Monthly Archives: November 2010

>traduttore, traditore

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“translator, traitor”

William Tyndale dying for a translation

Bill Mounce was on the committee that created the English Standard Version Bible, one of many English translations of the Hebrew/Greek Bible. Below is his lecture to his Greek class on the translating process and translations. It is a fascinating talk about bibles and what we take for granted and what we often don’t realize goes into creating a translation.
If anything comes through, for me at least, is how important it is to know Greek rather than rely on others’ translations. Still, I am appreciative of the translations I have.

Umberto Eco wrote some interesting thoughts on the process of translation in his article, A Rose by Any Other Name.

Ninety percent (I believe) of War And Peace’s readers have read the book in translation and yet if you set a Chinese, an Englishman, and an Italian to discussing War And Peace, not only will all agree that Prince Andrej dies, but, despite many interesting and differing nuances of meaning, all will be prepared to agree on the recognition of certain moral principles expressed by Tolstoy. I am sure the various interpretations would not exactly coincide, but neither would the interpretations that three English-speaking readers might provide of the same Wordsworth poem.

~ Umberto Eco, from A Rose by Any Other Name

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Holding Together & Falling Apart: Thoughts on the Christian’s "Christian Life"

If your bible is falling apart you probably aren’t.

~ John MacArthur

I have an old New American Standard Bible that is in sad shape. It is heavily dog eared, has some ripped pages, and is on at least the fourth duct-taped version of its binding. The “bison grain” cover is barely there and looks terrible. Numerous verses and passages are underlined and there are notes written in the margins. One could say it is falling apart. According to a popular Christian way of thinking I should be able to say that my life is, therefore, probably not falling apart.

Or I can say that kind of thinking is probably garbage.

The popular and pithy saying at the top of this post (attributed to the son of the man who baptized me – yes, I am that old) has been quoted ad nausia, and I am going to disagree with it because I believe it is, ironically, unbiblical. First let’s unpack it, shall we.

The idea is simple, the Bible is the “word of God” and should be read and understood by anyone who claims to be a Christian. I agree with the first part (though God speaks to us in other ways as well) and tend to agree with the second part. I say tend to agree because I don’t think it is necessary (both practically or conditionally) for a Christian to read the Bible. But I do think it is a good thing to do. But what does it mean to say, “your bible is falling apart?” It is fair to assume the quote implies that a falling apart bible is one that is well read, well studied, carried everywhere, and loved like an iPhone. Falling apart also implies that it is not yet completely apart and can still be read, studied, and cherished. It could be held together with rubber bands or kept in a box. It is not yet to the point of pages fluttering away in a strong wind. Still, it is long past the point where most people would give up other books as too sorry for anything but the free book bin on the sidewalk outside the used bookstore. It is the child’s stuffed animal that is so ragged and patched it has long ago ceased to look like the original animal it once was.

So, your bible is falling apart, but you are not falling apart. This must mean your life is “together.” To not fall apart, as in your life not falling apart, is something for which we all strive. We like predictability, lack of pain and suffering, and happiness. We look to God to help us make our lives hold together. God, as is popularly believed, will reward us for being true to Him, being on His team, doing the right things, having the right views. So, if your life is not falling apart then your family is doing good, your finances are doing good, your job is good, your health is good, your marriage is good, all is well. Or, if all is not well, then your attitude is good. You are weathering the storm, filled with joy in the midst of suffering, trusting God in the midst of suffering, clinging to that old rugged cross with happiness and gratefulness in a stormy sea. It’s not you that is falling apart. No matter what, good or bad, you are “together.”

The issue I have with this kind of perspective really has to do with faith and “being a Christian,” whatever that means. You see, we want (are desperate) to find a way to make visible faith. We know the handy sayings, like sola fide. We know it’s all about faith, right? But what is faith? For the apostles it just meant belief, as in I believe what Jesus said was true, or I believe God will keep his promises. To have faith means to believe the good news that Jesus and the apostles taught. But we know that belief in this sense is  more than something like I believe two plus two is four, or I believe gravity keeps me stuck to the earth. We know that faith has a heart component. But the thing is we can’t see the heart. We even have trouble really knowing our own hearts. So we try to find ways to make faith visible.

How do we make faith visible? We create something we call Christianity. Now Christianity is constantly being debated. There are lots of perspectives, lots of examples, lots of arguments about what being and acting like a Christian is supposed to look like. We have centuries of Christendom, and various versions of that. We have alternatives to Christendom. We have ardent, political expressions, and many non-political expressions. We have the apologists and the missionaries and the soup kitchens. We see gloomy churches and happy churches and churches that are hip and churches that are covered in the patina of history. We are told to read our bibles, to have quiet times, to put God  first, to go to church regularly, to be authentic. We are asked to give to churches, to missions, to causes, to the poor, to the needy, to campaigns. We hear religious speak, see religious haircuts, are given religious music, and modeled religious clothing. Then we are told to cut through all that and know that none of it matters if one’s heart is not in it. But we are not told to stop acting Christian, rather we are told to be Christian from the inside out. Be Christian and your life (the act) will follow.

All good, right? Except for one thing: once we are told that true Christianity is inward, we can’t help but ask, “what does that look like?” You see, faith is fundamentally and radically inward. No amount of outwardness can provide incontrovertible evidence of inwardness. If we want to know what faith really is, what it truly means to believe, the next step is not to look outward, but to look inward. But we cannot look that far inward. Besides, we are told otherwise. We are told that if you really have faith then your life will look such and such. We are told that belief spills out in a life that looks “Christian.” We may even be told that how you have thought about it is wrong, that there is a more radical or meaningful way to be Christian. It might come in the form of a call to genuine community, or specific doctrines, or something that is emergent, or something that is not. And all these “calls” will tie back to a faith that is understood as a psycho-emotional orientation of one’s heart. But inwardness, whether Saint Paul’s “inner man” or Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity,” is deeper than the psycho-emotional. It is so deep that one cannot control it, peg it, define it, categorize it, or even really nurture it. Faith is inwardness and inwardness is the work of the spirit of God in one’s life. It is deeper than emotions. It may even be deeper than the self.

Now I believe what James says about faith having works. Faith does come out, but not as religion, not even as Christianity. And it does not come out necessarily as a worn out bible. Faith comes out as a commitment to the things of God, and not as a choice so much as a discovery. Faith is seen when Abraham discovers he will still follow God even when God says to murder Isaac. I am convinced Abraham could not have predicted his response to God’s call.

And what are the things of God? Mostly not anything we call Christian; not religiosity, not doctrine, not denominations, not conferences on marriage, not music, not lifestyles, not social programs, not Sunday morning, not Christian haircuts. Rather the believer’s commitment is a radical orientation of the heart to what God is doing, mysterious as it is, in human history and in one’s life. In short, the things of God can be summed up as the gospel, and the gospel can be summed up as what it is that God is doing in human history. This is HIS-story (to put a cheesy t-shirt spin on it). This does not mean that none of those things most often associated with Christianity are not used by God in one way or another, of course they are, for nothing happens apart from God. But we must realize that everything else is also a part of the story God is writing, and this includes many things that would seem not Christian in nature; “out of scope” we would say in project management. We Christians must recognize that everything is “in scope” when it comes to what God is doing, for everything is God’s doing.

Another way to put it: True, authentic, biblical Christianity is first and foremost what God is doing (His spirit in the world) and not what we are doing. Christianity is (fundamentally) not something we do.

The problem is that the work of the spirit of God is unpredictable. What the spirit does in a person is both radical and unique. And though it may be for some ultimate good, it may not be “good” in a typically Christian sense. We forget too easily that the “pearl of great price” was purchased because the man sold everything else. He gave up, got rid of, handed over all that he had, all that was dear, all that was valuable in order to gain one thing. We may have to give up everything too, including our families, friendships, churches, communities, missions, marriages, children, parents, education, careers, everything. We will likely have to give up our precious self-concepts too. And Christianity itself may be one of the things we have to give up in order to enter the kingdom. A pastor I know once said he would rather his daughter be an unwed mother on crack who enters the kingdom of God than a pious church going Christian all her life who goes to hell. That shocked a lot of listeners, but it’s the perspective to have. Better to follow the spirit than to be a “Christian.”

Now, that position is not compatible with much of Christianity. If you come from a reformed type of Christianity, like I do, then you know the goal is about being an authentic Christian, based in the (written) Word of God, and exhibited in a godly life which, in part, means your bible will eventually fall apart and your life will be together.

According to the quote in question the “falling apart bible” and the “together life” go hand in hand. It is a formula. If you are not merely play acting at being Christian, then your heart is in the right place, and if your heart is in the right place it will manifest itself in a well-worn bible, and if your bible is well-worn then your life will be in a right relationship with God. Or, if you are in a right relationship with God your bible will get worn out. Or, if your heart is right, then your relationship with God is right, then your life will be right. Or, if you love God, then you will desire to read your bible, and if you read your bible you will find out how God wants you to live, and then your life will be together, unlike your bible. The problem is that this is all on the surface, even the “heart” in this scenario. It is just another version of the old “come to Jesus and your troubles will vanish,” though this time with less tent meeting and with more suit and tie.

That kind of thinking can get you in trouble. What Christians don’t want to believe is that formulas kill. The trouble with the reformed mindset is that after tearing down (metaphorically) the “religion” of Roman Catholicism it built up its own replacement formulas, with its own kind of religiosity, its piety, its doctrines, and its culture. We are not called to a kind of Christianity. We are not called to look a certain way, but to be a certain way. How that looks in your life may not look like anything typically understood as Christian and may even get you persecuted by other Christians. You may even find yourself saying, “My God, what happened?!”

But there is another problem that anyone who has spent some time on “Christian blogs” understands: The highly biblically literate individual who is on a mission to “save” the wayward blogger from his errors can also be the worst kind of  unloving, un-Christlike, ass. One would think that someone with a well-worn bible would eventually come across passages that reference the downside of self-righteousness, or the importance of being loving and having humility, or the pitfalls of the Pharisees. In fact, another pithy saying might be, “Beware the man with the falling apart bible for he is probably a jerk.” I wish this were not the case, but religion is insidious and pervasive. What we know as Christianity, that is all the things people do, say, build, and define in the name of Christianity, has not solved the problem of hypocrisy. Phariseeism is the most pervasive denomination within Christianity. You see, the well worn bible may be evidence of the right sort of inwardness in one person and the wrong sort in a hundred others. The life that is “together” may be evidence of the right sort of inwardness in one person, and the wrong sort in a hundred others. But the truth is more like this: Come to Jesus and you will be tested, your life may fall apart, the bible might or might not speak to you, and the spirit of God just might shatter all your illusions, including the one called “Christianity.”

I propose another saying: “I would rather fall apart all the way to the Kingdom of God than to be cast into utter darkness with a well worn Bible.” Another way to put it is that I look forward to the day when my life is no longer falling apart. I know that day will come, for God is true to His word. but I also know that day is still to come.

In conclusion:

I must say three final things. First is that the well worn NASB I mentioned at the top has been mostly replaced by several other bibles over the years, all of which are not well worn. And I have to say I was quite self-righteous about the worness of that bible years ago. I can unequivocally say that that bible does not represent a life not falling apart. And I have to add that the selectively underlined verses and the notes in the margins represent a somewhat different theology than I have now. Secondly, I believe reading the bible is a good thing, but not because it has any connection to one’s life holding together. Reading the bible is good because the bible is full of truth and seeking truth is something we should be about. I mean, Jesus knew his scriptures and we’re trying to be like him. Right? Of course, we should probably be reading our bibles in their original languages anyway (but not because it’s the “Christian” thing to do). And thirdly, I am fairly sure John MacArthur is a child of God. I cannot know for sure, but it is unlikely that he is not. I have disagreements with a lot of what he says, but I come directly from the tradition of Christianity that he exemplifies and mostly we stand on common ground (I think). I believe he is very likely a good man, sincere in what he says, and probably better than I on many levels. I may have completely missed his point of his quote, but I don’t think I have missed how it is generally understood by most Christians. And I do not write this post to pick on him, rather to call into question some common perspectives that have become deeply ingrained within much of Christian thought today, and yet I believe are antithetical to the gospel.

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>navigating

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Like you, I am trying to figure out how to do this thing called life. As one who claims to be a Christian who is struggling with Christianity, I am trying to do the right things and have the right thoughts and believe the right ideas. And, like you, I really don’t want it to be too difficult or too mysterious. Below are some (probably dubious) thoughts on this struggle.
There is nothing easier and more warm and fuzzy for one’s spiritual ego than to say things like, “We just need to follow Jesus and the rest will take care of itself,” or “Just let go and give it to God,” or “You know what we need to do, we just need to pray more,” or “True Christianity is community, so let’s be community,” or “Trust God and be the change you want.” I like these kinds of sayings. They make great blog posts and bumper stickers. But they are essentially meaningless, and maybe even point us in wrong directions.
Christianity is full of pithy spiritual sayings (usually based on equally pithy dogma). They get created and continue to thrive because we want to hear them. We use them like compass headings, guiding us through the hectic world of mass culture, consumerism, and the constant meh of life. But the Christianity of such sayings is not really true. That kind of Christianity is often just a cheap Tao, an easy hand hold, a path of the ethical maybe (to borrow from Kierkegaard), but not genuine spirituality.
There is no other phrase I can think of that captures this swamp as the common “do something for God.” Replace “something” with just about anything you want, it doesn’t matter. Or replace God with Jesus, because that doesn’t matter here either. Doing something for God is an impossibility, yet we long to give our lives meaning and garner the sanctifying halo of a feel-good Christianity. Wouldn’t it be great to know that God really needed you to do something for Him and you did it? But God does not need anything done by us. Instead God requires our obedience, which is another way of saying that our lives should be about loving others as Christ loved us. In this way we are doing for others, not for God. More profoundly is the way our obedience to God is really God doing something for us. Our relationship is not about us doing anything for God, rather it is all about what God does for us, which takes a lifetime to fathom and is ultimately impossible to capture, define, or sum up. To pithily sum up one’s spirituality with a bumper sticker may feel like something solid, but it is merely wind.
Christian history is full of bumper sticker sayings, even ones that are covered in the patina of historicity. Sola fide is one such saying. And there are popular modern one’s that appear as challenging questions, but end up being merely ways of solidifying already established dogma rather than truly challenging one to question. What would Jesus do? is one of those sayings. The underlying radicality of that saying, a radicality lost on many Christians, is that it’s implication could be something like, “Stop living like a Christian and start living like a Christ follower.” Instead it is used merely to conjure up emotions, if at all, and to wear on oneself or on one’s car as a kind of tribal membership badge.
Of course, what I am saying is nothing new. Many pastors preach the sermon of “authentic” Christianity. Being authentic has been a popular mantra at least since the beginning of modernity. And church goers like to hear such messages as they get their “batteries charged” for another week. But what is that authentic Christianity?
The last thing I want to do here is dive into some lengthy and debatable definition of the gospel. I doubt that I could if I wanted to at this point. Countless others have already done that anyway, and they are correct or incorrect, and I don’t want to deal with that here. But I can say that authentic Christianity emerges over the course of one’s life, through the difficulties and trials of living, which includes struggles, doubts, fears, and joy. A conversion experience is like a wedding. Compare that eye opening “conversion” moment to a long life lived in faith and one sees something like the comparison of the wedding day to a marriage of many years. One does not really know if there is a marriage, a true marriage, on the wedding day. I used to be a professional wedding photographer, I’ve seen a lot of beginnings. Many of those marriages became disillusioned in rather short order. But some are still going, and working, and hanging in there. Faith and marriage are not easy things. A true conversion becomes evident, offers its evidence, over the long haul. One is continually being converted. But one does not really know that at first. The difference may be that with faith, at least, we have God’s promises that if we are in God’s hands nothing can pull us out. We don’t have the same kinds of guarantees with marriage.
I think of authentic faith as being something like an internal compass that points one in the right direction, but not as the crow flies, nor by the easiest route. Life is a journey. We are trying to make it to the end, or the next new beginning, the best we can. Along the way we can easily be confused with what we need to the do and all that is unrequired. We see that the Bible speaks of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, and then follows that with a promise that it is God who is bringing us to salvation. On the the other hand we hear countless messages from other professing Christians that the life of faith can be summed up quite easily. We get lists and sayings from those Christians. We get formulas that range anywhere from “get yourself into community,” to “make sure you have a morning quiet time.” We are told to “live intentionally” and to “just give our troubles to God.” We may hear that we must work at a local soup kitchen or halfway house, or get “plugged in” to a local church, or dress a certain way, and to put away alcohol and cigarettes. We may also be told that having tattoos show our freedom in Christ, and drinking fair trade coffee shows our commitment to justice.
We all know this Christianity. It surrounds us. This is false Christianity and it is a trap. Authentic Christianity is not, and cannot be, a formula. For the individual, at the personal and existential level, any one of the above formulas may be part of faith, of God’s working faith into and through that particular believer. God might lead me into an intentional community, or to unplug from the grid, or to live on an island, or to start a company, or get a tattoo (which I want anyway, so that’s good). It could go any which way. And God might have any of those formulas go awry in my life, which they often do. I read a fair amount of young Christians clinging enthusiastically to formulas. Intentional community is a popular one. I like the idea. But I also know that no intentional community is a substitute for authentic faith. However, as we navigate through life, an intentional community experience may be a powerful tool that God uses in a person’s life to bring about a deeper and richer faith. We just need to not confuse the two.

So back to navigating. As my internal compass keeps me on course, sometimes wildly swinging in different directions, sometimes purposely getting me lost, I still know that compass as the hand of God working faith into me because I can’t do it on my own. What I can do is the “fear and trembling” part, but even that is just another gift from God.

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