Context Matters Alot


Its being talked about alot these days.  In Christian ministry circles there’s no little debate on the issue of contextualization how much should we try to reflect our specific context it in order to speak into it – as well as original contextwhat was happening in the setting that the Biblical authors were writing into.

I find it interesting that often times, there are people who can speak intelligently into this conversation who often times have no direct tie in to it.  One such person is David Brooks, a New York Times Op-Ed Columnist.  Yes, that David Brooks, who as you all know wrote Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, and who I undoubtedly heard about from, you guessed it, Tim Keller).

Here’s an interesting thought from his recent column regarding the current economic crisis:

Markets tend toward efficiency. People respond in pretty straightforward ways to incentives. The invisible hand forms a spontaneous, dynamic order. Economic behavior can be accurately predicted through elegant models

This view explains a lot, but not the current financial crisis — how so many people could be so stupid, incompetent and self-destructive all at once. The crisis has delivered a blow to classical economics and taken a body of psychological work that was at the edge of public policy thought and brought it front and center.

In this new body of thought, you get a very different picture of human nature. Reason is not like a rider atop a horse. Instead, each person’s mind contains a panoply of instincts, strategies, intuitions, emotions, memories and habits, which vie for supremacy. An irregular, idiosyncratic and largely unconscious process determines which of these internal players gets to control behavior at any instant. Context — which stimulus triggers which response — matters a lot.

You can see this reality in everything – from the debate of Christians regarding the role and place of culture in the context of ministry, to Oprah falling off the wagon of her diet and physical transformation of six years, to the current financial state our country finds itself in.

What amazes me about Brooks’ piece is that he bases his argument in human nature, not financial policy or historical trend.  Maybe one way of contextualizing the “cultural mandate” is to say that everyone is responsible for and a responder to their cultural environment.  Or, everyone is subject to external and internal triggers that stimulate a response, of which, only reason can be considered one such trigger.

I wonder, if this is universally held to be true, how this would effect our understanding and appropriation of older models of codified knowledge, such as systematic theology, or matters of  contemporary contextualization?

I’m asking this as a guy who loves his Christian heritage of the Reformed tradition, even the formulations of Christian doctrine found in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

I do believe, however, that noting is context-less, and these invisible stimuli are more important and impactful then perhaps we have historically assented to, both in discerning the original context within which various issues and doctrines were raised and formulated, as well as their current usage and appropriation.

Context matters, alot.


3 thoughts on “Context Matters Alot

  1. Undoubtedly there is something of value being said here. Indeed reason is not the rider atop our decision making, which is actually irregular and idiosyncratic. The rule of reason within Modernism is shown to be flawed, and the Bible’s theme of the heart being the well spring of life is proved to be true.

    However, if reason is dethroned, who takes the reins? It seems that Brooks is suggesting that context takes over and ultimately drives the outcomes. And he is right. Or, at least, he can be right. A lot depends on whether or not you have any tracks in your life that allow you to go against the flow of your context.

    I would argue that Christianity is all about the reality of those tracks. Even back in the OT, God is calling Israel out of its context to worship Him. He gives them Torah and he gives them tracks. Jesus does the same with the sermon on the mount. But more than just teaching, we have His presence. We have a fixed point that allows us to grow up toward and into Him, such that we are not merely blown here and there by every wind of culture.

    However, that need not be seen as truly opposed to what Brooks is saying. We can say that context is king. Then the question as a Christian is, what context do you choose for yourself? How loud do you allow God to speak? How much weight do you give his Word? How seriously do we value His church – now and through the past? How much do we seek to distinguish His ways from the ways of the world? In Brooks language, the Christian’s question is, “How much a part of your context is God, His Word and His people?”

    Taking that approach, we can evaluate the works of bygone eras, like Westminster. We cannot dismiss them because they are not part of our context. On the contrary. We must embrace them because they *are* part of our context – we are the church as the Westiminster divines were. We must therefore not ensure that we make that stuff part of our context. This is one main way of anchoring ourselves in the winds of cultural change that blow around us. As CS Lewis said, there is no better way of seeing through your own time than reading outside of it.

    Undoubtedly we need to take cognisance of the context those works were written in and make the cultural switch into our own context. But we dismiss those works at our peril.

    As an example, I think that the reformers can help us navigate our way into the postmodern era. In our current context, missional (social justice etc.) is all the rage and we are loathe to draw sharp lines between groups, seeking rather to link arms and build a practical kingdom. We run the risk of letting go of truth in this context. Our orthodoxy can become generous to the point of meaningless. If we look back to the context of the reformation and see people willing to burn at the stake for the doctrinal issues we are given pause for thought. I am not saying we agree with everything the reformers thought or did. But they do help us navigate our way through the current climate. And those more erudite than me could show that a pre-modern epistemology as held by Jonathan Edwards is as useful and powerful an answer to modernism (and postmodernism) as any in the marketplace today.

    So I agree that context matters a lot. But as Christians we need to be careful to allow a vague sense of context to become king. We are responsible to choose our context – who we listen to. And, as you say, Chris, be shapers of culture at least as much as we are shaped by it.


  2. Well said Grant. I like it.

    I do want to clarify the point I was trying to make, and think Brooks makes as well (though, I know that you understand this about me, and even this post through your comment). Context is really another way of saying the factors that influence us. These can be internal and/or external, and often a myriad of both.

    We never choose our context or how it will seek to shape us and our decisions, thoughts, actions, attitudes; we do always choose how we will respond to their shaping tendencies.


  3. You know Chris. I was actually having a talk with a friend the other night that relates to this in a way.

    I totally agree with you. But I think Edwards really drives at the issue we need to remember In Religious Affections. We follow our heart. Like Grant said – it really is the well spring of life.

    Oprah’s heart loves food more than health and when she falls off the wagon she is following her heart. When I splurge on fast food or a foreign six pack I love those things more than I love saving money for my family and my future.

    We are shaped by our context and without a doubt context absolutely matters… it DOES influence our decisions. But I dont think we need to necessarily “hunker down” (so to speak) and make better decisions based on reason. It won’t work anyway.

    Frankly, I am thankful that the age of reason is dying, because as we can see, it brought us several useless economic systems, the holocaust, the deadliest century on the planet and a host of other ills. Could this be because Christians (who arguably inaugurated and led the age of reason) had begun to follow reason instead of their heart?

    For myself, I need to learn how my heart works and orient my heart more toward the things I WANT to love. If my heart is turned, my will will follow.


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