All documents have a context which shapes how we read them. We read a scientific paper with different eyes and expectations from those we hold for a newspaper article or an article from The Onion. The truth and intent within an Onion article with pictures of palm trees growing among the icebergs of Greenland may be to warn us about global warming. But if we sit aghast at that photo, thinking such palm trees really do grow in Greenland, we have fundamentally misunderstood what we are reading. Also, the whole office will laugh at our expense.
To read well, we must search for the context, and discern the intent of the author. When Paul writes “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—“ (Gal 1:6) there is no one to tell us exactly what he was talking about.
We do not have the Cc of the email someone wrote to warn him the church in Galatia was straying. We can deduce there was trouble; “some are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ,” (1:8) but we do not know how many people were involved, or who. We don’t know if only one congregation was involved, or several. We don’t even know exactly where they were!
He didn’t put the date on his letter. We don’t know if he wrote these first few lines sadly, or angrily, or both. Did he dash the letter off in haste, or agonise over several drafts?
If we are not thinking about these things, then we are exactly like the person who thinks it is true because it is written in the newspaper; uncritical, not understanding what they are reading, and rather foolish.
We must understand, reading Paul, that we are like a person listening to one side of a telephone conversation. We have to make an educated guess about the other side of the conversation. Sometimes we get it wrong! When we draw conclusions from our side of the conversation, how many of the facts do we have?
With respect to the letters of Paul, what is it that we are seeking to hear in this one sided telephone conversation?
My wife spends a lot of time on the phone. Two pictures have emerged for me.
Inevitably, as snippets of her side of conversations intrude into my consciousness, I am imagining and constructing a more or less accurate picture of the issues of her parish.
But I am also meeting people! I can often tell who has rung up from the little nuances in her voice, even if the conversation is incomprehensible. Warmth, caution, relaxation, gratitude, frustration; I recognise these things from our own relationship. And I have met, in some sense, “Mary,” and “Tom,” and “Joe.” I can often tell who it is, without hearing their name, or properly understanding what she and they are talking about.
When we read Paul, are we seeking “the goss” on his parish, or are we listening for the person he is speaking to; well, speaking about? Who is the Person living behind the conversation, and is its inspiration? Is not this person our Main Concern, rather than the issue of concern with which Paul is dealing at that time?
There is something very subtle, and yet vitally important here. We need to know—deduce, really—what was happening in Galatia. Otherwise, the letter remains incomprehensible. But the aim and end is not to identify the issue which sparks the conversation. The aim is to meet the person.
Neither is our aim to take Paul’s answer, wise and inspired though it may be, and apply it to our situation! It does not matter what Paul thought, or knew, or understood, about homosexuality. It does not matter what he did in relating to homosexual people in his church! What matters is what the person he spent his life talking to thinks, and want that person wants us to do today. (If you are feeling incandescent at this moment, carefully read the paragraph again.)
Do you see that while what Paul thought and discerned and learned, is helpful, it is not the key issue? What the Person Paul was talking to thinks, is what matters. That is not how I used to read Paul. I wanted rules and guidelines, not a person. I will now read Paul to meet a person.
Pushing this metaphor further, too many Australian men, wishing to love their wives deeply, want to know what she wants them to do (to keep her happy) rather than to simply be with her and relate. Some of us men do not understand this distinction. We have the same problem with Paul and Paul’s God.
If you read my site regularly, you will know I often find personal metaphors for the Divine unhelpful. This is not such an occasion, clearly, but the principle I am trying to illuminate transfers our of the realm of the personal metaphor.
Paul’s situation is Paul’s. It does not rule how we respond to the Divine in our situation.
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