I recently wrote about JFK to illustrate how events become literature. While somewhat dated now, it is probably one of the clearest examples of an event with many eye witnesses and numerous "actors" which still remains shrouded in endless debates about exactly what happened. (Though no one denies the President was shot) Yesterday I tried to show how not understanding the context of the story leads to misinterpretation, with an example from NPR.
My point is that any event (not just JFK), whether great or small, is only "partially" experienced. There are aspects of any event which are outside the purview of even an eyewitness. Many things, for example, are not noticed. [A recent tv show on the brain had a woman doing a magic trick with cards. At the end of the segment they asked if you noticed the following, her hair was changed, some of her clothes were changed, and the man she was doing the trick with changed. The changes were pretty dramatic (short haired guy to a longer haired guy, her hair in a pony tail to being down, etc.) and would have been noticeable if the viewer (me) was not so intent on how the card trick was being performed. In other words, we do not "see" what we are not looking at, even if it happens in front of our eyes.] Only bits and pieces of any event are actually "experienced" and sometimes our "experience" is inaccurate. [hence the widespread different "experiences" of eye witnesses at Dallas that day]
Next comes the "telling" which often folds in "interpreting." Why is an event worthy of telling? The original witness and later repeaters each have their reasons. The person who writes it down has their reasons. In the Gospels, the person who gathered the oral and written materials and ordered them into the final form of the written Gospel has their reasons. [PLUS, we have God at work through the Holy Spirit which adds another dimension!]
Unfortunately, we do not always know what the assumptions and motivations of the original "tellers" is. When we talk about Jesus we do not think about the claims of Caesar or the historic Davidic monarchy. We do not think about exiled Jews and foreign invaders or abject poverty and people looking for hope in the midst of oppression. Jesus did, so did the writers. That was their world. This context "gap" creates possibilities of misunderstanding.
Let's take, for example, a miracle of Jesus. He meets a leper and cures the guy. Why is that important and worthy of retelling? There are always at least TWO contexts: the context of the written word and the context of the reader (in fact there are many more, some overlapping). The problem is, I, as a reader, bring my context with me unconsciously. My assumptions, my interests, my concerns always shape my reading. I think the typical white, western, rationalist, middle-aged consumer Christian comes with a particular context.
1. Most of us have never seen a leper (except in movies!)
2. Most of us have never seen anything like a miraculous healing of a leper (maybe somebody with cancer got better, but we never saw skin purified before our very eyes).
3. Most of us were indoctrinated early in life with the basic faith (catechism or otherwise) and we buy the idea that "Jesus is God."
4. Most of us know that the claim is not universally accepted (lots of people think Jesus is not God), but we have emotional investment in the proposition (He saved us and we believe it and we argue for it for love of Jesus--or love of arguing, sometimes).
5. We want some serious proof that Jesus is God, so He needs to do Godlike things which we can point at and say, "See, Jesus is GOD! Obviously..."
6. Healing a leper on the spot would be a pretty solid example of a proof.
7. SO: when we read that Jesus healed a leper we "read" that 'Jesus showed He was God by doing something impossible and anyone with eyes to see knows that He must be God.'
When we read the story we read a story titles "proof text that Jesus is God." In fact, many Christians see the Bible as a proof text, hence the famous "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."
I think this is pretty commonly the way we read the Bible. It was my way for much of my life. It is driven by fear, in part, by faith, in part, and by assumptions (almost in toto). It really seemed likely that Jesus was proving He was God because what else would have made Him do it, right?
It helps to be aware of "my context" and how it influences my reading of the Scriptures, or anything.
What it "means to me" is always filtered through "me." Having looked at "me" it is time to take seriously that it is not all about me. Matthew has different concerns, so does Paul. So does the author of 1&2 Samuel. In fact, every book of the Bible was written by someone who was not a white, middle class, American living in the post WWII era. And as such, we have to do some homework to make sure that we can get some insight into the other context (the writing itself).