Electronic social media is becoming well ingrained in our cultural identity. Some people bemoan the many ills of social media and others demonstrate how right they are to be concerned. Yet others use electronic social media to communicate important ideas or sell products. Most of us just use it to stay connected. It’s hard to stay connected with someone who is buried in their electronic device unless you use their electronic device to connect with them.
So I follow some people on Twitter. Some of the people on Twitter write messages like they are talking to someone in particular. I don’t have a clue what they are talking about. It’s like reading one side of a conversation. I can’t understand one side unless I can also read the other side. It kind of gives context. I’ve learned that this has a name. It’s called “subtweeting”.
But even then, there is information that may still be lacking. I’ve listened in on conversations that I had no idea what people were saying. When I hear them laugh and ask what the humor is, I often get the answer, “It’s an inside joke.” I freely admit to being a little socially awkward, and as a result am inclined toward non-interaction. So I have to be very intentional to speak to people and develop relationships or else live in relative obscurity. For example, when I observe someone speak to someone else in a certain way, I may try to speak to that person in the same way even if it doesn’t make sense to me to speak that way. Sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve had to learn that some kinds of conversation require developing a rapport that is integral to the kind of relationship they have already developed. I mention this because it’s important to understanding the Bible.
When we talk about understanding the Bible, we normally talk about context. It’s important to understand something of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the text. This includes such things as who wrote it, who they were writing to, why they were writing it, etc. But perhaps the biggest factor that plays into analyzing differences of understanding, particularly as they relate to addressing different theological schools of thought is the relational subtext. A relationship that informs unique rapport is part of a larger set of communication factors called “subtext”. It’s like reading subtweets or picking up on inside jokes except that the Bible usually gives us clues to understand the relational subtext.
We are usually good at understanding the larger subtext of Paul’s letters. For example, we understand that Paul wrote to the churches he planted or helped to plant. Casual readers of the letters of Paul are often not as quick to pick up the subtext given in other parts of the same letters regarding why he is writing.
I’ll use Paul’s letter to the Romans as an example. We know that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans and that it has some specific information about salvation in it. It also has some other stuff about the Jews, for example, that just seems added in there.
But when you take the subtextual details into consideration, it starts to make sense. At the end of the letter, Paul explained that he hoped to use Rome as a base to launch an evangelistic effort into Spain. While that effort didn’t materialize in Paul’s lifetime, he took pains to address a conflict between Jews and Gentiles in Rome both tactfully and strongly. He needed the Church in Rome to be unified behind his goal to reach more Gentiles.
So he took many words to spell out details of salvation as the common ground between Jewish and Gentile believers. Then he explained how Jews were to be used in the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles and how brotherly love was to exist between Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul didn’t waste words on random thoughts when he had a specific goal in mind that resulted in the longest letter of his destined for the canon of scripture.
And so in this way we should study the subtext of scripture and understand how each part fits nicely into the whole.
Not every piece of scripture has all the information of the subtext evident among its passages, but where the subtext is important, it is given. Be sure to look for it.