Thursday, December 10, 2009

Context: Are You Hearing What I Am Hearing

"I know that you think you know what I said. But I'm not sure whether you understood that what you heard is what I meant." - Alan Greenspan

Mr. Greenspan was just trying to be confusing so as to not reveal his next Federal Reserver move, but the idea that two parties bring different understanding away from a conversation stands on it own.

First some personal examples, and then the ones that matter more.

When Lara expertly scheduled house swapping to keep the costs for Europe low, she located a Andrea, who was near Rome and could lend us his apartment for free and then he could stay at our house later. With language problems which Google Translate mostly solves, we never actually spoke to her. She mentioned to add her on Facebook. Lara started looking through all the Andreas in the area, and found they were all men. She was a he. "Andrea" meant one thing over her and another over there. When he visits here, I might suggest going by Andreas or Andy. He's a body builder (though the gym there didn't open until 10, again our idea of a gym is different than theirs) and a bodyguard, so I guess he brings manliness to the name regardless.

Next confusion:with the way many apartments are wired up, the total current of the house is low. A washing machine is also a different reality over there - this thing ran at 100 RPM and heated its own very hot water. So using the washing machine and the oven blew the electricity out. I ran to the pay phone at the top of the hill to call Andrea. He answered, saying "Pronto." I tried to cobble together from the pocket translation dictionary that the lights were out. I was slow, so he kept saying "Pronto" again. I heard this as hurry up and spit it out, American boy! Later I saw Pronto meant "Ready," and he was saying to go ahead. He had the problem fixed by the time I made it down the sweaty hill.

One last confusion:We were planning our departure from Rome, and I put together a plan of Bus-->Subway-->Walk a Block-->Airport Train. I told of my well-researched plan. He said, "Buses are retardo." Oh, my, he's seen some insensitive movie from America and doesn't realize he's making fun of mentally disabled people. Don't they have those after-school specials to talk about these issues in Italian? How do I put this delicately when we don't have a language link that allows for delicacy? I held my tongue, thinking a better way to explain would come along. I eventually looked it up and retardo just means slow. Yes they can be retardo, with all the stops. He drove us to the airport and saved us a lot of time over public transportation.

Now More Important Context Questions
Understanding the Bible in Context
Two of our pastors at Emmaus Way, Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes, have talked about how we need to understand the context within the parts of the Bible were written and the context with which we are approaching the Scriptures. Their book, Free for All (Amazon CB), discusses this in a way that can be hard to take depending on your background. The Bible is unchangeable, a rock to hold onto. However, which angle you view the rock makes a big difference. It's hard to explain, so just read the book.

I can't just unprejudice myself, removing my German and Tennessean roots, middle class suburban upbringing, media influence, political leanings, marital status, and my feeling about indexing the capital gains tax to inflation. If I talk to other people who have valid different perspectives, although they may unfortunately not even know what a capital gains tax is, we may bring each other to a fuller understanding. It is not disrespectful to acknowledge context because the whole idea of a living Word is to be understood fully and received as freely as possible from cultural and personal constraints that aren't part of the message.

Rules about an ox falling into a hole in Leviticus have to mean something different to be understood today. Somewhere in my mother's upbringing, she learned that you take responsibility for what you do with hole digging. So when we dug giant holes on the beach, she insisted that we cover them up. And as a lover of beach walks, I wish everyone cared about me like the Israelites cared about an ox.

Understanding the Quran in Context
I have no familiarity with interpreting the Quran, but Salam Al-Marayati wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesay where he speaks about the accused Fort Hood killer:
Maj. Hassan's critical fault in understanding the Quran was his failure to distinguish between two very important categories of verses: those tied to the specific context of seventh-century Arabia, and those that are absolute and permament.

Maj, Hassan's hodgepodge of verses from the Qran quote from extremists left out the most important Quranic verse in his section on enjoining peace and forgiveness: "God invites you into the abode of peace" (10:25)

Now I remember something like this belittlingly called situational ethics and that it could be twisted into whatever we wanted. But this implies that can remove ourself from a situation and our prejudices. And if we really want to abuse a system of ethics, we can find a way.

Understanding People We've Never Met

In Europe there were pictures of American products, people, and media everywhere. I worried that if these presentation were the primary input for how Americans are viewed, then we would look pretty bad. And if the primary thing we see about those in the Middle East are violent extremists, we can be lulled
into think we have the full picture. This front Page WSJ AP picture showing a many crying over his wife's coffin really brought home to me how he could be anyone anywhere in the world who is tired of violence and just wants to live in piece. I'm not a pacifist, and I believe in opposing injustice, but I really wish the terrorists who killed his wife would stop, so we could stop, and we could find solidarity over happiness instead of intense pain.


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