3 … 2… 1… Context.
You ever wondered about what context means? If you have, let me break down the etymology. You’ve got “con,” which is Spanish for “with,” and then you’ve got “text,” which is English for “text.”
Okay, you know what? Forget about the etymology part.
Context is reading between the lines. It’s looking past the foreground into the background, and then appreciating the whole picture. And when it comes to evaluating or understanding something, context is key. Without it, you don’t have the whole story. In other words, what you name it depends on how you frame it.
Love and Basketball
Ponder these words, if you will:
“Oh man, dude. You suck.”
“What?! Oh, come onnnnnnnnn…”
“Yea-yuh! And one!”
“Unhh! … that’s my dude right there.”
“Get off me!”
“Get that outta my house.”
You might be wondering where these quotes are coming from. They sound like they could be catchphrases for the latest round of network sitcoms, or maybe things overheard at a local tavern. One would not, however, expect these to be words of love and endearment.
But they are.
You know why? Because of the context in which they are spoken.
These are the words that tend to pepper the air whenever my brother and I get together to play video game basketball. And every time we get together to “hit the sticks” (or whatever other euphemism we use to denote our testosterone-charged, button-mashing get-togethers), it’s great. It’s a form of bonding that we’ve shared for years, through adolescence and into adulthood. It’s something we love to do as often as we can.
Of course, if you were to walk in and not know that we were brothers and that this is part of our sacred male bonding time, you might think we were bitter enemies. Because we talk. We talk smack. We talk trash. We just talk. Or sometimes, during tense moments, we grunt and mutter. Occasionally, we might cuss. (I’m not proud of this, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t happen.)
Most importantly, we are obsessed with making the other person feel the bitter taste of defeat.
Yet, when the game is over, it’s all love.
Usually when we get together, my wife is somewhere else. This happens not by coincidence, but by design. Partially it happens because watching us duke it out on the XBOX is not Holly’s idea of a good time. But mostly it’s because she is a sensitive soul, and should not be exposed on a regular basis to the types of things that my brother and I yell at each other. Even though she knows my brother and I really do love each other and that video-game basketball has become a time-honored ritual, it’s probably still not the best idea for her to be present when Jomo and I are verbally dismembering each other. It’s just not very pleasant to be around.
Well, not for her, anyway. But for us, two brothers who naturally compete at anything recreational… it’s great.
What’s the lesson here? Context is everything.
* * *
Good Guys and Bad Guys
It’s an important lesson to learn, too.
Because sometimes you can miss out on layers of meaning when you don’t look at the whole equation. Sometimes things that look one way turn out to be quite another way. Sometimes good guys do bad things. Sometimes bad guys do good things. And most times, you can’t tell the difference at first glance.
That’s where context comes in. It helps you frame what you’re looking at, so you can tell what’s really going on.
Such was the case at U.S. Cellular Field on the South side of Chicago when the Chicago White Sox hosted the Chicago Cubs for a three game series of interleague baseball. During the game, Sox player A.J. Pierzynski got into an altercation with the Cubs’ Michael Barrett over a collision at home plate.
Well, “altercation” is a nice word for it. Basically, Barrett the catcher didn’t appreciate getting knocked over by Pierzynski the baserunner, especially since the outfielder’s throw to home was late. So after they both got up, Barrett socked Pierzynski in the mouth.
Now if that’s all you know about the situation, then it’s easy to call Barrett the bad guy and Pierzynski the good guy, especially since from the rulebook standpoint, Pierzynski’s play was legal. But that’s not all we know about the sitaution.
First, we know that A.J. Pierzynski has a history of getting into scrapes and altercations. He’s known for having somewhat of an abrasive attitude, which is part of the reason why he’s reviled in other towns and loved in Chicago. Also, we know that later in the game when he hit a home run off of Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, Pierzynski tapped his heart and pointed to the sky, which is Zambrano’s signature move when he strikes out a batter. So basically he was trying to show up Zambrano by mimicking him.
We also know that tempers always flare during crosstown rivalries, and this one was even more intense because of the Cubs’ continued futility and the Sox having just won the World Series in 2005. So it’s possible that the Cubs were already on edge, because playing poorly in the same city where your bitter rivals are playing well… that’ll do a number on even the most docile of players. And, by the way, Barrett has his own history of bad behavior to contend with as well.
So you can call A.J. Pierzynski a bad guy if you want. Or you can call Michael Barrett a bad guy, since he was the one who threw the punch and started the bench-clearing brawl. But which way you go will depend largely on how you choose to frame the story. Text may tell the story, but context rules the ending.
Same type of thing happened during the first round of the NBA Playoffs, when the Los Angeles Lakers went up against the Phoenix Suns. Superstar baller Kobe Bryant was driving to the hoop when he was thrown to the ground by Suns defender Raja Bell. Bell was eventually suspended one game for the flagrant foul on Bryant.
End of story, right? Hardly.
During a press conference after the game, Raja Bell was asked by reporters why he fouled Bryant so hard, and Bell defended his actions by describing some of what he felt was overly physical play from Bryant. He was apologetic for letting down his teammates and taking inappropriate retaliation, but he said this about Bryant:
“I have no respect for him. I think he’s a pompous, arrogant individual.”
(Parenthetically, I just have to say that this is why I love the NBA. It’s reality TV and soap opera, all rolled into one.)
So later, after reporters told Kobe what Raja said about him, Kobe unleashed this piece of commentary:
“Do I know this guy? I don’t know this guy. I might have said one word to this guy. I think he overreacts to stuff. … I don’t think about him. … I don’t know this kid. I don’t need to know this kid. I don’t want to. We go out there and play the game and leave it at that. Maybe he wasn’t hugged enough as a kid. I look at him a little bit and he gets a little insecure about something.
At first, it sounds like Kobe’s trying to take the high road. No harm, no foul, let’s just move on. But that’s what Kobe wants you to think, because for the last two years he’s been desperate to rehabilitate his ailing public persona. You know, the one that was tarnished by rape allegations in Colorado.
Also, NBA fans know that Kobe is lying when he says he doesn’t know Raja Bell. The fact of the matter is Bell guarded Bryant extensively during the NBA Finals in 2001, when Bell played for the Philadelphia 76ers. And if that wasn’t enough, Bell has played in the Western conference for four years now, which means he probably had to guard Bryant every time his Phoenix Suns played Bryant’s Lakers, which happened several times a year.
In addition, Kobe Bryant called Raja Bell a kid, even though Bryant himself is a year younger. Add to that the not-enough-hugs line, and you can see the venom lurking under the surface. While his demeanor at the press conference might have been placid, Kobe wasn’t trying to bury the hatchet as much as he was trying to bury his opponent. Much like his coach Phil Jackson used to do, Kobe tried to pull a mindgame on Raja. He wanted not only to defeat him not only on the basketball court, but the court of public opinion.
Now Kobe Bryant is the ultimate competitor, one of the many reasons why he has repeatedly been compared to Michael Jordan. So his ultra-competitve nature is probably to blame for such vicious invective in the press. The bitter irony, though, is that it didn’t work. Phoenix went on to defeat L.A. in seven games. To add insult to defeat, Raja Bell’s mom got in the act. As Kobe walked from the court back to the locker room, she called out, “Kobe, need a hug?”
Now if the Lakers would have won the series, Bryant would have been heralded as a mastermind. Folks would’ve pointed to that press conference and said, See? Kobe is so good, he was able to get into their heads and affect their confidence. But that ain’t how it went. Raja Bell earned himself a suspension for his play against Kobe Bryant, but his team ultimately won the series. As Rasheed Wallace likes to say, the ball don’t lie. And in the context of wins and losses, Bryant came off looking like a chump.
These are two examples, but the list goes on in sports. Some people see two floppy-haired old friends in a restaurant eating dinner together; others see two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash eating with All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, each of them fraternizing with “the enemy” while their respective fan-bases howl in protest. Some see former Tennessee Titan quarterback Steve McNair and former Boston Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon as traitors for signing with their division rivals (the Baltimore Ravens and New York Yankees, respectively). Others see jilted veterans just wanting to end up someplace where their skills are appreciated and properly compensated. It’s all in how you frame the story.
Sequels: Supremacy vs. Suckiness
What’s true in sports is also true in entertainment.
Specifically with films, context is key. To both filmmakers and critics alike, context helps to dictate the relative quality and enjoyability of a film. Particularly for pop-culture film franchises, movies are compared not only to what else may be playing at the time, but to earlier or later films in the series. If they can stand up to the comparison, then they are successful. If not, they tend to suck. It’s often as simple as that.
A great example of this is all of the Batman movies that have been made in the last two decades. The first two, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) were directed by Tim Burton and starred Michael Keaton as the eponymous superhero. Dark and brooding in tone, they were successful in resurrecting the Frank Miller character to the forefront of American pop culture. While a vocal minority of critics and parent advocacy groups thought the films were too nihilistic (read: violent and scary), their box-office success — and cumulative DVD rental revenue – have left the Burton/Keaton Batman legacy intact. As most hardcore fans will attest, these first two films were successful because they were true to the tone and feel of the original comic-book Batman character. The Burton / Keaton Batman resonated in the context of the original Batman.
But like Tom Cruise in Cocktail taught us, everything in life ends badly… or else it wouldn’t end. In the case of the Batman franchise, Warner Bros. was angling for a bigger piece of the pie. So for the third and fourth films they dumped director Tim Burton in favor of Joel Schumacher, who presided over the average Batman Forever and the horrid Batman and Robin. Critics almost unanimously agreed that these films were bad, in part, because they reverted to the cartoonish nature of the ’60s era Batman TV series.
Ironically, if the first two films had never been made, Schumacher’s adaptations of the Batman franchise might have been more widely appreciated. Played up for laughs and zaniness in the same vein as The Austin Powers movies, Batman and Robin might have been a critical successs. And then the ad blurb ‘splayed across the DVD cover would’ve been, “A JOYFUL ROMP!!!” rather than what it probably reads now, which is something along the lines of, “All the fun of a root canal for half the price!”
This problem of movie sequels not living up to their predecessors is widespread. It’s the same problem that most fans had with the Wachowski brothers’ sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Time and space do not permit me to fully digest all of the controversy that these films swirled up, but most fans who were disappointed with the movies won’t tell you that they were terrible films, but that they weren’t as good as the first one. And that’s because they couldn’t be as good as the first one. The law of diminishing returns proves that after you come up with anything as hot and crazy and visceral as The Matrix, the more times you go back into that arena the less enjoyable it’ll be. The novelty will eventually wear off.
So whereas in the first film, when you saw Neo doing all the crazy kung-fu machine gun acrobatics, it was like, ohh dude, that’s AWESOME. But the second time around you see the same type of scene and you’re like, hmm… that’s nice. Not quite the same experience. Larry and Andy tried to make up for this by contorting the plot into a series of philosophical brain-twisters, but for a lot of folks it didn’t work.
So as individual films, the Matrix sequels were technically laudable, and thus, good. But as sequels, not so good. Context strikes again.
Public Policy? Preposterous
This idea of context is useful when you’re dealing in the low-stakes realms of sports and entertainment. Because after all, regardless of which teams win their respective championships or which movie studios make the most money with their films, the lives of regular folk like us won’t be affected a whole lot.
But when you’re dealing with public policy and politics, context becomes even more meaningful, because now you’re talking about stuff that affects everybody. Jobs, money, safety, schools… these are universals that just about everyone has a stake in.
So when you read the paper or you turn on the news, you need to have an awareness of what’s really going on. To do so, you need to look beyond the spin of what The Man wants you to think to get to where the truth actually lives.
This is where context comes in quite handily.
Take, for example, taxes. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society. The idea here is that as citizens of the state, we choose to relinquish part of our income in order to benefit from public benefits like roads, schools, homeland security, etc. In theory, this is all well and good. Our acceptance of this model tends to hinge on our belief in the integrity and prudence of government spending. We’ll put up with taxes as long as we think that money is being spent wisely.
But how do we know if it is, in fact, being spent wisely? Or, more to the point, how can we tell what wise spending looks like? Governments often try to address this problem by drafting tax plans to address specific problems. Many states in the U.S., for example, tax cigarettes very heavily. They do so under the understanding that the money they’re getting by taxing the tobacco industry should be spent on helping to fix the overall health and wellness of the populace, many of whom are smokers. Big tobacco has made money by making people sick, the idea goes, so we should recoup some of that money by helping them to get well.
The state of Oregon, where I now reside, has such an arrangement in place. But John A. Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute takes issue with the way the state is spending this money.
However, each state is free to spend the money any way it wants, and many legislators are treating the fund as a cash cow. For example, on April 17 tobacco makers turned over $66.3 million to Oregon. More than 88 percent of that money will be spent for debt service on bonds that have nothing to do with public health, while less than 12 percent will go to the Oregon Health Plan. None of the funds will be spent on tobacco cessation programs, even though cigarette smokers are the ones paying for the settlement.
Charles recently appeared on The Georgene Rice Show to make this same point — which is, essentially, that the taxation of cigarettes by the state of Oregon becomes grossly immoral when the state doesn’t use that money to help people stop smoking and live better lives. Not only that, but Charles goes further, alleging that the state’s use of “sin taxes” (also called “vice taxes”) on things like alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets do more to encourage those behaviors than discourage them, because the state ends up counting on the revenues they bring in.
So basically, the state justifies taking money from its citizens by promising to use it to help pay for health care, but then uses that money for other purposes. On the surface it seems like a good policy, but in the context of the state’s overall spending patterns, it turns rotten.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a shill for the Republican party. I can’t stand cigarette smoke. I think it’s gross, and I generally don’t like hanging around with people who smoke on a regular basis. I’ve watched The Insider several times, and I think the tobacco industry should pay for duping the American public into thinking its product wasn’t addictive when they know good and well that it was.
Having said that, it’s unconscionable for the state of Oregon to latch onto a group of socially-acceptable scapegoats (smokers) and hide behind a shield of altruism in order to continue its pattern of bloated spending — especially when that spending doesn’t go toward helping its citizens stop smoking. Talk about mixed messages. That one ranks up there with my favorite billboard slogan, “SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. WEAR FURS.”
Read The Word. In Context.
So now that you’ve learned about the power of context in sports, entertainment, and public policy, turn your attention to the place where it is most critical — The Word of God.
For Christians, the Bible should be the foundation of our understanding. It should shape what we think about everything. But too often we misunderstand the Scripture when we don’t read it holistically, with understanding about the context.
The underrated emcee Flame does a song about this on his sophomore album, Rewind. It’s called, appropriately, “Context”:
With this skill, it’ll keep you from heresy / And keep you from going through theological therapy, yup / The Words of God’ll change your life / if you keep these texts in context.
The song is pretty light-hearted, and gets pretty good mileage out of old seminary punchlines (“‘Icy Jesus?!’ Naw, I said eisegesis, fam”). But the message is undeniable, and one that needs to be learned by all Christians. Unless you know and understand each Scripture in its context, you don’t know the Word of God.
Consider the popular refrigerator-magnet favorite Philippians 4:13.
It reads in the New King James Version as, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like something Tony Robbins would quote, as he’s trying to get you to visualize success. That verse has been quoted ad nauseam, by a variety of Christians, in a variety of ways, usually in the vein of: Go-get-em, tiger! You can do it! You can do anything you set your mind to! You can be a star! You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!
There’s only one problem here. That interpretation isn’t exactly consistent with the context. Read the whole passage (this time in the NIV for clarity):
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
What the Apostle Paul is talking about here is not achievement, but humility. In his letter to the church at Philippi (you know, the Philippians, hence the name) he is speaking about the generosity of the church members who had helped him pay for his living expenses while he was there ministering to them. What he was saying was that he’s okay regardless of how much money he has.
Now there are many miraculous stories in the Bible, and many verses of Scripture that speak of God’s awesome power and miraculous deeds. But Philippians 4:13 isn’t really one of them. And when we choose to read our own ideas into the text rather than letting the whole text speak for itself, then we miss out on the wisdom therein.
Especially concerning this verse. Because lets face it, you can take voice lessons, sing in the church choir, and watch “American Idol” until your face turns blue, but that won’t necessarily turn you into a top-quality vocalist. The point of Phil 4:13 is NOT that you can do anything you set your mind to. But many Christians believe that is the point, and often sidetrack their lives trying to pursue goals that are not what God has called them to do.
The real lesson in Phil 4:13 is that God can help us walk through whatever situation we’re in, and we can be grateful either way. If money is short, then God can teach us lessons on frugality and valuing people over money. On the other hand, if we have plenty and our refrigerators are stocked and there’s plenty in the bank, then we have an opportunity to be a blessing to others. So either way, if we’re walking with God, we’re gonna be okay.
That can be a hard message to swallow, because most of us would rather be on the cover of People than on the brink of starvation. That’s just human nature. But humility is something that each of us can attain. It’s not just for super-spiritual people like Mother Teresa. Yet you’ll never unlock that beautiful truth if you’re stuck trying to become rich and famous.
What Does It All Mean?
The point of this whole essay is to convince you of the importance of getting the whole story. Everyone has their version of the truth, but not everyone knows the Truth. Mastering the learning of context is getting a balanced perspective on a matter. It means you measure a public statement not only on whether or not it sounds good or makes sense, but also by who said it and what that person has done or said in the past. Is that person trustworthy? Do they have a history of being correct? Can they admit when they’re wrong?
If you can successfully answer those types of questions, then you’ll have more than just something to read.
You’ll have something to say.
I’m G*Natural; thanks for mixin’ it up with me.