04 October 2014

All In Context: Language, Culture, and Scripture

When we neglect this, we face misunderstandings, sometimes disastrous.


But if it's used correctly and carefully, context can unscramble confusion. No wonder we should use it all the time, especially in these three areas: language, culture, and Scripture.


Context is how I communicated with my Filipino grandfather who spoke little English. Maybe I could pick up a few words a day in Ilocano, but mostly I understood him based on context--where he was standing, how his hands moved, what his facial expression was, and what time of day it was. Really, it was doable, and all six of us grandkids communicated this way with him.

Later, when my husband and I moved abroad, I realized what a skill I'd acquired from both my relationship with my Lilo and with other non-English speakers in Hawaii (like immigrants and tourists). When it comes to language, I may not be bilingual (yet), but I am a decent guesser! The secret is context.

So do not disconnect yourself from culture if you are not yet fluent in the language. Communication is possible! Be humble, be observant, and be patient. Know your surroundings, listen for tone, and encourage body language. Not only will this get you by until the vocabulary comes, it will also help the vocabulary come faster.


It's easy to judge a culture, to stereotype, to classify and clump groups under labels.

It's better to see them in context. It's best to see them as individuals.

Driving in Seoul is hard for me. I feel like every time I'm behind the wheel, I am wronged. Even though I know the traffic rules here are what offend me, not the people who are just driving as they always have, I still get upset at certain cars that cut me off or run red lights or block intersections.

What's worse is that I even use the roads as an analogy for how Korean culture works. "Me me me!" I groan (again). "It's like the rest of the world is invisible, and they're the only ones trying to get somewhere. Pushy pushy. Go and don't look back!"

Then one day, my Korean friend wisely rebuked me. "Well, Malia, think about it. We live in one of the most crowded cities in the world. They've had to push forward to get anywhere all their lives. Here in Seoul, if you're not aggressive, you get left behind or trampled or lost."

Then finally, I saw it all in context.

My laid-back, island-style personality was caught in a whirlwind in this big city. Trying to see its culture through my narrow scope judged them according to my home of more time and more elbow room. Taking it in context helped me to understand and begin to accept our differences.

Since my goal is to adapt rather than tolerate, I've got see the people in context. This is who they are in their country.  They cannot be judged according to my country.  Culture is beautiful because it is distinct. When I lose this perspective, I lose the wonder of being an inside guest and become an outside critic instead.


With the Bible being foundational to our lives, how else can we study it? We must study it in context. It's become a dangerous fad to take verses out of their passages--even to memorize them--and never to realize the meaning intended and clarified in the surrounding verses.

The best example of this is Philippians 4:13. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" is pasted all over as a promise for success! However, if you read all of chapter 4, you'll easily discover that the verse is referring to contentment. It shouldn't, then, be the motto for a sports team or the motivating quote for a fundraising project. In verse 11, Paul says, "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am." Unless this can also be applied to your situation, the strength in verse 13 is not promised to you here.


The wrong approach to the Bible is to come at it with our answers pre-written, looking for a verse or two to back us up. (That's how many people write research papers too, and that also is wrong!) The correct, responsible way to study the Bible is to read it with a devoted heart and a humble mind, to take in passages instead of single verses, to spend unhurried time meditating on His Word, to listen for and hear the Holy Spirit teaching you in your stillness.

We cannot read Bible verses out of context. It can lead to the most detrimental of misunderstandings--more than language blips or culture hiccups. Our character, our theology, our mission, our lives are based on this Holy Book. We must take it seriously and reverently. We must read it in context.

It's such a powerful word: context. Without it, we couldn't communicate or cross cultures or understand the Bible. With it, we can reach others and expand ourselves: linguistically, culturally, intellectually, and spiritually. May we all broaden our abilities and perspectives to take in our foreign surroundings. And may we sit still under the holy instruction of the written Word--the whole Bible and not just part.

Abide in Him,

Do you have more tips of how to use context clues to communicate in a foreign language?
Have you been tempted to judge culture out of context? 
Do you have more examples of verses commonly taken out of context? Please share!

Related articles that you may also appreciate:
Can I Speak Love in English?
When the Culture Wars Are Actually Spiritual
God Is Not an American

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Comments awaiting moderation may not appear for several hours or--if the kids and I fall asleep at the same time--at least a day. Thank you for your patience and please do not feel deterred; your feedback and insight are most welcomed!