It’s about time I tied up one loose end from my earlier remarks on Professor Maurice Casey’s “frightful”™ and “hopelessly unlearned”™ diatribe against “mythicism” generally and Earl Doherty in particular. In his inaugural essay for The Jesus Process© he wrote:
. . . [H]opelssly unlearned . . . Doherty’s ‘original’ work on Paul is . . . frightful. . . . He shows no knowledge of the fundamental work of the anthropologist E.T. Hall, who introduced the terms ‘high context culture’ and ‘low context culture’ into scholarship [Footnote here to Beyond Culture]. Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written.
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.
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.
Shamed into an acute embarrassment for having no knowledge of any “fundamental work”, I immediately purchased a second hand copy of E. T. Hall’s book, Beyond Culture. It arrived as a Harvard University Library discard, very good condition though, complete with Harvard University Library stamps including one warning of a 25 cent fine for every hour it failed to be returned to Harvard’s Social Relations Library after 10 A.M.
Since our evidence for Christian origins is, of course, entirely literary, I was particularly keen to see what Hall had to say about what we could glean about a culture from literature alone. On pages 99-100 (in chapter 7, titled “Contexts, High and Low”) I found my answer (my formatting):
Moving . . . to literature, one again finds a tremendous resource—a stockpile of cultural data—albeit raw data which must be mined and refined before their meaning is clear.
Japanese novels are interesting and sometimes puzzling for Westerners to read. To the uninitiated, much of the richness as well as great depths of meaning pass unnoticed, because the nuances of Japanese culture are not known.
Nobelist Yasunari Kawabata provides some excellent examples. In SNOW COUNTRY, the central character, Shimamura, has sought retreat from the pressures of life in a remote country inn, where he meets Komako, a prostitute. Even though Komako never declares her love to Shimamura, she doesn’t have to. Only the Western reader might miss the intense passion of her love. In one scene, Komako, mumbling incomprehensible phrases about a party she has left, staggers drunkenly into Shimamura’s room, gulps down some water, and staggers back to the party. To the Japanese, the scene is unforgettable, because Kawabata manages to make the reader sense that behind the curtain of Komako’s incoherent mumbling lies feelings of a blazing, soul-consuming intensity.
Discussing another of Kawabata’s works, “Sleeping Beauties,” Donald Keene, a leading authority on Japan, makes a culture-contrasting point that captures the essence of high-context experiences. A portion of his description follows:
A man named Egochi visits a house of pleasure reserved for men in their 6o’s and 70’s. The men are provided with naked virgins who are drugged so heavily they cannot be awakened from sleep, and are warned by the proprietors of the establishment not to attempt any “mischief.” Eguchi spends six nights lying beside six different girls. It is a triumph of Kawabata’s virtuosity that he managed to make each of Eguchi’s experiences entirely different, even though the six women do not utter a word or reveal anything about themselves but their nakedness. His thoughts as he lies beside these sleeping beauties take in all his life, especially his attachment to the young loveliness of women.
The Western mind boggles at the notion of a man seeking physically passive experiences night after night using the six beautiful, naked virgins only to release a succession of thoughts and memories. Again, in high-context situations, less is required to release the message. It is a sign of Kawabata’s genius to use the drugged nakedness of woman to expose all that is in a man.
Anthropologist Weston La Barre has made significant contributions to our knowledge of man, not only by calling our attention to the fact that man evolves his extensions rather than his body, but in his observations of the “human animal” in his natural habitat. One of these is quoted below because it aptly illustrates how much we take for granted even in the most mundane acts, such as “dunking” doughnuts.
During the last War [WW II] there appeared in the North African edition of Stars and Stripes a news picture, purporting to portray an American GI teaching an Arab the gentle art of dunking doughnuts. The American is obviously much self-amused, and the whole context of the picture is “See how good Americans make friends with anybody in the world!” by teaching the foreigner a homely aspect of the American’s own culture. But, protests the cultural anthropologist, is this what is actually happening here? Is the GI really teaching . . . the Arab all there is to know about doughnut-dunking? For doughnut-dunking also evokes Emily Post, a male vacation from females striving for vertical social mobility, Jiggs and Maggie, the revolt of the American he-man from “Mom” as the introject-source for manners in a neomatriarchate—and much else besides. Underlying it all is the classless American society —in which everyone is restlessly struggling to change his social status, by persuading others that he is a “good guy” and a good average nonconformist-conformist. Doughnut-dunking is all this–and more!
La Barre’s commentary on one of the minor culture patterns of U.S. males is an excellent illustration of the fact that behind such apparently inconsequential acts as doughnut dunking, one finds the seeds of social unrest. High context actions such as these could have been used to predict at least some of the energy and emotional power that lay behind the explosive rebellion of our youth a generation later, not only against Momism but all that they considered to be repressive of the individual’s impulses. A generation ago, father figuratively thumbed his nose at his mom by dunking a doughnut. Today, his children overthrow the whole system of parental controls. Today, the dunking example seems ridiculously ineffectual and even timid. However, La Barre’s point still hold, that one has to be properly contexted to interpret everyday customs. The soldier who gets a secret bang out of soaking a common piece of pastry in his morning coffee can’t tell you why he finds this simple act so psychologically gratifying. The more that lies behind his actions (the higher the context), the less he can tell you.
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.
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.
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