At one point a couple of years ago, in our communal kitchen at work, we had a sign on the wall that said, “MILK IS NOT FOR DRINKING.” The sign went on to explain that while it was OK to use milk in your coffee or on your cereal, you should not drink glasses of milk.
There was a reason for this, of course. The adult-education centre I teach at provides free breakfast food to any participants who want/need it. This is funded by a grant from the Kids Eat Smart foundation. While we’re all in favour of people getting calcium in their diets, we found we simply couldn’t afford to keep up with the demand for milk. So, to reduce the milk burden, we tried to encourage people to use it only for cereal and coffee.
This wasn’t explained on the sign. It didn’t need to be, because most people understood the context, and those who didn’t, could simply ask one of the staff about the reason for the milk ban (or ignore the sign, as people generally do with signs in communal kitchens).
Now, we live in a ridiculously literate society, in which people are able to write and record the minutiae of their lives in excruciating detail — unlike most people in history, who left very few written traces behind. But let’s just imagine that some computer holocaust in the future wipes out all records of our websites, blogs and Facebook pages, and after the collapse of fossil fuels society breaks down and people have to burn all the billions of books in the world to keep themselves warm. So most written records of our society get destroyed, placing us in the same bracket as people in antiquity.
Now let’s assume that two thousand years later, society has rebuilt itself and historians of the future are digging through the debris for clues to early 21st century culture. Among the traces found by archeologists is a sign, bizarrely preserved in the ruins of what was once The Murphy Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that says: “MILK IS NOT FOR DRINKING.”
Interesting. Maybe it ends up in a museum display along with various other fragments salvaged from the period. Scholars puzzle over the meaning of these fragments, write papers, analyze them in light of what they know about our time and culture.
BUT … let’s also imagine that when humans rebuilt earth society after its great collapse, there was much debate and controversy over some of the practices we used to take for granted. Like raising dairy cattle for their milk. People in the year 4000 are wondering if they should do that again. Is it ethically justifiable to do this to cows, or is it a relic of barbarism? Is it even healthy for humans to ingest the milk of other animals? Some say yes, some say no. In short, milk consumption is a hot, hot topic in this future society.
Suddenly, the little piece of printer paper with the message “MILK IS NOT FOR DRINKING” becomes important. It becomes a flashpoint in this argument, as the anti-dairy lobby points to it and says, “Look! Here’s clear evidence that even back in the early 21st century, people recognized that mlik was NOT for drinking! Could you ask for a more clear and straightforward statement? Archeological evidence suggests that the building where this was found was some kind of educational institution, which means that educators of the year 2009 felt it was important to warn their students against the evils of dairy consumption!!”
The pro-dairy lobby would, of course, have evidence of their own to call upon. They might scrounge up surviving contemporary references to milk-drinking — maybe a “Got Milk?” poster that survived (the meaning of this piece of advertising would be hotly debated), an ancient photograph showing schoolchildren drinking milk, someone’s diary entry describing the nice glass of milk they had before bed. “You’re wrong!” they would tell the anti-dairy crowd. “Milk-drinking was alive and well, even encouraged, in the early twenty-first century — especially in schools.”
But none of that would matter to the anti-dairists. The phrase “Milk is not for drinking!” would become repeated like a talisman. It might even start to appear on T-shirts and bumper stickers. When the pro-dairists tried to talk to them about context they would say, “You’re just muddying the issue to support your own milkist prejudices. The fragment states clearly that milk is not for drinking — how much more obvious can it get? It’s a perfectly clear statement!”
I think my blog-readers are generally a pretty smart bunch so I won’t belabour the point, but: this post is not about milk. (And I know, it’s also not a perfect analogy).
It’s about context, and the difficulty of understanding ancient texts in context when we’re so far removed from time and place. Without context, isolated lines and phrases (like, oh, I don’t know, “Let the women keep silence,” or “I do not suffer a woman to teach or have authority”) can be bandied about as slogans, even when confronted with textual evidence suggesting that the same person who wrote those words also worked and taught alongside women and counted women preachers, teachers and ministers as his valued co-workers.
Context. It’s more complicated than shouting slogans at each other, though maybe not as fun. Have a nice glass of milk while you think about it.