The Complexity of Contextual Communication

One of my Old Testament professors during seminary days was blessed not only with fine expository and oratorical skills, but also with a sharp wit. He was renowned throughout the seminary community for his biting one-liners that generally evoked much laughter, as long as the class was not on the receiving end of the barb. His most memorable quip always followed any announcement on the demise of some hostile liberal theologian, when the professor could be heard to mutter, "He knows better now."

Among his witticisms that stand out in my memory is one he repeated a dozen times each semester, as he waxed eloquent on the need to return to genuine expository preaching—"Keep your finger on the verse." By this he warned the would-be preacher not to stray from the passage under study. While that reminder was well received in theory, the dark clouds of despondency would descend upon the student preacher who finished his or her sermon and sat down to await the professor's verdict. The moment of truth would arrive as the professor would mount the platform, level his gaze at his meekly seated victim and say, "Great sermon; poor text." The indictment brought anguish, for it meant that the ideas which had been expounded, though wonderful, had not emerged from the text.

All presenters of the Gospel must heed this educator's caution. Often audiences are subjected to a barrage of ideas that betray more the pet peeve or preoccupation of the speaker than they do the intention of the text. Any text wrenched from its context is in danger of becoming a pretext. Which of us is not familiar with the discomforting ploy often used in prayer meetings where the object of a prayer is to stab the conscience of someone within earshot, rather than to touch the heart of God? As certain as we are that the intention of such a prayer is woefully wrong, so equally certain we may be of the fallacy of an exposition that has nothing to do with the text.

It is good counsel to the communicator and sound wisdom to stay with the theme. But as an apologist I dare say there is another equally important side to this whole issue. It is also vitally important to know the audience."Keep your finger on the text-- and your ear to the audience." To ignore the latter could well elicit the indictment, "Great sermon; wrong crowd."

This ever-present challenge of contextual pertinence was brought home to me with extraordinary force during a recent visit to Greece where we were doing some filming for a forthcoming video series. I remember the emotions that swarmed within me as I stood on Mars Hill. In the background was the imposing Acropolis, that rugged protrusion of rock upon which Pericles built the structures that he hoped would bespeak the glory of Greece. Still standing in its battered but timeless splendor are the pillars of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The whole pursuit of philosophy has since, in theory, represented the love of wisdom. To these parts came Greece's most prominent personalities, including Alexander the Great who had studied under Aristotle. To Greek culture, this was sacred terrain.

In the foreground was the Agora, the market place that in Paul's time throbbed with the sounds of the footsteps and the noise of buyers and sellers. The book of Acts tells us that Paul engaged the best of them in debate. And at the base of Mars Hill is a huge bronze plaque with the words of Paul's famed Mars Hill address, recorded for us in Acts 17.

It is a stirring sermon that he delivered to Stoics and Epicureans, among others. He began by saying, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you." (Acts 17:22 & 23 NIV)

Parenthetically I might add that there was not just one altar to an unknown god, but scores of them. The history of how these altars came to be is fascinating. Six hundred years earlier this city had been smitten by a dreadful plague, and the people had sought desperately for ways to arrest its spread. The poet Epimenedes devised a detailed plan to appease the gods, and hundreds of sheep were set free from the Areopagus. Whenever any sheep lay down it was immediately consigned to the nearest altar and sacrificed to the god for whom that altar stood. If perchance there was no altar nearby, one was erected to "An Unknown God," and the sheep was sacrificed there. Such was the backdrop to these expressions of ignorance and fear.

Yet, there was possibly a philosophical underpinning to such confessed agnosticism. One of Plato's oft repeated reminders to his students was that the true mark of learning was to recognize where one was ignorant. Thus, Paul deftly harnessed both the weakness of their religion and the strength of their philosophy to point to the One who is omniscient—God as revealed in Christ. He alone was the answer for both the weak and the strong. Paul was keenly aware of his context, and with compelling relevance he won their hearing. Some influential men and women made their commitment to Christ that day, and the Church was established in Athens on firm footing.

From Athens Paul moved on to Corinth, a setting quite dramatically different. William Barclay, the renowned New Testament scholar, says of Corinth, "Above all, Corinth was a wicked city. The Greeks had a verb, `to play the Corinthian', which meant to live a life of lustful debauchery. The word Corinthian came into the English language to describe, in regency times, a reckless, roistering, regency buck." Any reader of Paul's epistles to the Corinthians is familiar with the catalogue of vices that he lists, ending with the words, "As such were some of you." But one is immediately arrested by Paul's opening words to them: "I was with you . . . not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Holy Spirit and of power." (1 Corinthians 2:3 & 4 KJV)

As I stood at Corinth I was overwhelmed by Paul's message. Beside me on a marble slab were etched those powerful words of I Corinthians 13, possibly the greatest exposition on love. Why did Paul write this to a people so depraved? It is easy to see. For lofting over the ruins of ancient Corinth stand the remains of the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of sensual love. This temple housed a thousand prostitutes who paraded their offerings each night before the insatiable Corinthian passion and pastime. Paul contrasted this vulgar expression of love with the purity and beauty of God's love which "Rejoices with the truth, and is eternal in nature." With what riveting force those words hold the reader captive today, disclosing the grandeur of love and overwhelming the imagination when read in the context of Corinth's greatest need.

As we left Greece I reflected much on the potency of truth when conveyed through the framework of one's thought and life. Paul would have made a horrendous mistake had he come to Corinth as he had to Athens, armed with logic and argument. In Athens it was a battle of the mind—philosophy. But in Corinth it was a battle for the body—sensuality. Granted, there is a connection; indeed, an inextricable one. It was to them he presented his most convincing argument on the resurrection. But let us not miss the point. It was the resurrection of the body that he underscored. The way to the heart in each city had to be from a different starting point. In other words, there is great danger in assuming that argument and logic are all that are needed in every setting. There is a limit to argumentation, to which anyone with children can attest!. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that if one is knowledgeable enough on any subject he or she could possibly "prove" anything in that field, even ideas that are blatantly contradictory. It is possible to be fatally fluent. I cannot resist quoting Malcolm Muggeridge who confessed that he had a gnawing feeling he would someday have to ask God for forgiveness because words had come to him too easily, and he had manipulated audiences with his great propensity.

However, is it not this very limitation of argument that points to the greatest obstacle in communicating the Gospel? While one may keep his or her finger on the text and have a keen understanding of the listener, there is one other major dimension for the proclaimer of Truth to bear in mind. No matter how good the sermon is in content, intent, and extent, "to give truth to him who loves it not is only to give him more plentiful material for misrepresentation." So spoke George MacDonald. For, you see, nothing good can come if the will is wrong. Reason alone fails to justify itself."If the disposition is wrong," says Richard Weaver, one time professor of English at the University of Chicago, "reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good." All of Shakespeare's villains are good reasoners.

Communication will always be up against this disposition to distort truth, however compelling it may be, and it is to this principal malady in the human consciousness that Jesus addressed Himself in Matthew 11:16-19

"But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:

'We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

We mourned to you,

And you did not lament. '

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon. '

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' But wisdom is justified by her children." (NKJV)

I believe this is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Scriptures because the finger is not kept on the text. The focus of the passage is on the children of this generation calling out to one another. When John spoke of righteousness they sought to change his somber mood to one of lawless indulgence. When Jesus spoke His celebratory message of grace they sought to recast it in the images of morbidity and anger. The lesson is obvious. Whatever message the Church brings—whether a stringent morality or a liberal forgiveness—the children of each generation will seek to change it. For, if they can change the text they can rearrange the context, and give vent to their own pretexts. The message of the Cross often provokes one to anger if one worships his or her own autonomy, and the truth threatens that sovereignty. Recently speaking to the National Press Club, Ted Turner spewed out contempt for Christianity as he mocked Christians, ridiculed the Cross, and cavalierly stated his gleeful preference for Hell over Heaven. Such outbursts are not surprising (although one would hope that wisdom would dictate otherwise), for ridicule is only a short step away from hatred, the entailments of which could be very sobering. More to the point, in one word he branded the Christian message weird."Truth," said G. K. Chesterton, "will always be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves."

From Athens to Corinth to modern times the challenge remains the same: Keep the finger on the verse and give ear to the cries of the mind and heart, ever being aware of the dislocation of the will. For that condition only the Spirit is strong enough, and gentle enough, to effect change.

The Athenas and the Aphrodites are still with us today, but in God's power we can proclaim the Truth and merit the exultant one- liner—"Great sermon; right audience. What a God!"

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