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Context Is the Key

Some (dare I say most?) history textbooks present “the big picture,” painting a broad impression of what took place in a particular era’s, region’s, or country’s history. Others look at a much smaller picture, focusing on what happened in a specific year, month, or day, or in a specific city or other small (relatively speaking) location. Another way of putting it is that some historians look at historical events through the lens of a telescope, whereas others look through the lens of a microscope.

Regardless of which view one chooses (and each has its unique values), however, the key is always context. Nothing happens in isolation. Everything is affected or influenced by something outside itself. Even people. As John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island,” etc.

This is true not only in the presentation of history (nonfiction) but also in fictional accounts. Grace Fleming wrote,

Historical context is an important part of life and literature, and without it, memories, stories, and characters have less meaning. Historical context deals with the details that surround an occurrence. In more technical terms, historical context refers to the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed during a certain time and place. Basically, it’s all the details of the time and place in which a situation occurs, and those details are what enable us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards.

A danger arises whenever one tries to examine or present a historical event or period in isolation, without regard to its larger context. One cannot examine the history of a single family without including the effect that larger historical events beyond the family’s immediate situation had upon that family and its individual members.

For example, one cannot adequately, accurately, and completely explain one person’s or one family’s twentieth-century history without also revealing how the context of the Great Depression, either of the World Wars, or the assassination of key political figures, or myriad other events affected or influenced them.

Or, to use the example of a town’s history, one cannot simply state that the railroad came through the town in a particular year and in another later year failed and disappeared without also considering to some degree the rise of railroads, the problems they encountered, the corruption involved in their

development, and the consequent regulations imposed on them by the federal government. Similarly, one cannot simply state that the population of a place suddenly declined without giving the broader context of the general economic conditions in the nation as a whole and how they influenced shifts in population.

The same principle is true in the writing of historical fiction, as author M.K. Tod explained:

How can authors bring the past to life without exploring modes of travel, the circumstances of daily life, or the religious beliefs of the time? How can readers learn about a particular time period without seeing the characters of the novel confronting the conflicts and challenges of that era? How can a character’s emotions be relevant for today without appreciating the values and customs or the restrictions of yesterday? Setting considers all of these and so much more. Without an authentic living and breathing setting, a work of historical fiction fails.

Failing to consider context is a serious error that can lead to erroneous conclusions. Just as dangerous is to pick and choose which aspects of the larger context one will feature. Perhaps the greatest example of this error in American history is the tendency to attempt explanations of the War Between the States as having been solely the consequence of slavery. A careful study of the antebellum period, especially the years immediately prior to secession by the Southern states, reveals that slavery was one of many issues–economic, political, cultural, social, and more. This is not to minimize the role that slavery played in the breakup of the Union. All of those issue contributed in some way to what happened. Picking and choosing which ones to include or exclude simply reveals the historian’s bias and lack of objectivity and attempts to impose on the past a modern standard or understanding that did not exist at that time.

This principle of context is no less true when one is talking about the Bible. It’s easy for one to pick and choose selected verses or passages that support one’s particular view on an issue, but if one ignores the overall context of each of the verses or passages, he’s apt to reach an erroneous, even heretical, conclusion.

For example, one might string together the following verses in an attempt to prove a point: “. . . and [Judas] went out and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5); “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37); and “Then Jesus said, That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27). But, ignoring the context of each of those verses, one would reach an incorrect, even deadly, conclusion!

Again quoting Fleming,

Without historical context, we are only seeing a piece of the scene and not fully understanding the influence of the time and place in which a situation occurred.

What do you think? How does context influence the way you write? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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