On the inspirational quote

I’m sure you’ve all come across those big posters of sunsets or flowers in the wind complete with a wonderful quote to inspire you for the day. The only problem is they are very often unattributed and they are always without context. So, for example, how do you feel about the following quotes?

Words are bridges into unexplored regions.

The writer is the engineer of the human soul.

Peace secured by slavish submission is not peace.

As long as you have love in your heart, you’ll never be alone.

When you work hard to do something right, you don’t want to forget it.

Nice, eh? How do you feel about them when you find out they were by Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Kim Il-Sung, Charles Manson and Ted Bundy respectively? Not so hot, perhaps.

There are two little lessons we can learn from this:

First, it tells me that no matter how terrible a person may be, no matter how much I may disagree with them, I am likely to find something within their body of writing and speaking with which I can agree. A wonderful tool for ecumenism and understanding you may think. Not quite how I see it, if I’m honest. What it tells me is that people with whom we fiercely disagree and have major problems can dress up their views in language that sounds very palatable. It tells me that simply because a quote sounds nice does not make it mean what you think it means. We must pay attention to authorial intent. Just because a quote sounds nice does not make it a good quote nor does it mean it comes from a credible source.

Second, it tells me that quotes divorced from their context are effectively meaningless. For example, Hitler’s quote sounds wonderful on its own but if you discover that, in context, he is referring to the dissemination of propaganda which he sees as a tool to control the masses, it suddenly sounds that much less lovely (1). The truth is that context is important. If we are free to take quotes out of context from any source we choose, we can effectively make anybody say anything we want. There is, frankly, no such thing as a contextless quote. Everything is spoken or written in a particular context and it is that context which determines what it means.

This has important ramifications when it comes to the Bible. The Stand to Reason blog yesterday posted about how we can twist Jesus’ words. They were also keen to point out that context matters. Their basic message was never read only one verse; always read the context. To avoid twisting God’s word to mean whatever we want, we must read any passage in its appropriate context. As far as biblical interpretation goes, context is king!

For example, how many times have you heard Matthew 18:19f quoted on its own. To understand the problem and how to put it in context, read this. Or how about people who take Philippians 4:8 by itself? To understand the issue and where context matters in this case, read this. To understand how the issue often plays out in discussion between Christians, this very short explanation may help.

The truth is, when it comes to God’s word, it is important to get it right. It is vital that we understand God’s revelation about himself on his own terms in the way he intended. If we want to pull verses out of context, at best we will end up importing biblical ideas from elsewhere that are not the point of the particular passage we are reading. At worst, and frankly more likely, we will impose our own ideas onto the text. This means we will end up approaching and worshipping God as a projection of ourselves. It will be our own ideas, predilections and predispositions that we read into a passage only to take them straight back again and call it God’s revealed will. This bastardises God’s word and allows it to say whatever we want.

What is more worrying, however, is that many don’t realise this is what they are doing. They are not being calculated when they read the Bible; they aren’t trying to impose their views onto the text. And yet this is precisely what they do. They take verses out of context, divorce God’s word from its intended meaning, impose their own views onto scripture and don’t realise they are effectively following their own views. The key to not doing this: read the context!

Next time you see a quote from anywhere, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who said it?
  2. What did they say immediately before it?
  3. What did they say immediately after it?
  4. Why did they say it?
  5. (Having asked 1-4 first) What does this, therefore, mean in context?

Notes 

  1. For the record, I don’t know the context (and that is rather the point!) I am just suggesting a possible scenario in which the quote would seem less inspirational.

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