Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Neil Godfrey: High on Context

Some time ago I challenged the incompetent Neil Godfrey (aka Vridar) to come over to TheologyWeb and debate me on the issue of high vs low context. Quite wisely, he has chosen to pretend that I do not exist, including in a posting of his in late August on the same subject.

In that post, Godfrey continues to display his usual lack of awareness of his own ability to craft a non sequitur using the highest quality that can be achieved. He quotes Casey:

 This is one basic reason why Paul says so little about the life and teaching of Jesus. To some extent, his Gentile Christians had been taught about Jesus already, so he could take such knowledge for granted. He therefore had no reason to mention places such as Nazareth, or the site of the crucifixion, nor to remind his congregations that Jesus was crucified on earth recently.

And replies:

According to this critique we can conclude that Paul forgot to mention anything about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – or even that Jesus Christ was exalted subsequently to a heavenly role as our Saviour — to his Gentile converts since he clearly does not take such knowledge for granted but repeats it scores of times throughout his epistles.

Well, no. That’s not what Casey is saying, or what “high context” means. Rather, it means, for example (as I noted in my own work), that a word like “crucifixion” becomes an effective code for all associated concepts which will NOT be explicitly mentioned (such as the location at Calvary, one of Doherty’s peeve-points). High context does not mean NO mention; it means minimally explicit and highly coded references. I daresay that’s a subtlety too complex for Vridar to grasp.

Following this, Vridar he offers an extended quote from Hall’s book culture (from which I and others get chief quotes on the subject of high context) on the subject of literature. Why he does this is hard to say, though I’d guess that it is done in order to persuade his readers that he s actually saying something worthy of notice.  The quote is all about a Japanese novel, and Vridar bolds two phrases (“in high-context situations, less is required to release the message,” “how much we take for granted even in the most mun­dane acts,”) for no noted reason, and concludes:

It seems clear to me that the high/low context question in literature is all about how we understand the fullness of what IS said.

Um….well, not “all about” since communication is a two-way street, a point which seems to have escaped Godfrey completely. But “about to some extent” would be correct. He goes on:

It strikes me as a frightful and hopelessly unlearned interpretation of E. T. Hall’s analysis to think that it can salvage scholarly hypotheses of New Testament scholars that argue Buddha never mentions anything to his Western readers about Jesus’ healings, miracles and teachings of right religion and life eternal because he (Buddha) had taught them all that stuff already.

Unfortunately, that one doesn’t get past the level of supersize non sequitur with a side of fries. What little Vridar bolds indicates the opposite of this conclusion, and he seems to be under the delusion that literature and the spoken word somehow will have different rules for “high context”. They don’t, and what he quotes from Hall doesn’t indicate this either. 

That ends Godfrey’s mumbling for that phase; while we’re here we can also dig out what few worthy notes exist in the comments from his fanbois, which is just about none of it. One denizen says:

The weakness is, as you point out, that using this principle we can no longer tell whether someone is ignorant of something or well-versed in something as the ‘evidence’ is exactly the same: no mention of it at all.

This is a “weakness”? No, it isn’t. It’s a hard reality of high context. That people like this fellow are simply too oblivious to figure out what is is their problem, not the problem of members of high context cultures, nor of those like myself and Casey who actually make the effort to discern the proper contextualization.

Another of Godfrey’s worshippers has the temerity to suggest that we should reject high context explanations because of Ockham’s Razor: It is “simpler” to suppose Jesus didn’t exist. I take this to mean that it is “simpler” to them because high context makes the issues more difficult for them to figure out with their limited mental horsepower.

More than one commenter (including the famously obtuse Steven Carr) fall for the typical error of confusing Paul’s letters with his missionary preaching, to wit: “Given Paul preached mostly in places far away from Palestine, it might be safe to assume that the news of Jesus had not yet reached that area.” Like Doherty, this Neanderthal fails to appreciate that Paul’s letters were written at least 10 years after his recipients were first preached to.

One particularly dense soul actually gets it right without knowing it:

Every Sunday that I attended church as a youth I was constantly being reminded of the many teachings and deeds of Jesus. Apparently I was living in a “low context” culture all those years.

Um, yes….you were. You still are. That’s the point.

Another sorrowful soul, similarly bereft of comprehension, supposes that “apparently the gospels themselves were written in low-context communities.” Well, no – they represent the written form of what was preached; so that once again, this is someone failing to grasp the difference noted above.

Back to Carr again, who submits yet another oblivious comment as part of his effort to spread graffiti on blogs everywhere:

How come in such a ‘high context’ society, Jews had to continually tell each other why they were celebrating Passover?

They aren’t. Here Carr fails to grasp the distinction between the presentation of information and the enacting of ritual. The parallel in the NT is 1 Cor. 11:23, which would be repeated not to inform, but to reaffirm the core values of the ingroup.

It is of note to see Joe Wallack chiming in, as he has still not gone any further on his “1000 New Testament errors” since I started erasing them years ago.

Yet another poor soul bleats Doherty’s refrain, “[Material from Jesus] surely could have settled some of the disputes. Paul could have written that a particular side of the dispute was correct, because of what Jesus did or said.” 

Well, no. Not at all. Doherty made 200 efforts to show that this was the case, and failed 200 times to demonstrate it. The poor soul himself only vaguely appeals to topics such as circumcision, but for several paragraphs of blather doesn’t manage to provide a worthwhile example, only offering the rather imaginative idea that the story of the feeding of the 5000 would somehow have had an application is his dispute with Peter over eating with Gentiles. It wouldn’t have; Paul’s issue had to do with ritual purity, and that was never an issue at the feedings; the poor soul’s ridiculous idea that “maybe there were some Gentiles in the crowd” (really? In rural peasant Galilee?) notwithstanding.

The same ignorant soul says, “It seems impossible that there never were any disputes about what Jesus did or said — especially since the Gospels still had not been written.” Um – what about oral transmission, folks? Like many graphocentrists, this one thinks it “has to be in writing.”

And that’s all, other that repeat bleats of the same errors from others. Our challenge to Vridar to put his neck on the line at TWeb – or for any of his oblivious commenters to do so – remains. Here’s where to go:


  1. It's interesting to see Neil Godfrey not be able to grasp the slight hints and subtle references that make up a high context situation like this, but on the other hand he can pick it readily and easily in things like these: What do you think of what he argues with the Emmaus narrative (basically in response to Wright's book on the subject)?

  2. @JRP: It looks like a typical example of how he makes up a lot of history to explain away a much simpler history.

  3. Thanks. I hope you don't mind me asking (since this subject is much newer to me than you), but what leads you to this conclusion? On the face of it, it looks like he decent grounds for Luke creating the story himself.

  4. @JRP The real question as I see it is, what "grounds" does he actually offer? I see a lot of contrived history, a lot of forced reinterpretation, but no reason to believe any of it.

  5. Okay. I guess what I meant was his comparison of the narrative with other angelophanies or times when a divine guest surprises human travelers (and then a meal is eaten, etc.) in Jewish literature. But, yes, I thought his part about Emmaus and Cleopas was contrived and weak.