Out of context information can have unusual and hysterical consequences. The internet is filled with movie quotes where, out of context, the result is both puzzling and funny. Without knowing the circumstances of the moment, we can’t really understand the intent of the speaker or the impact of the words.
Once in a coffee shop, comedian Lewis Black overheard a woman in her mid-twenties explain to a friend that, “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.” Upon turning around to ask what was meant by that sentence, the pair was gone, and he was left to ponder the meaning of such a cryptic confession, forever. Without the context, our understanding is minimal at best.
In some cases, taking information out of context can have tragic consequences, as evidenced in the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Shortly beforehand, a Native American holy man started a “Ghost Dance,” a traditional ritual meant to cleanse the world of evil. The movement continued and spread across the Western US tribes, but when word finally reached the ears of soldiers, it had been misinterpreted as a dance intended to eliminate the world of whites. As a retaliation, the troops attacked and killed Sitting Bull and 146 other Indians. Had those involved only looked to the origin and context of the dance’s intention, no one would have been hurt.
Scripture can also be mishandled and misused if taken out of context, especially when it is removed from the book in which it is written and interpreted to fit the speaker’s intention. The book, and now television series, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale” reveals the danger of this practice. Set in the near dystopian future where fertility has sharply declined, women who have proven fertile are turned into handmaidens, forced to copulate with married men in an attempt to bring forth children for an established couple.
To justify their practice, those in charge cite Jacob’s servant Bilhah, an obscure character from Genesis who conceived a child with Jacob because his wife Rachel was unable to bear children. Quoting Genesis 30.3, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her,” they get the scripture right but ignore the context as to why Bilhah was given: the bitter rivalry that existed between Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel. Where Leah was fruitful, Rachel was not bearing Jacob any children, so she set her husband up with her servant in an effort to keep pace with Leah and favor with her husband, not because God willed it.
Another moment shows a head disciplinarian correcting an out of line handmaid with the verse “Blessed are the meek,” the first half of Matthew 5.5. As one who knows her scripture, the handmaiden quotes back the omitted second half of the verse: “for they will inherit the Earth.” If we cut and paste scripture to our own designs, we can make it fit any and all agendas. If we want truth, we must look at the entire portion of the text, understanding the full picture.
Out of context information is a half-truth, as it only contain half of the intended truth. If only half of the truth is conveyed, is the other half made up of a lie? The story of the Garden of Eden seems to suggest so. When God tells them to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge because they will die, the serpent tells them that they won’t die, but will be like God instead, which is technically true. They may not die immediately, but they will introduce themselves to death, and they will be like God in that they will know sin, just like God does (with the only difference being that God is incorruptible, but humans are not). Through the serpent’s half-truth, half-lie, mankind fell.
Which is the way out of context, half-truths often work: evil gets a foothold. When talking at the Mount of Olives, Jesus spoke and encouraged the crowd with the power of the whole truth: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8. 31-2). Christ lead them to listen to his teachings, and that through truth, not out of context information, they would find their freedom. So, to fully understand the meaning of scripture, it is important to understand the full teaching.
We are quick to use scripture when it suits us, but when we pull it out of the larger picture, we misuse the verse and potentially abuse its intent. For example, Matthew 7.1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” and we interpret the meaning to be that we should remain neutral and free of judgement, but upon inspection of the larger context, He is actually telling us that it is alright to judge others, but only when free from hypocrisy. Matthew 18.20 says that “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” which many interpret to mean that church is wherever Christians gather, but they would be wrong. Instead, the context is suggesting that when two or more Christians agree on a matter, Christ is also in agreement with them. And Matthew 5.39 says that “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” which many suggest that when injured, we should offer up our other cheek for further injury. However, the context instead suggests that when injured by evil, we should not retaliate but walk away instead, a very different response than what we often hear.
Context is key. Without it, we open ourselves up to evil’s intent. Instead of soundbites of scripture, know the message and story around it. Don’t interpret without it, or your understanding is minimized and possibly wrong. Get the whole picture, or risk losing the whole message. Amen.