An old, funny American expression about Shinola helps Bible readers understand the importance of context.
Most American “Bible Christians” don’t know Shinola about the Bible. Of course, many younger Americans don’t know Shinola about Shinola, either! Look at that first sentence of this paragraph. If you don’t get Shinola and the old American saying I’m alluding to, you may not understand what I just said.
To help you get Shinola, and understand the rest of this blog post, watch this brief and helpful video—
Biblical Texts Present Thousands of Shinola Examples
Shinola may seem strange for younger Americans. But that’s nothing compared to our cultural world and how alien it is to the Mediterranean Bible. Seldom has Western Bible interpretation shared commonality with ancient understandings of reality. Therefore, what good is a Bible study that doesn’t bother to describe the ancient socio-cultural context of each text it explores? Without connecting what is written with the ancient social meaning encoded within it, you waste time instead of study Scripture.
As with comic strips like the Shinola bit from The Wizard of Id, all texts, Scripture included, depend on readers to complete them. What does that mean?
The Thoroughness of Communicating Shinola
Consider—how thorough can you ever be at communicating? Even the most considerate author will not say everything that needs to be known about the topic they write about. Can you imagine if someone attempted this? They’d produce a ponderous, tedious, cluttered, and unreadable text!
Authors simply cannot write down everything necessary for understanding.
Even the most low-context authors who provide so much explanatory material must eventually rely on sketchy outlines and the reader’s imagination to fill in the auxiliary background information. They expect their reader to get the Shinola, see? Thus the only way successful communication between author and reader can happen is when the reader supplies the shinola—the shared cultural knowledge—thereby completing the text.
Shinola & Katrina
Context Group scholar Richard Rohrbaugh gives us a superb illustration of this with the name “Katrina.” “Katrina” is like Shinola. Imagine if someone said “Katrina” in New Orleans before late August 2005. Would anyone hearing that suddenly think of the worst hurricane in U.S. history?
But after late August 2005, “Katrina” belongs to our American cultural history, right? Just say “Katrina” to many of your fellow Americans—you shouldn’t have to supply too much auxiliary background information, will you? They’ll provide the Shinola, or rather, their culturally-informed brains will.
Same thing with Scripture. Like all authors everywhere, the inspired authors counted on their audience supplying the Shinola—that is, the right scenarios, the shared cultural knowledge, to complete the text.
In other words, the Bible was written for, by, and about ancient Israelites. And consequently, the Bible was not written for, by, or about American Catholics and other Christians. You have to deal with that, fellow Christians! Because until you will, you’ll block understanding the Bible. Consequently, you won’t know Shinola about Scripture.
Ultimately, the biblical documents, and every other written text, are essentially saddled with an “indeterminacy.” Rohrbaugh explains that indeterminacy demands Bible readers must participate actively in the business of reading (i.e., completing the text). Considerate authors produce texts where what is necessary is given, but they cannot provide everything! Active readers must do their part to acquire the Shinola.
Writing and reading, just like speaking and listening, are social actions. Ideally, participants in these social communication exchanges share and understand what language means. And ideally, the participants share the same social system from which the meaning of the language is derived. Ultimately, Shinola comes easy!
Bible Reading is Cross-Cultural Communication
Can communication happen between an author and a reader hailing from different cultural contexts? Yes, but it is challenging, demanding much explanation for the reader who is an outsider to the cultural world of meaning the author writes from. This foreign reader, therefore, cannot provide the right scenarios to complete the text.
Inevitably, his or her Western brain will “make Shinola up as he goes along,” the wrong kind of Shinola. Much work goes into such an endeavor, part of which falls on the reader, who must drop culturally implausible scenarios that block understanding.
Basically, recontextualization happens when different readers attempt to complete a text from the vantage of alien social contexts. Because of the efforts of redaction critics, we know that such recontextualizations happened as the New Testament evolved.
Just look at how the meanings and emphases of the parables of Jesus shifted from Gospel to Gospel (e.g., Matthew 18:12–13; Luke 15:4–6; Sayings-Gospel of Thomas Logion 107). Guaranteed, each of these literate (elite) Gospel authors completed the story of Jesus differently than his original peasant hearers would have. Inescapably, therefore, we see that a leap in meaning occurred.
Now imagine the leap in meaning once American Gospel readers recontextualize the parables! Whether it is socially, culturally, historically, or geographically, whenever you move the language, you change the meaning. That applies to Shinola and every other word. Do you think any Gospel writer could have anticipated post-Industrial American readers? To do that, they have needed to share with us our experiences, expectations, knowledge, and American values.
Theologians to the Rescue!
Here is where theologians (really too often poets in disguise) fly in to save the day with fancy dismissals. “No, no! The Bible transcends culture!”
Nonsense. You cannot respect inspiration or incarnation if you refuse to take the prefix “in” seriously. Exegetes like Rohrbaugh rightly tell our seminaries’ poets how any ancient religious text communicates is intrinsic to the ancient culture to which they first spoke.
Ultimately, if you abstract the meaning of a biblical text from the original social and cultural context, you inescapably distort its message. Bye-bye, Shinola.
Spurious Familiarity Blocks Shinola
“But I’m an American Catholic and have taught scripture at my parish for 30 years!” Big deal. You were socialized in our post-Industrial Western world. Therefore, you lack the social resources to complete anything from the Bible in ways honest to what those ancient Mediterranean authors imagined. Unless you recognize the problems inherent with your American recontextualizations, you are distorting the biblical texts. What they are saying and the Shinola is beyond your reach.
Again, reading is always a social act. Therefore whatever meaning you draw from the Bible, you will derive from some social system. That’s true if you take it from 2021 United States or from first-century Israel. Since Bible reading is cross-cultural communication, we better be wary of it whenever we hear or read Scripture! The biblical authors and we are quite different.
We come from mutually alien social systems. Because of this, non-understanding, or at best misunderstanding, should be expected.
The Why is Shinola
Why this blog Messy Inspirations? Why the YouTube channel Bible Alive Presentations? In a word, Shinola. In other words, these exist to help you re-attach text and original context. You really can’t read the Bible responsibly in any other way. You won’t get the Shinola, see? To the degree possible, following the Context Group, Bible readers simply must employ adequate, explicit, social science models drawn primarily from the circum-Mediterranean cultural studies.
But wait—every model, including cultural criticism, has limitations! Right on! However, whatever limitations the Context Group models might have, they will far more accurately describe the cultural world of the Bible than scenarios generated from our contemporary American experience. Without these models, there’s no chance of having a genuine understanding of these ancient Mediterranean texts we are reading in our alien culture. Instead of Shinola, you’ll only have what Paul called σκύβαλα (skubala). And I don’t mean the terrible NABRE translation, “rubbish.”