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Finding Strength in Christ: Why Context Matters

            Published in 1871, Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass was written as a sequel to his immensely successful 1865 work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While the latter introduces us to the familiar characters of the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, it is in Through the Looking Glass that we first meet the Red Queen, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Humpty Dumpty – all of whom have become staples in dramatized television and movie adaptations. The book’s primary conceit (a literary term meaning “fanciful idea”) is a world in which everything from movement to logic functions in exact opposition to the way those of us born into the real world would expect it to.

            Though we see this theme reflected throughout the volume, one of my favorite examples is found in chapter 6 which tells the story of Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty – the large egg who for some unfathomable reason found a wall to be the best place to rest his rotund form. (Those familiar with the nursery rhyme will know the ultimate end of this ill-fated choice.)

            The conversation proceeds about as one might expect for a dialogue between a seven-and-a-half-year-old and an egg until Humpty Dumpty uses the word “glory” in a way that Alice does not fully expect:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t— till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master— that’s all.’

Humpty Dumpty is employing what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as a “private language.” It has no ultimate value to anyone aside from H.D. since it fails at the primary task of languages: to communicate one’s meaning clearly to others. While whole philosophical debates revolve around the question of whether such languages have any validity at all, I bring it up here because Humpty Dumpty’s approach to language doesn’t differ greatly from many Christians’ use of Scripture – “[The Bible] means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

We see this strategy employed frequently in cases of what scholars refer to as “proof texting” – a single verse (or several) removed from their original context in order to make a point. These points (while sometimes reflective of the truth) are often so far removed from the original context of the verses, that the new interpretations would have left the original readers completely baffled.

A perfect example of this is found in Paul’s declaration in Philippians 4:13 that “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Since the passage comes from Scripture and we believe Scripture to be the word of God (and since we believe God to be truthful), we can assume there is truth in Paul’s statement. But divorced from its original context, “all things” can easily be construed to mean “any thing” – and this to the point of absurdity.

I have frequently seen this passage on t-shirts alongside images of barbells laden with so many plates that unless you’re a powerlifter, you probably wouldn’t be able to move the bar at all – much less get it off the ground. The implication of the pairing of the verse with the image, however, is that if you are fully dependent upon Christ, you too can deadlift 600 lbs. This is absurd.

I’ve also seen the passage appear in conjunction with support groups for cancer survivors. The implication here (intentional or otherwise) is that if you walk faithfully with Christ, you will be able to overcome the disease. Since the reverse implication is that if you don’t find victory over cancer you weren’t living in obedience to God, this is heinous.

Context matters. Scripture was not written to be consumed like breath mints (one at a time as necessary), but as a meal. Each book is a self-contained unit, a feast of its own. Without all of the pieces, it’s a bit like licking the salt off your steak (or your potatoes if you’re a vegetarian), but not eating the food itself. In conjunction with the rest of the meal, the salt serves a useful purpose, but on its own (and consumed without any other food) it can be deadly.

So what exactly is Paul talking about in Philippians 4:13? To begin with, we need a little outside context. The year is 61 A.D. and Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (better known as just “Nero”) is the emperor of Rome. Though full-scale persecution of Christians (feeding them to the lions and burning them to light his gardens) won’t begin until 64 A.D., the pressures are mounting.

The new believers are increasingly at odds with a society that finds the teachings of Jesus to be at best a bit foreign and antiquated and at worst an actual threat to their freedom to comfortably act in ways that bring dishonor to both God and their neighbors. Being a Christian in more than an intellectual sense simply isn’t safe. The Apostle Paul (now in prison in Rome for his own faith) is writing to the young church to remind them that nothing about being a Christian was ever billed as being easy. Christ, Himself, died on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:5-11).

Yet in addition to this external pressure, there are conflicts within the Church over the proper physical expression of the faith; should it mirror the cultural customs of a small subset of the believers and ignore the ethnic norms of others (Philippians 3:1-11)? The Apostle is quick to point out that differences in individual expression of the faith simply aren’t that important; there is no right or wrong culture. No one is superior to anyone else and no tradition (whether it comes from the ethnic group which gave birth to Christianity or not) is so important that it is worth dividing the Church.

What does matter is that Christians live in ways which reflect God’s love for humanity in all of its variety. Do we respect one another even when we disagree? Do we care for others even when their needs are an inconvenience? These are the things that make one a true follower of Christ. And they aren’t easy.

The Apostle Paul is writing to remind believers that the struggle is to be expected, but that hope is not lost. There is peace to be found in the midst of strife and contentment in the heart of chaos (Philippians 4:11). The journey may be difficult. The struggles are real. But God has given us all that we need to remain faithful to our call as disciples. “[We] can do all things through Christ who gives [us] strength.”

There can be no doubt that this message is far more compelling than one which suggests that lifting 600 lbs. of weights is somewhere in our future if we only rely on Christ, and far less condemning than one which offers victory over cancer only if we live faithfully enough. This is a message with some substance and power to sustain in trying times. It’s a solid meal, not just the seasoning on top.

Scripture (like language) doesn’t mean “just what I choose it to mean.” It has context and purpose. And that context and purpose are what characterize the difference between a faith built on fantasies and one with the power to strengthen us for real work in the real world. I know which faith I prefer. My guess is that you prefer the same.

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