July 18, 2013

What is literary context?

Meaning is found in context. Words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs have no specific meaning apart from a specific context.

Think about the parts of a sentence you might read, for instance, the phrase “the danger of flying planes.” Now what does that mean? What could that mean? In what way? Where are the planes? So you’re thinking about it from the standpoint of someone who is flying the plane, that flying planes is dangerous. Keith flies planes and so we can read that phrase from that standpoint. What’s another way we can read that phrase? Maybe I’m sitting in the stands. I’m watching the air show at the airport out here, and those flying planes are dangerous if one of them gets out of control and hits us in the stands. That’s dangerous. Well, I don’t know specifically what that phrase means apart from some specific context, right? Because that’s the way language works.

What about the word “table”? What does the word “table” mean? What’s the first and obvious meaning of the word “table” for most of us? Maybe that thing sitting right there on the stage that we eat lunch at. But the word “table” doesn’t necessarily mean that. What are other meanings of the word “table”? You can have a chart if you’re a person who works in an office. Or to table an issue. It can be used as a verb. Or you can talk about the water table. There are all kinds of meanings for that word. That word that we have in English, T-A-B-L-E, doesn’t mean anything specific apart from a context. It needs a context to give it specificity.

Even you think about a common word like “stop.” If I pull up and I see it on a stop sign, a red stop sign at a crossroads, a four-way stop, then it means something very specific. But if I’m walking down the aisle of an antique store and I see the same sign hanging upside down from the ceiling, I don’t come up to that sign and stop. Why? Because I know that it’s in a very different kind of context. It doesn’t mean stop in that particular place at that moment. If I see “stop!” with an exclamation point at the top of a brochure where someone is trying to sell me something, again, what it means there is “give me your attention so I can sell you something.” That’s what the word means in that context. And if I hear it on a sitcom and I’m watching television and a guy is coming on to a girl and he’s just praising her because she’s so beautiful, and she says, “Stop.” But what’s she saying in that situation? She’s saying, “Keep going. Come on, come on.”

So words have to have a specific context because context shapes meaning. It’s very important that as we read the Bible we clue in to the context, to what’s going on in that part of the Bible in which God is inspiring these things to be said. What we’re trying to get at in our Bible reading and Bible study and Bible interpretation is we want to hear what God is saying to us in the Word. If we’re going to hear it well, then we’re going to need to hear it within a specific context.