I sometimes think that reading St. Paul's pastoral letters is a bit like this.
St. Paul's letters were certainly powered by the Holy Spirit, but sometimes we lack perspective on why he was writing what he was to the particular church to whom he wrote. Just like Hattie, St. Paul is no longer around to explain exactly how all that he wrote was to be taken. When we take this and that extract from Paul's writings, are we looking at core theology, pastoral advice, chastisement for making a bad call on something cultural or something else? We have to remember that we are often coming in halfway through a conversation and that Paul had lived among these communities he was writing to, so a shared experience, a relationship, a history and a known cultural context is unwritten. We have a lot of Church tradition to help us unpick this, as well as historical research and secondary sources from the early Church, but looking at the texts alone is to hear only part of what is going on. I am sure we sometimes misunderstand Paul because of this.
There's a social media analogy for this kind of thing which happened to me this week. A person I follow on Twitter (disability campaigner Sue Marsh whose blog 'Benefit Scrounging Scum' you can read on my links on the right - and please do, she is incredibly well-informed on these issues and a hero of mine) posted a tweet saying "if I wrote about most of what I actually do, I think people would just think I was a delusional glory-whore". I replied "Memoirs of a Delusional Glory Whore would be an eye-catching title tho". Sue replied "Hey! Good point!! Wouldn't it?" then retweeted my comment, as did a few of their followers. It was a light-hearted bit of banter. Something and nothing and, in the grand scheme of things (especially given the really important issues Sue tweets on) an insignificant bit of pleasant human interaction on Twitter. However, one person who came late to the conversation and read just my response but hadn't seen the original tweet assumed I was insulting Sue (and you can see how they would think that, to be fair). They told me off and ordered me to apologise. Now this was very quickly smoothed over by Sue who explained the context - the offending phrase was something she herself had said and it was just banter. There was no harm done and we all came away not thinking ill of each other as far as I can tell, but it did make me think about the importance of context when we come into conversations part way.
The current Twitter joke trial is another case in point: a flippant remark which the Twitter followers of the plaintiff would have clearly known to be a joke was later seen by someone in airport security who didn't consider it to be a threat but passed it onto the police anyway as a matter of routine. They seem to have then read it out of context as a literal threat to blow up Finningley airport. Unwise to tweet this, given the anti-terrorism paranoia surrounding airports at the time? Perhaps. But seen in the context of a series of increasingly frustrated tweets about flight delays and allowing for a typically British sense of humour, context should have informed the authorities that this was an annoyed and frustrated traveller rather than a terrorist. As the Independent reported it John Cooper, QC, for Mr Chambers said it was wrong to read any terrorist connotation into the message. “If that be the case, and I don't mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough', or Shakespeare when he said 'Let's kill all the lawyers’," Mr Cooper said. He added that the tweet was clearly a joke. “It was an expression of humour, it might be the humour of an acquired taste, but not even a threat.” Let us never become so po-faced as a nation that we end up stifling this very British way of expressing ourselves.
Being authentic online is often discussed in the online Christian community, but I hope we never become too afraid of being fun and lighthearted in case we offend. We have to be ourselves online rather than just donning a suitably respectable, holy disguise. If we're salt and light, we need to be rock salt and daylight rather than refined table salt and fairy lights. (My bid for clumsiest Christian blogging analogy of 2012, strategically released halfway through the year...)
It's fair to say that St. Paul drops some bombs in his epistles. Nearly 2000 years on and he's still challenging his readers. I'm not saying we should not be challenged by them and I'm deliberately not picking out particular knotty texts here. All I'm asking is: are we sure we're always reading what he's actually saying?
Context doesn't mean brushing away things we're uncomfortable reading. But it does mean doing Paul the honour of listening to what he is truly saying, not just reading his words without engaging with how the Holy Spirit was using this obedient servant of Christ to pastor the very earliest Christian communities in truly tricky circumstances very different to our own.