Context can Change Everything
I remember the first time I was blindsided by the idea of reconsideration. I was a senior in high school, and my AP English teacher, Mr. Lambert, gave us an exam that required us to react to a piece of art…Mr. Lambert was the best teacher I’d ever had, so when he presented the idea, most of us in the class bought in immediately…The piece of art in question was Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, which, if I could, I would include here so you could experience a similar exercise… It’s dotted with the presence of crows, obviously; thus the name.
…Anyway, our midterm was this: write five hundred or so words on what feelings this picture provoked. It seemed simple enough.
I dutifully interpreted away and consulted my emotions in order to provide a high-minded essay about something I wasn’t really that invested in. I know you and I don’t know each other, but I’m not someone who has a ton of emotional or intellectual proximity to crows or wheat fields. After we turned in our pages, Mr. Lambert gave us a new assignment. It was the same request as before (write what emotions and feelings the Wheatfield with Crows piece evoked), but he added context that we hadn’t considered the first time around: the reality that this picture was the last thing Van Gogh painted before committing suicide. I remember absorbing this information and being absolutely electrified, for several reasons.
… Similarly, with Wheatfield with Crows, not knowing about its context in Van Gogh’s life made it just a picture to me, no different from The Starry Night or a comic from The Far Side; it was just a collection of line squiggles and artistic flourishes designed to evoke something untethered from real life. But once Mr. Lambert made me aware that this picture was incredibly tethered to real life, how could that context not suddenly be the most important thing about the picture? Instead of seeing just line squiggles and artistic flourishes, you could make the case that this picture was a cry for help, a suicide note, both, or neither. But regardless of where you land, clearly this contextualization demands a reconsideration of the initial assumption.
Location, Location, Location
As in buying real estate, three principles are crucial to understanding a person’s words: location, location, and location. We cannot make sense of what someone says unless we understand the context in which his or her words were uttered.
To use the real estate comparison, Jesus—in his speaking—did not just move into an empty part of town and begin to build all the houses himself. He moved into a neighborhood already built up: in fact, one that had been occupied for many centuries by the same people—his people, the Jews.
A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.
D. A. Carson
The Bible Needs to be Read in Context
With the exception of some of the Proverbs, the Bible does not contain isolated sayings. I should be wary about dipping into it at random and extracting individual verses without any regard for their context. I am almost bound to misunderstand the Bible if I read it in that way. Each verse needs to be understood in the context of the chapter in which it appears, and each chapter in the light of the book as a whole. And there is a wider context we must consider as well: the whole Bible.
My friend Mike Metzger of the Clapham Institute once used the following example to demonstrate how important frames are if we are to make sense of reality’s puzzle. This may seem like a head scratcher, but bear with me—there’s a definite point to this. As you read the next paragraph ask yourself: Is this comprehensible or meaningless?
A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.
Without any image or context to frame the sentences, this paragraph is simply nonsensical. There may be a few things here and there that hold at least a little meaning for you: perhaps you like the seashore or perhaps you’ve used a rock to anchor something. But, overall, without the frame, not only do we get lost but we also get quite frustrated, and we eventually give up trying to understand what’s being said.
Christianity is the same way. Rarely in our “Christian upbringings” is Christianity properly framed for us. There may be a few things that hold some meaning for us, but overall without the proper frame we get lost and frustrated amidst what appear to be “meaningless” dogmas and doctrines, and eventually we’re tempted to give up on it, especially, it seems, when it comes to the teachings on sexual matters. But maybe Christian teaching—whether it be on sex, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Mary, heaven and hell, or any other issue—hasn’t made much sense to us because we haven’t been given the right frame. Kite. Now read that “meaningless” paragraph again.
Parachuting Into Unknown Territory
I am told that when SAS soldiers parachute into unknown territory they are trained to pause before moving. They must first get their bearings and only then set out for their destination. That is wise advice for us too as we read the Bible.
You are who you Surround Yourself with
Context matters. According to the Terman Study, which followed one thousand study participants from childhood until their death, the people we surround ourselves with are who we become. We see those around us slacking off, we become less motivated. When we see people performing selfless acts, we become selfless. Who you surround yourself with, especially at an early age is likely to make a significant impact on the person you ultimately become.
Stuart R Strachan Jr.
See also Illustrations on History
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on context. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!