When the commonplace is no longer common

This is the third in a series that started here.

I am a Jane Austen aficionado.  When I first read her novels in high school, I loved them simply for their storyline.  But my appreciation for her grew when I took a Jane Austen course in college and was enlightened to the deeper shades of her irony, wit and humor.  I realized, then, that I had missed so much previously because I had not truly understood her commonplace references.  They were commonplace for her time, but they are mystifying for our times.  For example, in all of her novels, there is a reference to “a living.”  In Pride and Prejudice, we read that George Wickham was supposed to be given a living, and we immediately translate “a living” to a modern day definition of a job with a salary.  That’s pretty close, but actually, a living was a position granted to a clergyman that guarantees a fixed amount of property and income.  A living attached to a large estate like Pemberley was not something to be laughed at.  It meant comfortable security for the rest of your life.  Because I did not know how “a living” was defined in the life and times of Jane Austen, I am certain that I missed why Wickham found it so disagreeable (can you imagine Wickham giving sermons?) the first time I read Pride and Prejudice.  This fact is actually pretty revealing for the storyline.

I think it’s safe to say that whenever we read something written in a different era, we need to get out our history books and come to a greater understanding of the life and times in which it was written.  Commonplace references then may not have the same meaning now.

In Ephesians 5:22-24, we read in our English translations, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

So what happens when we read the word ‘head’ in the English translations of our Bibles?  The common mistake is forgetting to reflect upon what the word meant during the life and times in which it was written.  Instead, we imprecisely define ‘head’ with our modern day definition of top-down authority.  We presume that Paul’s reference to Jesus as head means that Jesus is the head of the church like the CEO is the head of a company.  But is this truly what is meant when Jesus is described as the head of the church?


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