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In the Bible there is continuity in the ideas, there is unity in its principles, an internal connexion which, even when unseen, reverberates in our inner being.
This summer I made an experiment on my Facebook, as a consequence of having been bothered by an idea for some time: what if we were missing on something good, something really important, by getting used to reading the Bible as a series of famous quotes, maxims, slogans, instead of as a whole text?
I composed a short list of people -starting from the premise that not everybody is interested in my excessive rumination- and prepared to read and share with them every day a chapter from Paul's epistles to the Corinthians, those dark text which sometimes seem repulsive, and even so they are a faithful reflection of ourselves, of the power of the Spirit, of the great, supergreat love God has for us, in spite of how we are.
However, I realized that the idiosyncrasy of Facebook -not to mention Twitter and other social networks- made it very hard not starting from a single verse or passage, from a small idea of little breadth. So, in reality, social networks push you to turn to slogans, to easy catchphrases, to simple and direct ideas.
Nevertheless, since I know that I must not conform to the pattern of this world, I tried to fight this tendency to simplify reality by adding a more extensive meditation, talking about its context and how it fitted with ours. I thought it was not going to work but, in the end, people liked it. I also discovered, as I suspected, that reading the Bible out of its context is already affecting us.
We love images of authors and their maxims. We are grateful to famous quotes because they make us think. There are quotes from philosophers, theologians, scientists, prominent people, which push us to jump over the fence and go a little further. That is a good thing for the mind and for the spirit, in general. It is also good to run into a much need verse, every now and then, and the Lord has spoken to many of us, many times, by putting in front of us, in the most unexpected of places, the words that had to touch our hearts. Pretending that our growth in Christ will come exclusively from this, however, is like pretending that you could survive on ketchup packets from McDonald's.
The Bible is not meant to be read as a collection of loose, unrelated phrases, but as a whole, with a context, a structure, a series of ideas that are growing, appearing in front of us, gradually revealing themselves to us, all the way until revealing us the truth. The fact that the books of the Bible are divided into chapters and verses arises out of necessity, centuries after it was written, to be able to discuss it and meditate on it with others; this does not mean that we can get rid of the rest and consider them in isolation, because they were neither written nor thought that way. When we do it, ultimately, we are not being truthful and put ourselves on the edge of a precipice.
There are two reasons to believe this.
In the first place, reading verses in isolation, out of their context, limits our understanding of the beauty and the power of the text. The Bible is not only true, it is not only the Word of God, but is also beautiful; it shows the kind of beauty of a well formulated mathematical equation, or that of a palette of colors nicely arranged by shades. There is something astonishing about its global coherence; when this can be understood and coped with in the mind, it is moving. In the Bible there is continuity in the ideas and in the characters, there is unity in its principles, an internal connexion which, even when unseen, reverberates in our inner being. When reading verses in isolation, we are missing on an important part of its nature, which was tailored for us.
In the second, not understanding the Bible in its context and as a whole puts us in a weak spot, in a difficult balance on the edge of a precipice, where any wind coming from anywhere could blow us down the hill. We can easily understand this through an example.
We understand and believe that the Bible is alive and effective, and that everything on it is basically true. Therefore, we can infer that any biblical passage must be considered to be true. For example, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge' (Ezequiel 18:2, ESV). If we found this printed on a nice picture of a vineyard on our Facebook wall, along with half a dozen comments of the “Amen, brother” sort, without any context, we could think it is true. However, if we decided to open the Bible on Ezequiel chapter eighteen, and read what it says before and after this text, we would find that these words are quoted as being false by the prophet, from God's mouth Himself. He quotes them to denounce them as a lie, in spite of the fact that this was a known saying at the time, because God won't judge the children because of their parents' sins, but everyone will be responsible for, and judged according to, their own deeds. He repeats this in the book of Jeremiah, and then uses this context to talk about the future coming of the Messiah and the effects upon the people. Then, under the new covenant, this saying will be even further from being true.
Without context, we fall off the cliff.
A deep and conscious reading of the Bible in its context makes us become this tree from Psalm 1 that grows strong, healthy and fertile, planted in the right spot. The roots of healthy trees are deep and powerful, and there is no wind, rain or adversity that can uproot them.
This column is called “Love and Context” because of something that I have also discovered this summer while reading Corinthians: God's love is the tool that he gives us to relate to the world... whenever we choose to do it His way. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 13, all wisdom and knowledge in the world are worth nothing without love. What we take from the biblical text is what we use to analyze and judge the world around us, the foundation upon which we make decisions, many of them of vital importance. If we were to lay our foundations on a reading without any passion, there would not be much of a difference between those who have Christ in their lives and those who don't. But, when we apply love to the reading and the meditation of the Bible, then it happens: it is then that God's power can start acting through us to reach, save and heal the world.
Love is the nexus between the context in which the biblical text was written and our present context, the world we live in. Love pushes us towards truth, towards veracity and towards exactitude, because it is related to the divine justice that takes root in us as we grow in Christ. This love -whether to accept it, whether to apply it- is totally our decision.
This is what we will try to do -more or less weekly- in this section: to read the Bible in its context, to explain what needs to be explained about history, archeology, etymology, anthropology, linguistics... whatever may arise. We will talk about current events in the light of all this. Not because the author believes to have more knowledge than anybody else, but because I am the first to admit that I need and want to understand how everything fits together; how God has been telling us, from the beginning, the history we are living today. And because I'm not ashamed of that, I am leaving it here in writing.
Noa Alarcón is a phililogist and literary critic.