A World Without Context
Do you remember the TV show Frasier?
If so, you will remember one of the key formulas that made this one of TV’s most endearing comedies (if you’re under 30, you probably don’t remember the show, and I just gave you something to binge on Hulu. You’re welcome). The formula for many of Frasier’s most hilarious episodes was that of a misunderstanding.
Niles would hear a bit of private conversation between Frasier and Daphne and assume they were talking about one thing while indeed the conversation was about something, or someone, else entirely. Each character would then run around trying to solve problems or skew situations that didn’t even exist in reality.
The key to those episodes was lack of proper context.
Watching the news today reminds me of those episodes of Frasier. We are a people tuned in to sound bites and headlines. Consequently, we live in a world of labels, 140 character manifestos, and ad revenue based on click bait.
Whether it’s in government, politics, religion, or even pop culture, the ability to take a phrase and turn it into a biography has become an art form – and many supposed Picassos surround us.
Imagine this scenario: you’re sitting in your local coffee shop with a copy of your favorite Christian book on the table (perhaps Not That God by Ryan Andrew Smith available at Amazon.com and other fine retailers…I apologize for that).
Someone walks up to you and noting the word “God” on your book, asks if you are an “evangelical.” If you are a follower of Christ, and a lover of the Gospel, your immediate impulse is to say yes.
After all, Merriam-Webster defines evangelical as, 1) of relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially presented in the four Gospels. 2) Protestant. 3) Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.
Yes and amen. Sign me up. I’m an evangelical.
But if you’re like me, your enthusiasm for the conversation is quickly marked by a burning red flag.
Today, the term “evangelical” has come to mean a variety of things. In large part, the term has become a designation of extreme right-wing conservatism. The person asking the question may not at all be asking about your belief in the Gospel, but whether or not you are a homosexual-hating, Muslim-deporting, anti-woman, Trump-worshiping, Toby Keith-listening, confederate flag-waving nut job.
Personally, I am none of those. But I am an evangelical.
Questions like these are framed more by the question-asker’s understanding of a specific term and can be powder kegs if the question-receiver’s understanding of that same term differs – if they are supposing different contexts.
It is easy to feel trapped in a world without context, in a world where everything means anything and nothing at the same time.
Are we conservative, liberal, or libertarian? Are we feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, or complementarian?
Yes and no…well…It depends.
Context often takes a back seat in the church as well.
We do it with Scripture: We can do all things (Phil. 4:13)! God wants to prosper us (Jer. 29:11)! God is going to do something amazing in our day (Hab. 1:5)!
We do it with our terminology: Are you a Calvinist? Arminian? Charismatic? Fundamentalist?
We are often more interested in hearing what we want to hear than actually understanding the ideas being spoken to us or the person speaking them. We want everything in a box – a box that we made and understand – and we want everyone and every idea to fit neatly into these boxes for storage in our worldview bin.
The difficulty is, in a world with so many different worldviews, our words and ideas are getting thrown into competing bins.
However, there is still truth. As Christians, we know truth is found only in God. He gives us truth in the Scripture. Everything is happening in the grand context of redemption history in which a world steeped in sin meets the love of a righteous and reconciling Savior.
But how are we to get that message across if the terms Christian, truth, God, Scripture and sin are being received differently than how they are sent?
Is there hope for truth in a world without context?
Yes – but it takes some work. Mainly, it takes the work of cooler heads asking a specific pivotal question.
The question is this: What do you mean by ________?
Are you a Calvinist?
What do you mean by the word Calvinist? If you mean theologically argumentative, pious and missions-hating, then no. If you mean someone who leans on the sovereignty of God, then yes. Let’s talk more about this.
Are you an evangelical?
What do you mean by the word evangelical? If your question is framed by the Gospel and Scripture, then yes. If it is framed by a political or social idea, then perhaps not. Let’s talk more about this.
The difficult part of humbly asking someone to define their terms is that it requires conversation and dialogue – two dirty words in society today.
However, conversation and dialogue are two founding stones on the path to understanding. But this path is harder. It’s messier. It’s uglier, and at the end of the day, we ourselves might discover we don’t truly understand what we mean by the words we say.
Maybe we are actually more alike than we think. Maybe we are more different.
Maybe someone hasn’t fully thought through some things. Maybe someone has indeed spent a great deal of time coming to bedrock principles and truths and has much to offer.
Maybe we will have more opportunity to explain the Gospel and show others the Word of God if we are more engaged in conversation than a bumper sticker.
Maybe a people who ask more questions show they actually have more answers.
The question is, what do I mean by that?