Context

So I read a blog post comparing the violence in the Bible to the violence in the Quran.  The author counted up the number of verses endorsing violence in each book, concluding that the Bible had more violent verses, but as a percentage of its content the Quran had more.  If that was some kind of contest, I’m not sure who won.

These days I see lots of people condemning religions as inherently violent, oppressive, manipulative, anti-intellectual, and worse.  Sometimes those pronouncing judgment are condemning all religions.  Sometimes it comes from religious people condemning all religions except their own.

Critical examination of religion is a good thing, it seems to me.  We should constantly examine and critique all institutions, especially when they have such immense sociological influence.

But as someone once said, “Text without context is pretext for a proof text.” Counting up verses as if the relative merit of religions can be determined by arithmetic is foolishness. The texts that are sacred to religious people are part of a much vaster context, which includes not only culture and history, but also reason, experience and tradition. Critical studies of the texts are valuable as such.  But ultimate judgments on them (and the religions to which they are attached) should take into account their total contexts and, most importantly, the lives of those who live within those contexts–both as individuals, and as a whole.  Let those lives speak, and hear what they say charitably.

That requires a lot more effort than reducing it down to something as simple as finding a few sentences in a sacred text that seem to confirm a pre-existing bias–then pronouncing judgment.  And it can’t be done with an adding machine.

 

 

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26 comments on “Context

  1. Joanna says:

    Once more I think we are in step with each other. I was horrified to read today, when someone was highlighting the burning of churches in Niger, that if it had been the Koran the response would have been different. Does this make what happened any worse? No! Does it justify retaliation of a similar kind? No! What should our response be? Not with defining “the other” that is for sure. Not by separating ourselves from “the other.” Reaching out to men and women of peace is so very necessary. So thanks for your own thoughts on this

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    • Bill says:

      We can’t live in isolation from other cultures any more. It appears there was a time in human history when fearing other tribes was an important survival trait. But now we’ve entered a time, much to our credit and benefit, when that is harmful rather than helpful. I think the great majority of people know that, even if we still carry vestiges of our tribal past. Despite the horrific violence that we read about nearly every day, there is less violence in the world today than there has ever been. Still, our growing pains can be very painful.

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  2. shoreacres says:

    “Let’s count verses and see who’s worse” is akin in some rather amusing ways to “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” Such discussions can tend in several directions, but one result surely is that they allow disengagement from the real world, where real evil does exist, and has to be confronted.

    I’ve been thinking more and more often about Martin Luther King’s astute observation: “”If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Ghandi and non-violence. But if your enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.” (It’s worth noting that the reference to Hitler wasn’t a rhetorical flourish on Bonhoeffer’s part.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That’s a chilling and disturbing quote that I’d never heard before. It is all over the web (offered up in support of things like the invasion of Iraq), but it’s not legitimate. King never said or wrote it.

      In any event, I suspect if asked how to treat an enemy, the person King would have quoted would be neither Gandhi nor Bonhoeffer. 🙂

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      • shoreacres says:

        Really? I’ve found that quotation in so many places that I’d assume would have it right, I’m surprised.

        I’m going to send it right over to the esteemed Quote Investigator, and see if he’ll take it on. If anyone can run the thing to ground, he can.

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      • Bill says:

        Take at look at Stephen Haynes’ chapter in Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought edited by Willis Jenkins (p. 30). He says the quote is either misattributed or fabricated. It’s discredited elsewhere on various websites, but this book is the most credible source I saw. On the other hand, of all the references to it I saw, not one identified an underlying source. Let me know if you find anything to the contrary. If the quote is real (which seems highly unlikely), it’s a perfect example of text crying out for a context.

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  3. Jeff says:

    “…confirm a pre-existing bias–then pronouncing judgment.” Say nothing more – this is so true, in so many areas of life, that it is all anyone needs to read and reflect upon. The Internet has worsened confirmation bias enormously.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Yes, as has partisan media. You’re probably aware of the study that shows that when confronted with facts that disprove a bias (particularly a political bias), not only do people not change their beliefs, but they tend to become more firmly entrenched in them. That’s particularly disturbing I think.

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  4. Bill, my goodness, this is deep for this early in the morning. I had to read it over a couple times before writing a comment. If a discussion wants to go logical and count the number of violent passages in the Bible and Quarn then lets count the number of passages that refer to love or sacrifice in a non violent way that encourages others as well. Just to take one slice out of scriptures to compare is not a valid comparison and is flawed thinking. My spiritual life is more about having a relationship with the person that inspired the authors of the Bible then just to follow what I would think are the rules of a spiritual life. Each of us has to choose which spiritual path to follow or not to follow. Personally, I chose to follow the path of a God that sent His son to save me and be involved with my life every day. For me it’s not about religion, denomination, or church buildings. It’s about having a spiritual relationship with a God that’s about love and forgiveness.

    Have a great spiritual day.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Sorry Dave. We’ll be resuming our regularly-scheduled programming tomorrow. 🙂

      I just read an article about a book someone wrote about a child dying, going to heaven and coming back again. It sold millions of copies and made the author, the agent and the publisher a ton of money. Now it’s been discovered that it was fabricated and the book has been pulled from stores. In the comments to the article someone wrote something like, “What do you expect? Christians are all either hucksters or rubes”. That comment had more “likes” than any other. The same thing happens with other religions of course, and often the people doing it to other religions are the same ones who would object if it they were caricatured and stereotyped that way. It drives me nuts. But I should probably just stick to posting about baby goats. 🙂

      I think the best way to prevent foolish mischaracterizations of religions (or races, ethnic groups, political preferences, etc.) is to get to know people. We’re not nearly as likely to make insulting and uninformed blanket statements about groups of people if those groups include some of our friends.

      So for example, I don’t think that anyone who knows you personally, and has seen your heart in action, would make a ridiculous statement like the one I mentioned. That’s what I meant about letting their lives speak, and hearing what they say charitably.

      Thanks for yet another excellent comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. jubilare says:

    People like to build straw-men… it’s easier than facing anything real. Ignoring context, taking part of a story and pretending as if it is the whole is nothing knew. It’s still annoying to see, though. I know a lot of people who don’t like apologetics, or they think that apologetics are intended to convert and point out how ineffective they are. But it seems to me that the purpose of apologetics is, or at least should be, to burn straw-men… to say, as you are saying, “that isn’t the whole story, see, here are the flaws in your argument.” 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      You make a great point. I don’t much care for apologetics, but I’ve never thought of it as the practice of burning straw-men. I do like burning straw-men. So maybe I ought to reconsider my opinion of apologetics.

      Often it seems that people who are devoted to a text are afraid to hear about context, as if it is some kind of threat. But in fact context enriches text. I think what they’re afraid of (and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it too) is losing an interpretation they’ve come to treasure. Some might call that idolatry. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • jubilare says:

        “But in fact context enriches text.” I agree, and I find that a lot of people believe this, too. Doubtless a lot of people don’t, but… I guess I am humbled by finding more humility around me than I expect, and humility is often manifested in curiosity and a willingness to learn.

        “I think what they’re afraid of (and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it too) is losing an interpretation they’ve come to treasure. Some might call that idolatry. :)”

        Oh, aye. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that, too… there are things I would find very hard to lay down, even if I found good reason too. Idolatry is an appropriate word for that.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. bobraxton says:

    from the Wiki:
    Eisegesis (/ˌaɪsəˈdʒiːsəs/; from the Greek preposition εἰς “into”
    and the ending from the English word exegesis, which in turn
    is derived from ἐξηγεῖσθαι “to lead out”)[1] is the process of
    interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that
    the process introduces one’s own presuppositions,
    agendas, or biases into and onto the text. This is commonly referred to
    as reading into the text.[2] The act is often used
    to “prove” a pre-held point of concern to the reader and
    to provide him or her with confirmation bias in accordance with his or her pre-held agenda.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Shortly after September 11th, I remember reading a (newspaper?) piece, where the author had done research looking at various religious documents around the world and, without fail, each of them had a version of The Golden Rule…
    As I see it, Doing the Right Thing – while not easy – is a Human thing to do, has no base in any particular religion and why Humanity has flourished over the Millennia.

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    • Bill says:

      Often people will say things like “it’s human nature” or “I’m only human” to justify or excuse behavior that we wouldn’t call “doing the right thing.” I agree with you, that we ought to think of doing the right thing as “human nature” and when someone does something that is outside the boundaries we ought to say what they did was “not human” as opposed to “only human.” Maybe someday.

      You can’t go wrong with the Golden Rule. If we applied that to our judgments of other religions, ethnicities, races, etc. we’d have a more peaceful world.

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  8. avwalters says:

    I’ve always thought that the various faiths were subject to their own maturational timeline. Most new faiths are subjected to scrutiny and persecution. As a result they may be defensive and even violent in the protection of the “true faith.”
    I believe that most violence stems from poverty and the absence of opportunity.
    People who point to various religions for their violent trends often ignore the history of their own faith. If you look at the timeline for Islam, it’s about six or seven hundred years behind Christianity. Where were Christians, seven hundred years ago? Go ahead, look it up, not exactly a peaceable lot. (And if you look at the news, perhaps not such a tolerant lot, even now.)
    Our sensibilities may be maturing, but the world at large is regressing in terms of economic equality, stability and opportunity. So, religion or no, I see no near solution to the violence around the planet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      The observation about the ages of the religions is a valid one which I’ve also made. But it’s important to keep in mind that the violent fundamentalism we’re seeing in Islam these days is being committed by a tiny fraction of Muslims, those who have bought into a radical ultra-fundamentalism that is a very recent development and is attributable to a backlash against modern secularism and the belief that there was some golden era in the past when society was just and (of course) pious. This is typical of all forms of fundamentalism–though fortunately they don’t usually devolve into terrorism.

      The lunatic fringe of Islam may be attractive to poor and marginalized people who have become bitter and angry, but many of those who have adopted it come from wealthy or relatively privileged backgrounds. One of the theories about what makes it appealing to (primarily) angry young men is a desire to be part of something big and heroic. According to one analyst I heard recently, most of the people who are drawn into it weren’t even particularly religious before becoming radicalized. I expect this will burn itself out in the near future. Whatever its flaws, at the end of the day the modern secular world is more appealing than martyrdom and some caliphate pipe-dream.

      Sadly we don’t have to go back 5 or 6 hundred years to find Christians using Bible verses to justify things like war and genocide. In our own backyard, Manifest Destiny, extermination of American Indians and Civil War rhetoric all come to mind. And you’d probably be shocked at some of things folks around here were saying about the invasion of Iraq.

      Hopefully the days of Imperial Christianity are gone for good. Of course these days Christians are far more likely to be persecuted than to be persecutors. Persecution of religious minorities is nothing new, but I doubt Christians have ever experienced as much persecution as is going on now world-wide.

      I think the root of a lot of the violence is that the world has become smaller, creating collisions between cultures that breed fear and violence. But that shrinking of the world will also be the cure, I believe. As the fear diminishes, so will the violence. That’s my hope at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. BeeHappee says:

    Two wrongs do not make it right. . This is one of the toughest topics you dared to touch. Yes, taking something out of context is one of the most used logical fallacies of modern times! And then you forgot to mention violence in Torah. . . And the Palestinians and Israeli’s still shooting themselves for Quran and Torah as we write this. .

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    • Bill says:

      Every now and then I succumb to the temptation to spout off about something like this. I just felt the urge to comment on the all-too-common practice of pronouncing simplistic and uninformed judgments on religions and religious people. There’s a booming cottage industry in that these days and in my opinion it’s causing a lot of harm.

      The Torah is part of the Bible, and is where most (but not all) of the Biblical violence is found. I believe the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is primarily political, not religious. But unfortunately the fundamentalists (of all stripes) describe it in religious terms. A particularly tragic mess.

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  10. I’ve thought a lot about religion over the years, Bill, both the good and bad aspects of it. Here’s what I wrote down once:

    Religion responds to a deep spiritual need, provides social structure and usually encourages us to behave ourselves, which is good. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is an underlying tenet of all civilization. Unfortunately, religion is an all too human institution and, as such, is susceptible to abuse. The tremendous influence that religion has over peoples’ lives means it has power to do great harm as well as good. Two of religions key pillars, exclusivity and faith, can easily be exploited for negative purposes.

    Exclusivity enables us to do unto other people differently; it’s tribal theology. It claims that there is only one way to reach God and that we have found it. It gives us special status. One doesn’t have to travel very far down this road to make the assumption that other people are less blessed or even evil. Exclusivity can be used to justify wealth, dominance, missionary zeal, Holy War and almost any other thing we want it to.

    Faith is the critical part of religion that gets us through the dark night, but it is also the underpinning of exclusivity. You can’t get there without it. How else could we convince ourselves that our particular brand of religion has found the one true path to God? We leap before we look and then work backward. I believe, therefore it is true.

    Holding the keys to eternal life provides the holder with tremendous power. It’s something to die for. This power is an almost irresistible magnet to those who crave and need power for any number of reasons ranging from the sublime to the outrageous, from serving the flock to shearing it, from helping the helpless to offing the opposition

    –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      Well said, but I think it’s important to be careful not to paint all religious people with the same brush. For example, your principal criticism of religion is the claim of exclusivity (“our particular brand of religion has found the one true path to God”), but that is a minority position among religious people these days, and is primarily insisted upon only by fundamentalists.

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      • Agreed, Bill. And I in no way meant to paint all religious folks with the same brush. I realize that the vast majority of religious people are good folks and that overall, religion does a lot of good. I was reflecting more on the potential of when religion (like any human institution) is abused. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

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