Sunday, October 16, 2011


A while ago I was reading in a social-science commentary about high- and low-context societies and how they worked. High-context societies were those where the audience knew the context and customs of the stories and where little explanation was required in order for people to understand and react to them. Low-context societies, it explained, were like those of us in the 21st century reading the Bible stories and looking at them through 21st century eyes. We miss something in the translation, the loss of intimate knowledge of the context and custom. We need a lot of background information, and the scriptures don't provide that depth. Why should they? The scriptures, and the stories from which they came, had very specific audiences with specific experiences and knowledge; they weren't written with the idea that two or three thousand years later people would be reading the same stories and scriptures and using them as guidance but without the intimate detailed information their ancestors possessed.

A friend and I were talking not long afterwards about our parish and how it has changed over the years. She had attended a dinner with a small group of people, some of whom were new to the church and some very old timers. Talk ranged widely but some of it, of course, seemed to be about the church and the people in it. Some of the older members spoke of things that had happened years ago and their contemporaries understood immediately the context and the connection. The newer ones laughed in the right places but clearly were missing something apparent to the older ones. It reminded me of what I had read just a day or two before about the context societies and how the same sort of thing applied. I now find out that it's often used in the realm of international business.

When a person begins to study the Bible, one of the things they need to learn is that there is a world behind each story -- a location, people, events, traditions, a culture, even a language -- that is not familiar to us. To say we can take a story and translate it immediately into modern understanding of the words and concepts is like taking War and Peace (in the original Russian) and turning it into an equivalent of Mother Goose in English. It loses something in the translation and the context behind the characters, action, interaction and plot of the book is missing. It is like seeing not with two eyes but with only one, and that one has a cataract. A businessman who goes into a foreign country without bothering to study not just the economy but the vocabulary and even the social customs will risk making a gaffe so severe that not only does he not get the business he came to woo, but could potentially affect any future relations with other businessmen who might visit that country for a similar purpose.

I have heard it said on more than one occasion that "What it says is what it means." Well, yes -- to a point. A cat is a cat, unless you live with a cat and understand that there's a lot more there than fur, whiskers, four paws and a meow. Say "cat" to someone who doesn't have a relationship with a cat and there is probably some information missing. There have been countless verbal battles (and some actual ones too, no doubt) about whether Jesus was divine, human, or both -- and when he was which. To consider Jesus a shepherd gives an image but if you were a shepherd yourself you would catch a lot of nuances in the image and the words that built the image that John Q. Ordinarycitizen would not only miss but not know he had missed them. In the Bible, a "foot" was not always a --- well,--- foot just like an inn was not like a Motel 6. Only when we dig into the story, image, words or culture do we find that "AHA!" moment that tells us we've actually made a connection with the past and that it is now part of our understanding.

We have to teach our newcomers what our high-context community is about, and that includes our vocabulary, tradition, and customs. We have to learn what they already know about their context community, high or low, and how we can learn to not simply occupy the same pew but actually have a meeting of the minds about who we are, what we are, where we are going and how we are going to proceed. We can talk all day at the same table, but until we can look at the words we are saying and know that the other side understands precisely what we mean by those words, and we learn what those same words mean to them,  we're like paddlers in a canoe, facing opposite directions, both paddling like mad and not moving the canoe an inch.  There must be a shared context.

So how do we share the context?  Like Jesus with his disciples, we keep repeating the same themes using different pictures and different words until, hopefully, they finally get it. And we listen as others do the same for us.

That mutual context, that meeting of the minds, will be when we can finally stop arguing and getting frustrated that the other folks over there just don't get it. We could both use the same context and work together. Wouldn't that be a great change? 

It might just change the context of the whole world -- or it might change just one person. What if that one person was me?  Or you?

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