As I was walking to the church a few days ago, I heard from some distance the unmistakeable strains of ‘Hava Negila’ being played on brass instruments. As I came round the corner by the Saeima, the Parliament building, there they were – the buskers, playing to an audience chatting amongst themselves and listening to a guide telling them about Rīga’s landmark Three Brothers in Hebrew.
This has become part of the routine; there they always are, with their slightly battered euphonium and tuba, busking on the tourist trail; and the great thing about it is that they always pick up on languages spoken, and play the appropriate tune (God Save The Queen, The Marseillaise, Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit and so on). So from a couple of hundred yards away, I know who to expect on my way.
So this is contextual busking – music-making that connects with the audience, rather than just playing the same few pieces over and over. It certainly brings a smile to the tourists’ faces, as the strains of some familiar tune unexpectedly reach them.
Of course we contextualise all the time. We use language that is appropriate to the company we are with; we dress appropriately to the events or places we are going to; we put our thoughts and ideas in formats that are appropriate and understandable for the people we are talking to. So teachers explaining maths to a class of 7 year olds couch all they say in very different terms to a university lecturer, even if the basic truth of mathematical concepts does not change.
This has been rolling round in my mind for months now, since one of the regular spats I get into on social media with one of my more conservative (OK, more fundamentalist) brethren, who was insisting, as is often the case, that the Bible is different, and that it has a pure message independent of and uninterpreted by our contexts. This doesn’t work for me, nor for most people who read the Scriptures. For me, it is so blindingly obvious that we read the Bible as whole people, with our minds and perceptions formed by our lives and experiences, that I find it difficult to argue with those who believe that there is an entity that can be isolated and defined, the pure Biblical text, unalloyed, uninterpreted and unifocal. That does not mean that I don’t believe the Bible is true; quite the opposite. Indeed the truth of the Word of God is broader, wider and truer than we can possibly imagine, and each new generation that reads it, each new Christian who grows to love the Bible and really engages with it, adds a new layer of possibilities without ever exhausting the essential truth and grace and eternal, loving beauty that is the fundamental nature of God.
But the need to take context seriously was brought back to mind by an event last month, and a reading today.
July is the month when cemeteries all over Latvia hold ‘festivals’ (Kapu svētki); there’s a long and complex story behind this tradition, but in essence folk come together in their family homes and villages, tidy up and beautify their ancestors graves, and then attend a service at the cemetery (and in some places have something of a party graveside).
We went to our local festival, where the pastor led a service that was 1 hour and 15 minutes long; he quoted from the Enchiridion, a 16th century Pastor’s Handbook; and in essence, repeated over and over again that everyone who dies when not a faithful Christian goes to hell. Now this lengthy sermon was preached in a setting (context) where the vast majority of those lying at rest in the cemetery lived and died during Soviet times, and never heard the Gospel preached, never stood a chance of living a Christian life. Just imagine how you would feel if you were told over again that your much-loved mother, grandfather or brother is now suffering the torments of hell. No nuances, no hope, no kindness. This was an example of completely uncontextualized preaching, an interpretation of the Bible which left no space for grace or for God’s immeasurable love and power to act. Luckily, very few of the people in the cemetery stopped to listen to this tirade.
And today we remembered St Aidan, the Apostle to the Nortumbrians at our Evening Prayer at St Saviour’s.
We read from the Venerable Bede’s biographical sketch of this ancient, gentle bishop.
“It is said, that when King Oswald had asked a bishop of the Scots to administer the Word of faith to him and his nation, there was first sent to him another man of more harsh disposition, who, after preaching for some time to the English and meeting with no success, not being gladly heard by the people, returned home, and in an assembly of the elders reported, that he had not been able to do any good by his teaching to the nation to whom he had been sent, because they were intractable men, and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition.
They then, it is said, held a council and seriously debated what was to be done, being desirous that the nation should obtain the, salvation it demanded, but grieving that they had not received the preacher sent to them. Then said Aidan, who was also present in the council, to the priest in question, “Methinks, brother, that you were more severe to your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been, and did not at first, conformably to the Apostolic rule, give them the milk of more easy doctrine, till, being by degrees nourished with the Word of God, they should be capable of receiving that which is more perfect and of performing the higher precepts of God.”
Having heard these words, all present turned their attention to him and began diligently to weigh what he had said, and they decided that he was worthy to be made a bishop, and that he was the man who ought to be sent to instruct the unbelieving and unlearned; since he was found to be endued preeminently with the grace of discretion, which is the mother of the virtues. So they ordained him and sent him forth to preach; and, as time went on, his other virtues became apparent, as well as that temperate discretion which had marked him at first.”
This remarkable man, who died more than 1300 years ago, probably never used the word context. But he surely understood it.
You sent the gentle bishop Aidan to proclaim the gospel in [England];
Grant us to live as he taught
in simplicity, humility and love for the poor;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. AMEN. (Common Worship Collect for St Aidan)