all day and leaving all of the household responsibilities to Mary. Perhaps there is nothing to be concerned about at all. Perhaps this letter comes from interfering parents who wont cut the apron strings and who refuse to accept the fact that Mary and Barry are happily married.

Now, reader, I have put all sorts of possibilities into your mind, but, when you first read about the parents’ concern for how Mary is being treated by Barry, a picture began to form in your mind. What was that picture? Why did it start to form? Probably, your own life experiences will have had a lot to do with forming the picture and the subsequent meaning you received from the sentences. Chances are, if you have personal experience of , say, verbal and financial abuse, that is the picture that would have formed. If you have experience of interfering parents, probably those experiences will have played a large part in your interpretation of the sentences.

Meaning comes to us through context, not through words alone. Context does has something to do with the sentences we read. The more sentences we read, the better chance we have of understanding the meaning of the letter. But context has much more to do with our own preconceptions and experiences. Context has to do with the pictures that form in our minds as we start to read. Those pictures have much more to do with our own life experiences than the words on the page.

This then is the great challenge in reading and understanding the Bible. The problem we have when we open up the Bible, before we even read one word or sentence, is that our minds are already filled with stuff that will effect what we read.

Let me say that again.

The problem we have when we open up the Bible, before we even read one word or sentence, is that our minds are already filled with stuff that will effect what we read.

Our own personal experiences will effect the meaning of the words and the sentences that we read. And since those images come from our 21st century expereinces we need to ask ourselves… how close is our world, our experiences,  to the world in Corinth or Rome in the first century CE. How accurate are the images that come into our mind when you read Paul’s words about relationships, households, sex, hair length, shameful and unnatural practices or laws and law courts.

The images that will come to mind will be images from our own experiences or our own imagination which is based on our experiences. Those images, those experience will, more often that not, be radically different from the experiences of the people that Paul was writing to. If we don’t recognise this then we run a great risk of completely missing the meaning that his words and sentences were meant to convey.

The very best way to read  the Bible involves 2 basic steps that help to give us the best context possible.

Firstly, we should never read small sections of the Bible and expect to get accurate meaning. We should always try to read as much of a letter or gospel or book as possible so that we can understand what is written within the broader argument.

Secondly, and in my opinion more importantly, we need to fill our minds with as much information about the ancient world of the first century Rome, Corinth, Ephesus etc. as we can.

Did you get that?  your eyes seemed to be glazing over there…

We need to fill our minds with as much information about the ancient world of the first century Rome, Corinth, Ephesus etc. as we can. 

The more information we can get the more accurate the pictures that we will inject into the words we read and the better chance we have of hearing the meaning that Paul meant us to hear.

Does this statue mean anything to you? Every person in ancient Rome, Corinth and the other places visited by Paul would have recognised her immediately. If you dont know who she is, you certainly haven’t got the right context for Paul’s letter to the Romans and his discussion in chapter 1.

This nasty little tool adds some more to the picture. Do you know what it is? What has this to do with Romans 1 and homosexuality? Ahhhh… context dear reader..context!

More about context soon. Stay tuned…

In the mean time, check out my earlier post on breasts. Its all about context.

Breasts. Can the same bible text mean completely different things at different times and different places?