Monday, May 9, 2011

Reading Someone Else’s Mail


If you found this letter tucked away in the pages of an old Bible, what would you make of it?


Dear Pat,

Do you remember that place by the lake--the one we visited back when Sam was in so much trouble? I visited it again last week. It hasn’t changed a bit, except that the old German woman is gone, of course.

Being there made me think of you. The place seemed smaller, somehow, and lonelier.

As ever,


Is Pat male or female? What is Pat’s relationship to Jim? What kind of trouble was Sam in? Was it legal, financial, medical? When was this letter written? Where was Jim when he wrote it? Where was Pat? What clues does the letter furnish that might help answer any of these questions? What more information might you need?

This letter is what scholars call a “high context” document. It assumes a great deal of shared knowledge between author and reader. Outsiders can speculate about the letter’s meaning, but, without more information, they can not draw many firm conclusions.

There are high context letters like this one tucked away in the pages of every Christian Bible. They are the Epistles of Paul. When we read Paul’s letters we are outsiders. Paul and his intended audience had a pre-established relationship. They shared some common history and common knowledge that are not spelled out in detail. Sometimes Paul’s meaning may be clear to us, but very often we are left to speculate.

When we read the letters of Paul, we are reading someone else’s mail. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read Paul’s letters. Nor does it mean that we can draw no meaning from them. It does mean, however, that we should recognize that we are often left to speculate about the Apostle's meaning, and we should always be a little hesitant to draw firm conclusions.

A  "low context" document is one that provides a lot of the information required to understand it. Think of a newspaper story. The 16th c. painting of St. Paul writing a letter to someone else was found here.

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