Context Matters, Part 1

If, as Nancy Lammers Gross convincingly argues, preaching involves doing in our context what a passage of Scripture did in its original context, attention needs to be paid to our context.  We need to discern our context, our place in history.  We need to be conscious of our cultural and religious context.  Preaching always occurs in a matrix of meaning and values, either implicitly or explicitly.  This matrix of meaning can be correlated with the biblical metanarrative, though it is not identical with it. 

As a preacher, I read the word and take an active role in sharing the word with the congregation, but not by sitting alone in my study, discovering the single meaning of the text in isolation, and passing it along.  No preacher comes to the text as a blank slate, as an unbiased, objective, neutral observer.  All preachers come to the text from their religio-cultural context, with a sense of the biblical metanarrative already in mind.  When I read the original texts in preparation for preaching, I read from the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia and from the Fourth Edition of the Greek New Testament, with some attention to variant readings from different manuscripts; I also check several translations.  When Scripture is read in our congregation, we usually read from the New Revised Standard Version; we never read aloud straight from Hebrew or Greek facsimiles of ancient scrolls.  Even if we did (assuming the whole congregation had doctorates in ancient Hebrew and Greek), someone would have to choose between extant scrolls, and, given the millennia separating us and the biblical writers, someone would still have to interpret the texts.  When we read the Scripture in English, we are not simply reading Scripture: we are reading Scripture in an ecumenical community that has gathered all available ancient manuscripts, discerned reliable, though not infallible, editions of the Older and Newer Testaments, and translated them into one reliable, though not infallible, edition of the Bible in English.  We also read Scripture in the company of biblical commentators and theologians who guide and enrich our understanding.  We read Scripture on the shoulders of biblical and theological giants who have gone before us.  A congregation which reads only the King James Version, and a preacher who consults only the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Textus Receptus, for example, likely inhabit a different religious culture, have a different sense of the biblical metanarrative, and will read Scripture through the lenses of their different religious culture and sense of the metanarrative, but they nonetheless read Scripture in a religio-cultural context. 

There is no neutral, context free ground from which one may read Scripture free from preconceptions or cultural biases.  What you see depends on where you stand, when you stand, and with whom you stand.  In the recent turmoil in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over homosexuality, for example, the traditionalist side of the debate often argues that the progressive side is following in the postmodern world’s cultural slide into immorality.  The assumption, which I have heard expressed many times, is that progressives are captive to culture and read the Bible through distorted, even demonic lenses, while the traditionalists simply read the Bible straight: “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it!”  The truth is that traditionalists, progressives, and everyone in between all read the Bible through cultural lenses; how could it be otherwise for finite, fallen humanity?  Often, the same language is used in the debate over homosexuality as is found in the political and cultural realms: in our community, opponents of the August 2009 Churchwide Assembly’s decisions about human sexuality explicitly linked the decisions to a supposed conspiracy by “liberal elites” who “shoved this decision down our throats” (using a phrase that seems to be ubiquitous in conservative media); in fact, in this community, the decision was explicitly and repeatedly linked to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States as signs of the loss of America by real, patriotic Christians, who need to “take our country back” from traitorous, godless, East Coast liberals. 

Jon Pahl’s recent article in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, “The Core of Lutheran CORE: American Civil Religion and White Male Backlash,”[1] is a passionate critique of the Lutheran CORE, Word Alone, and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) movements, and it deserves a close reading.  Pahl writes cogently and polemically about the cultural realities I have experienced firsthand in the trenches dealing with the aftermath of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA;[2] Robert Benne’s sarcastic, dismissive response[3] does not begin to address Pahl’s analysis of the cultural foundations of Lutheran CORE.[4]  At the very least, Pahl’s article should give pause to anyone claiming that a traditionalist position is context and culture free, although the denial of cultural influences seems to be part of the traditionalist perspective.  For example, here is how LCMC describes their view of biblical authority:

Our association is firmly committed to accepting the normative authority of the Bible. We reject the notion that science, personal experience, tradition, or other human endeavors have equal footing with the Bible.  We are certainly aware that these endeavors contribute to our conversations and deliberations, but the Bible must be our final authority in matters of faith and practice.  We also believe that the Lutheran Confessions offer us accurate interpretations of the Biblical witness and we commit ourselves to being guided by them in our life together as an association.[5]

As written, it is hard to imagine members of the ELCA disagreeing with that statement.  In practice, however, I have found that statement to be used to assert one reading of Scripture – the traditionalist – against others.  On the subject of the Bible and homosexuality, the only reading allowed is the traditionalist: any attempt to broaden the conversation, through utilizing the endeavors of “science, personal experience, tradition,” or reason is branded as anti-biblical, a reaction which denies the deep cultural roots of their own perspective.  When one presses the issue, for example by asking for an explanation for the traditionalist reading of the texts that address issues of homosexuality, one hears appeals to how they were brought up, what they were taught at home and church, or negative encounters (experiences) they have had with individual homosexuals (such as witnessing public displays of affection which ‘disgusted’ them, and by which they judge all homosexuals[6]).


[1] http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/May-2010/The-Core-of-Lutheran-CORE-American-Civil-Religion-and-White-Male-Backlash.aspx

[2] I responded to this issue, especially in my December 2009 and March 2010 church newsletter articles, http://lemonholm.com/writings/2009-writings/2009-11-30-saving-grace/ and http://lemonholm.com/writings/2010-writings/2010-3-1-healing-grace/

[3] http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/May-2010/A-Response-to-Jon-Pahls-Article.aspx

[4] Cf. John Petty’s discussion of the interchange here: http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2010/05/seminary-professor-rips-lutheran-core-a-new-one.html

[5] http://www.lcmc.net/pdf/cyo2.pdf

[6] Cf. Nancy Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, Oxford: 2010, for the concept of disgust applied to sexual orientation in American culture.

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