Author Archive

I read this over six months ago, took notes, and got distracted before I could sit down and write about any of them. Oh well. Here are my copied excerpts (some quite extraordinary!), without comment.

[In modern, contemporary life], the normal processes of maturing through joy and sorrow no longer reach the core of man. Nobody can become a person in a void, but only in relations with other people, and if he plays safe in these relationships remains childish and undeveloped. So in work as in leisure we shun not only superfluous pains, which is right, but growing pains, which is wrong. Jesus on the Cross rejected the drug which would have diminished his agony. Who even understands his rejection today?
p.19

The pious hatred of the Puritans against curses by now has made man impotent to bless. Nobody has the power to bless or to be blessed who has lost the vigor to curse. Our society is so polite that it cannot curse social evils and prefers to blaspheme God instead. He who will not curse the shortcomings of his profession as a lawyer, a teacher, a doctor, a priest, always will have to defend it beyond the health of his soul.
p.24

Admit that chaos, darkness, confusion, are our common heritage, and that the sins of this our heritage can be forgiven. The social chaos cannot become cosmos unless man takes this chaos upon his own mind as his own mental chaos, unless he drops his mask of academic observer and his pride of mental self-sufficiency, usually called objectivity.
p.25

I had two classes of readers before me when I wrote: one the free fighters, men and women between twenty and thirty who struggle with the spirit in the form of the spirit of their own age and time. To them their generation is a secret society, and it has incommunicable tastes, enthusiasms and interests which are a mystery both to its predecessors and to posterity. The other class contains men who have experienced the spirit as the great translator from age to age because they themselves have been drafted for this supreme service.
p.lvi

As in previous millenniums of the Christian story men found and testified and fought for one God and one earth, so now we must find and testify and fight for God’s one time against impatient men’s private plans for history. Schemes to usher in the end of history overnight defy the Christian belief in a dispensation of time, whereby God is taking care of his world from beginning to end.
p.20

Christianity is essentially war in peace: it distributes the bloody sacrifices of the battlefront by an even by perpetual spread of sacrifices through the whole fabric of life. World wars can be replaced by daily wars. The Christian soldier of the future must wage war against the indifference and indolence, the coldness and barrenness, of human relations in the machine age.
p.27

Monasteries and cathedrals were the centers from which to check the un-Christian traditions of the common man. The carnival, maypoles, witchcraft, fairy tales of the average household were stark pre-Christian as late as 1600, and, as the Golden Bough has shown, even much later. Sir James G. Frazer could write that neither the Roman Empire nor the Christian Church had as much as scratched the surface of the life of the common people even to this day.
p.36

Pacifism has spread on the crutches of humanitarianism or it is backed up by the Sermon on the Mount, though I yet have to discover one word of pacifism in this.
p.43

John Dewey never has undergone the depersonalizing influences of watered labor, of the scatterbrain environment, of the split between residence and business district. I, who have suffered from these ills, can well see that they did not sear him. My objection to John Dewey is that he takes his healthy heritage for granted, that he thinks these qualities to be man’s Nature while they are [actually] the fruits of 1900 years of our era, and that he goes on from there as though nothing could jeopardize this assumed “Nature” of Man. Dewey has never a word of gratitude for the powers which gave him the strength and the unity and the wholeness. The thirtieth year of his life coincided with the closing of the frontier…. and so, on his own fundus of Christan standards implicitly lived, John Dewey has erected a complete system of agnostic ethics and morality.
p.44

Under general consent, we were asked to take down this following definition of a citizen: “A citizen is a man who is profitably employed.” In vain, did I protest that a citizen is a man who can either found or, in an emergency, refound his city or civilization. These convinced functionalists thought I was joking.
p.47

Unfortunately, thought is not consecrated unless it resists trends. The truth is something bigger than that which most people are satisfied with. Often, great truth is hated and crucified. This fact refutes pragmatism. That we are not only inside society but also outside of it, ahead of it, behind it, is unthinkable or at least undesirable for Dewey. “Integration,” to him, is God. But in a bad society, it is my duty to disintegrate her still further by taking up arms. The cross says just this. At times we are inside but at others we have to suffer the fact of outcasts. We may have to hold on to old values which our society is drunk with speed and then we appear to be lagging like the fundamentalists. We may have to be ahead of our times, and again we shall be unhappy. The Cross explains war and revolution and decay and disintegration and explains why some sacrifice must bridge the gaps which man’s abuse of his freedom always rips open.
p.48

If we wish to survive the state of helplessness created by pragmatism – helplessness against war, anarchy, decay – we need an antidote by which Interim America may be integrated into the real world of our black hearts and real deserts.
p.53

A myth is a form of mental life which pretends to be deathless; its kernel is always a fixing of the mind on some transient thing which thereby is immortalized. Nothing on earth is good or forever. The myth pretends it to be. In this pagan fragmentation of mankind by myths every community was enclosed in a private time and space.
p.64

Myths arose to conceal death in the past as well as in the future. Any founder of a city jealously cut the roots which connected him with the past. All secular societies have a skeleton in their closet. Even family genealogies usually omit the unpleasant ancestors and tell fairy tales in their stead. Christianity, on the other hand, took the unpleasantness for granted: in place of a pedigree from a mythical ancestor it put original sin inherited from Adam. And resolutely, it began in the midst of time, not in a mythical fog. Against all deathless myths and hopeless cycles the price of a living future is to admit death in our lives and overcome it. This is the supreme gift of Christianity.
p.65

The overthrow of Christian eschatology by the Enlightenment had tremendous repercussions. No people can live without faith in the ultimate victory of something. So while theology slept, the laity betook itself to other sources of Last Things. What else could a layman do during the erratic brainstorms of the scholars? Man cannot live on the latest scientific news. He needs complete faith, hope, love. Accordingly, while liberal theology ignored the existence of such radical forces in human life, men like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche kept the flames of eschatology alive.
p.70

Modern man is not so much godless as polytheistic, and therefore pagan. His life is split between many gods – or “values,” as it has become fashionable to call them. “Art, science, sex, greed, socialism, speed – these gods of our age devour the lives of their worshippers completely.” “There are many questions and many answers. But none of the multiplex deities … can enslave all the elements of our being … Science is too severe a god for children. Venus abdicates her authority over old age. Socialism annoys the man of sixty, and gree is hardly conceivable to a young person. The gods pass. When the individual realizes their passing, their unceasing change, he is converted to God – the living God who invites us to obey the ‘unum necessarium,’ the one thing necessary and timely at every moment. This man discovers his complete liberty … because the God of our future and our beginning is superiour to the gods he has put around us in the short periods of our conscious efforts.”
p.96

Each generation had, and still has, to be introduced to the whole painful process of rediscovery. Hence the Church has acted like an immense sponge, sucking up all childish approaches toward understanding, and deterring no one who was of good faith and on the road and still alive. No pagan, native, primitive first step was rebuked as long as group or individual remained in communion with teh complete truth and its guardian, the Church. As a result, rationalists – who are a large poart of the “world” in our day – are able to see this sponge character of the Church, but not the central truths toward which it drew the pre-Christian approximations which it absorbed. So rationalists reduce Christinaity to a mere patchwork of prior sources, and identify a literal adult belief in the Creed with this or that childish state in its own understanding.
Truth, however, is only in those experiences that can be expressed by various ages in various ways. Even in mathemeatics the same truth recurs in new applications and in very different forms of statement. So legends like Santa Claus are not lies when told to children that they may understand the workings of the Spirit among us – as long as the legend waits to be told again, in appropriate terms, to the adolescent, the man, the father, the community leader. To omit the legendary form of truth is to suppress truth. As a human being, I need legend, the myth, the ritual, the poem, the theorem, the prophecy, the witness, the sermon, every one of them. The four Gospels give a model example of this rule that one truth must be expressed in different ways for different times of life. and that the whole truth is conveyed only on several such levels together.
p.99

In the Crucifixion, with the accompanying darkness, rending of the curtain in the Temple, etc., that which is to happen finally has happened once already; and for the faithful the second coming of Christ as Judge really began with his first coming. The Crucifixion judges us all, because we know that we would have behaved like Pilate or Gamaliel or Peter or Judas or the soldiers. The Last Judgement will make known publicly what those who have died with their First Brother already experience daily, that our Maker remains our Judge.
p.103 footnote

These are the powers of faith, love, and hope, which bridge the abysses inside of “Man” whom we little men have to represent through the ages. It is essential to realize that they come from God rather than the human will. The Greek and Hebrew words for faith mean God’s faithfulness and trust. Our belief is but the poor reflex of God’s faithfulness to all of us together. The masses are plunged into night when faith is made dependent on human will, instead of meaning that God holds us in the palm of his hand. Similarly love and its liberty are too often confused with will, even by theologians. Love and will have as little to do with each other as a wedding ring with a cannon. Will is not free, for it must struggle for life; but love is free, because it can choose death. This is the wrong doctrine of humanism which classifies “love” with “will”.
p.111 (some paraphrase)

Each form of mission and conversion both prepares the way for, and is renewed by, its successor. Christianity had to conquer the false gods before it could conquer the false, i.e. divided, earth. But the spirit moves on, and old forms of life can stay alive only as long as new ones unburden them from the stagnation that comes with repetition. Toward the end of the first millennium true spiritual growth of the Church gave way to sheer quantitative expansion, as kings converted peoples by fire and sword and whole tribes accepted Christianity merely at the command of their chieftains. This meant that the next millennium had to fight the paganism which consequently remained in men and institutions that had become nominally Christian, and in lands that had lapsed again from Christianity. Hence crusades and reformations had to supplement the older forms. Today crusaders and reformers are commonplace; they have cheapened their role by dabbling with insignificant problems. They will remain with us, for no Christian way of life is wholly destroyed by time; but they cry for renewal by fresh incarnations of the spirit.
p.120

Though I believe that the Church is a divine creation and that the Athanasian Creed is true, I also believe that in the future, Church and Creed can be given a new lease on life only by services that are nameless or incognito. The inspirations of the Holy Spirit will not remain inside the walls of the visible or preaching Church. A third form, the listening Church, will have to unburden the older modes of worship by assembling the faithful to live out their hopes through working and suffering together in unlabelled, undenominational groups, thereby to wait and listen for the inbreak of a new consolation which shall redeem modern life from its curse of disintegration and mechanization. By this penance we may hope to rescue our hymns and Creeds and historic Churches from destruction in times to come. Christianity itself may rise from the dead if it now discards its own self-centeredness.
p.128

In the beginning there was neither mind nor matter. In the beginning was the Word. St. John was properly the first Christian theologian because he was overwhelmed with the spokenness of all meaningful happening.
p.129

Looking back into the past, we can see that whole streams of Christian language have cooled off into geological stratifications. The languages of saints and martyrs, crusaders and pilgrims, no longer move men’s hearts. Neither the ritual of the mass – that flawless creation of the first millennium – nor the sublime language of Canaan in the Protestant Bible suffice to create peace between men today. Yet we also see that when the bread of life has gone stale, it has been refreshed again and again with new transubstantiation. These transformations of living speech-in-action are the real sacrament of the Spirit, and if we walk humbly under our bankruptcy today, we may hope to hear the Word spoken once more.
p.130

A Christian may become a full-grown adult again instead of a Sunday school boy by identifying himself with his schismatic brothers. Unless he can do this, he has not grown up.
p.143

All our acts have a dual aspect, one of freedom, one of causation. The world sees that I marry this girl “because”; but I must say to myself that she accepts me “despite.” Unless a man knows of both interpretations of his acts, he cannot be successfully married.
p.149

The first sentence of the great Gregory VII’s classical exposition of the Papacy’s rights read like a refutation of all national theory of the Church: “The Church of Rome was founded by God alone” (supplement: not by an act of politics).
p.150 footnote

Calvin himself, by the way, resisted the temptations of mere curiosity, and lengthy as his own theology was, it was restricted by him to the necessary. When Socinus pestered him with questions, he wrote: “If you wish to know more, ask somebody else. For you shall never succeed in your quest of making me from eagerness to serve you transgress the boundaries placed on our knowledge by the Lord.” (Opera ed. Reuss, 1549 Dec. ep. 1323, vol. XIII, 485.)
p.153 footnote

Our ends certainly do not sanctify our means. But the reason is that our ends never sanctify anything.
p.163

The story of Christianity is the penetration of the Cross into more and more fields of human existence. Something of the extent to which this penetration has taken place can be seen in the way the word “crucial” has invaded our scientific, artistic, political, and social vocabularies.
p.165

Since the four fronts [forward, backward, inward, outward] differ in quality and direction they are ultimate and irreducible dimensions of human existence, but the mind with its imperious urge to relate and unify everything is tempted to over-simplify life and deny the Cross of Reality by reducing the four to one. This is the main source of viciously one-sided fallacies about man and society – sentimentalism and mysticism which engulf everything in the inner life of feeling, utopian radicalism which would bring in the Kingdom of God by violence, reactionary romanticism which dwells wholly in the feudal past, cynical rationalism which reduces man to a mere object of natural science.
p.169

The decadence of an older generation condemns the young to barbarism. The only energy that can fight this evil is faith. Faith, properly speaking, is always belief in some future, a world to come.
p.173

When a man withdraws from the struggle, he removes a cornerstone on which the whole structure of mutual aggression rests. The self-annihilation of one particle of the frightful will to live mitigates the pressure between all. Most of us have found that some degree of restraint, of asceticism, is a way of making life less terrible. Actions beget reactions. Do not react, and you lessen the conflict, undo the fighting.
p.177

Thousands of college people – professors, their wives, boys and girls – are trying to solve their problems by writing books, but they have forgotten the equally important problem of creative silence. Respect for the question, when to be creative and when not, is so rare that most authors simply go on thoughtlessly producing book after book. We must cultivate the courage to stay silent for a while among the people with whom we live, so that when we do speak our voice will have become theirs.
p.180

The very existence of any science proves the existence of creation instead of causation, of fellowship instead of bureaucracy, of authority instead of tyranny, of service instead of exploitation.
p.194

The agencies of adult education misdirect the free times of the masses unless they allow every man who emerges from his mass existence, to fight the devil.
p.206

What can Einstein and a Ranger say to each other? The cleavage between their official philosophies has been taken for granted. We have left peace-time thinking and war-time action completely unreconciled. Thinker and warrior have no common history. If we could create it, the community spirit would be reborn.
p.215

It is true that a man’s physical life span is measured from birth to death. (The Church never did this but counted from baptism to funeral.) From this simile, man concludes that his mind is his lifetime companion, progressing also from birth to death. However, while this life stretches from the cradle to the grave the life span of an inspiration reaches from the middle of one man’s life to the middle of the life in the next generation. Thus the difference between our physical and mental existence is expressed in the difference of their periods or rhythms. As carriers of physical life, we feel our life to be an unbroken sequence. As carriers of valid thinking, as scientists, rulers, writers, parents, experts, officers, we can’t have peace if we try to imprison this thinking process within us or if we thing of it as synchronized with our own physical life-span.
p.220
(The despair of trying to sync up everything inside your own lifespan.)

The obstinacy with which psychology has studied the mental processes within the individual is no proof that its method is fruitful. The dream of a self-taught, self-ruling man is a bad dream. The measure for teaching and ruling cannot be found from the abnormal compression of these processes into one individual. Historical man is taught by others, and rules others; and in these relations, he is compelled to realize himself.
p.222

[Pacifists] are right when they abhor war as the order of the world; it certainly is its disorder. The world was created for peace. But they are wrong when they do not add that the act of creating the world is a perpetual act. What we call the creation of the world is not an event of yesterday, but the event of all times, and goes on right under our noses. Every generation has the divine liberty of recreating the world.
p.224

The young first must be allowed to feel, to scent, to presage, to fight for themselves, to quench evil, to protect the world before we can speak to them theoretically. The old must think out lucidly that which the young have felt or can feel about the future. “We may conceive humanity as engaged in an internecine conflict between youth and age. Youth is not defined by years but by the creative impulse to make something. The aged are those who, before all things, desire not to make a mistake. Logic is the olive branch from the old to the young.” (Alfred N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 1929, p.179)
p.226

The collaboration of soldiers and thinkers must be the central article of any society’s constitution.
p.227

“Don’t get excited” is no wise counsel to young men. If they no longer can get excited the world decays, just as much as when the old men can’t keep cool.
p.227

We all know that a father’s mind should enter into the impulses of his son. That is the reason why nobody may call himself a father, by mere physical procreation. Fatherhood is rethinking the world in the light of one’s children. Why is God so inexhaustibly original? Because he rethinks the world for every generation of his children.
p.231

Peace cannot be organized when the audacity of the warrior is not invited. And as the integration of the soldier’s generative force into the community had not been achieved after pioneering [of America] was over, the two world wars were indispensable.
p.232

The hierarchy of importance is unknown in the academic community; the unpaid laundry bills of Walt Whitman may be given as much importance as his “Ode for Lincoln.” The good taste of the academic mind is the only barrier against such nonsense; yet it is true that the mind of mere peace-time thinking has no way of protecting itself against unimportant and superfluous questions. Everybody knows how new questionnaires are invented and new studies are manufactured from sheer curiosity or unemployment of the mind.
p.236

The fear of the custodians of the Christian faith, that the spirit of the time is wrong, is as useless as the pride of the men of the world that the spirit of their time always is right. This spirit must be made to serve. God is the father of all spirits [thoughts and actions].
p.243

I picked up Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music at the library. I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve read of him online in the last few years. I find it surprising that I went so many years without having heard of him. As music was my academic discipline (ages ago it seems now), I was curious what I would find in his work on the subject.

A lot of the basics are solid. His definitions are clear and his insistence that musical taste has a moral component is, I think, a deeply theistic and Christian idea. So I find myself agreeing with many of his basic ideas about beauty. And of course he gives many rich examples in the development of harmony and melodic devices throughout the years, focusing mostly on art music from the baroque through romantic age. But alas, focusing isn’t quite the right word. Tunnel vision would be more accurate.

Scruton is largely dismissive of virtually all pop, jazz, and even folk music. Near the end of the book, he discusses contemporary musical examples from U2, R.E.M. and Nirvana, but only to scornfully call them vapid and empty. At one point, he shows a treble clef staff with a few bars of transcription of the rhythm guitar part from R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ from 1991. He complains about how the inversion of the chords never change throughout the song. I had to laugh! One might as well complain that a car is ‘boring’ since it keeps four wheels on the ground at all times.

Anyone who is themselves a guitarist and has spent hundreds of hours learning to quickly switch bar chords and get them to resonate evenly would know that changing the inversion all the time is extremely challenging technically and aurally not particularly discernible. The guitar is not a piano, though a very skilled player can perform simplified piano music on it. A guitar is not a choir, though it can be made to sing. When I contemplate music, I think as much or more about the physical aspects of playing as I do about harmonic theory. So much of what I am fascinated by and value in music, Scruton’s theory seems to ignore completely.

How can you listen to U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ and call it empty and repetitive? Repetitive it is – in CERTAIN respects, but not others. But the ways in which it is rich do not fit into Scruton’s aesthetic theory. And so at the end of his book, he has nothing good to say about a vast multitude of music. I believe the key to understanding this lies in one of his early chapters. After a long section discussing melody, harmony, and rhythm, is the section on timbre. But what’s this? It only gets half a page and ends with:

That is not to deny the importance of timbre, as a contribution to musical meaning; but it is to imply that timbre, and tone-colour generally, presents no parallel system of musical organization, on apart with rhythm, melody, and harmony. those last three weave the musical surface together, and create the tonal space in which its movement is heard. Nothing will be lost if, at this stage in our investigation, we set timbre to one side, as a secondary characteristic of the musical object.
p.77

Ah, but so much is lost indeed. When hundreds of years of tinkering with harmony ran it’s course, then timbre was found to be a thousand-square-mile playground! Getting just the right kind of distortion on that electric guitar, putting some growl or smoke or dreaminess into that voice, tinkering with the sizzle of the high-hat until it perfectly compliments the breathy saxophone, and adjusting the reverb levels on each single word sung in a recording to give it a shimmering, otherworldly quality – there is beauty (and real art) to be found in the crafting of these things. They are not barren empty technique, though of course, with sin or rebellion they (like anything), can be employed as such.

So while I think Scruton’s work has some very good insights (his chapter on imagination and methaphor is great), I ultimately find myself not impressed with his aesthetic theory. It just doesn’t account for nearly enough of what is found in the world. It makes sense of some very real ugliness, but cannot account for all the loveliness. It’s like a theory of flight that spends 500 pages talking about airplanes and just one page dismissing birds for their “ridiculous flapping”. We need a bigger tent.

Update: While reading part of Scruton’s similar book on architecture the following day, I came across this passage on music that shows, despite my disagreement, that he is at least aware of some of the questions I raise above:

Consider how one might formulate the thought – vital to the very conception of modern music – that the classical style is no longer AVAILABLE to the modern consciousness, that it is no longer POSSIBLE to compose like Beethoven or like Brahms (despite Sir Donald Tovey’s noble efforts in the latter direction). Surely this thought requires one to represent the existing musical forms and methods as somehow exhausted. They have fallen into desuetude, not because we are bored by them (for we will never be bored by Mozart), but because they do not allow the modern composer to express what he wishes. They are not adapted to the full complexity of the modern consciousness, and do not lend themselves to expressing the tree feelings of a modern man. It is because music, poetry, and painting are seen at least partly in this expressionistic way that their self-conscious reconstruction becomes intelligible.

I’ve had this book on my to-read list forever and my wife got it for me for Christmas so I finally got to it in January. It was especially fun to read while recently coming back from Ethiopia and in the middle of working on learning some Oromo words to help me format a copy of the Gospel of John in Oromifa for some friends there.

This was a rich book, but the prose made it a rather difficult read. Here I’ve copied down a few of the most interesting passages with occasional brief commentary.

One can see the church as going through different stages of development. Syncretism is when it absorbs non-Christian beliefs and practices from the world surrounding it. Reform is actively working to improve things by adjusting practices and articulating beliefs better to correct for drift over time. Quarantine is withdrawing or trying to shut out the world in some way to avoid corruption. That’s a really simple way of defining those three things anyway. One can talk about them as if they happen in cycles, but I think I’m with Sanneh here in believing they can be going on concurrently.

Quarantine, syncretism, and reform must not be understood in exclusive terms, for there is a natural overlap among them. In the event, it would be better to think of them not as successive stages but as types and styles of religious organization and activity, sometimes all existing together, whatever the degree of intensity in each case. What actually happens may be a function of place and circumstance rather than of precise temporal sequence.
p.?

Fluent in the vernacular, converts viewed Westernization in the church differently. They recited the creeds but in accents of their own. The polemical tone of the Nicene Creed, with its triumphalist swipe at vanquished heresies, for example, dissolved into chastened prayer of interession of the powers of the spirit world. The enemy was not someone else’s theology: it was the nemesis of one’s own spirit world. Spiritual warfare required spiritual aid, not philosophical theory, and for that the vernacular Scriptures as written oracle were well suited.
p.57

I loved this paragraph about how the creeds and other pieces of what we consider very propositional pieces of theology or scripture were spontaneously repurposed as tools of spiritual warfare by those not steeped in the Western intellectual tradition. Perhaps a better use for them!

Here, Sanneh argues that translation made Christianity (and still makes it today) natural allergic to attempts to make practice strictly dictated by theology.

As Irenaeus contents, an elitist theology is inclined to oppose adaptive response to the message because elites prefer uniform rules to real-life resourcefulness. So the sun and the community, as respecitive symbols of doctrine and culture, and mutually exclusive or at least are in tension. The preferred way of dealing with this tension is to make religious practice subordinate to theology. That was how minimalism – and its attendant rationalism gained the ascendancy it did.
However, the successful implantation of Christianity in a great variety of soils could scarcely be impeded by the bounds of theory, so diverse and apparently conflicting are the channels God uses to promote the kingdom. A central cultural mandate imposed upon this diversity placed unbearable strain on historical experience, and thus led to considerable local tension and contention.
p.75

Good quote:

“for weak and fragile is a kingdom with one language and custom” (nam unius linguae, uniusque moris regnum imbecille et fragilum). St. Stephen (Hungary)
p.77

Excellent example of a crazy idea that can come from taking a piece of scripture in isolation way too seriously:

The Franks had contended that the liturgy could be performed only in the tree ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, on the grounds that Pilate had used those to compose the inscription placed on the cross of Christ (Luke 23:38). Pilate cound scarcely have suspected the use he would be to the champions of the Way of Jesus.
p.83

The translation role of missionaries cast them as unwitting allies of mother-tongue speakers and as reluctant opponents of colonial domination. The contention of the primitive church that the affairs of empire pale into insignificane when contemplated in the light of God’s kingdom (Rom. 8:18-25, 31, 35-39; Phil. 3:20; Gal. 4:26) found a historical parallel in our day in the ferment between rising Christianity and a contested colonialism.
p.95

Throughout the book, Sanneh pushes back against the contemporary narrative that Western missionaries were instruments of colonial oppression. In some respects they were, but in translating the scriptures, often creating writing systems in the process, they ultimately ended up empowering the locals against colonization.

Without a revealed language or even the language of its founder, Christianity stakes itself on idioms and cultures that existed for purposes other than for Christianity, and to that extent Christianity came with a predisposition to embrace the marks of our primary identity. A mother-tongue response is in tune with the gospel. Accordingly, in its cultural aspects, the Christian movement provided the impetus for the flowering of a diverse and distinctive humanity by introducing the idea that no culture is inherently impermeable, nor is any one ultimately indispensable. To be grounded in your culture and to be a faithful Christian are complementary.
p.97

(emphasis mine)

Albeit we may not disallow of their painful traves herein, who strictly have tied themselves to the very original letter; yet the judgement of the Church… hath been ever that the fittest for public audience are such as following a middle course between the rigour of literal transaltion and the liberty of the paraphrasts, do with greatest shortness and plainness deliver the meaning of the Holy Ghost. Which being labour of such great difficulty, the exact performance thereof we may rather wish than look.
-Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, on bible translation

Hooker is so good. Via Media strikes again, this time in the realm of bible translation. Also “the exact performance thereof we may rather wish than look” – ha! That’s a nice way to say “easier said than done.”

On how our great access to knowledge serves to dilute it’s grandeur and power in our imagination.

With the great turnover in current Bible translations the modern world has acquired habits it can ill afford – habits, that is, of language and culture as trivial, dull, uprooted, and deletable, of language and culture as free floating, ephemeral space of a commitment-free, future-negating, mood-enhancing existence. We have become virtual hunter-gatherers for whom hunting has no borders, kinship, mystery, purpose, or trophies worth inheriting, and for whom gathering is simplu self-enhacement.
p.119

Can the Bible be read in a socially advanced society with anything like the immediacy it offers in a community less blessed with a large service sector and abundant information technology? If not, must spiritual seekrs in the ‘advanced’ world inevitably try to find religious sustenance in spurious or overhyped pseudo-scriptures like the Gnostic gospels, while the authentic Bible is left for the world’s poor and uneducated?
-Philip Jenkins, 2004, footnote from p.119

As is well known, [Willaim] Carey and his colleagues made few conversion inroads into India. The importance of their work lay less in statistical gains than in their brilliant development of the vernacular, and that notwithstanding their selfavowedly evangelical motives. On the contrary, it was his evangelical faith that led Carey to explore the world of India in its religious, linguistic, botanical, and social diversity. No barrier of unfamiliarity, no obstacle of ignorance or suspicion was strong enough to restrict of empede what he considered to be the universal scope of the gospel. Consequently, he expended himself in fields far removed from making converts, though he still remained true to his religious calling. He initiated a number of projects, including “modern education, new conceptions of agriculture, new industries, the first steam engine, the first Indian newspaper, great movements of social reform, and had a major part in translating the Bible into four languages” (North 1938, 3). If the fruits of his labor seem far removed from the trophies of evangelical proselytization, they remain, nevertheless, the undeniable handiwork of his religious vocation.
p.139

This is very interesting to me. Here is an example of someone serving God to profound effect, but not in the proper (evangelist, church planter) way. I have had more that a few people tell me this is, in fact, impossible. Digging further into it, I discovered that William Carey’s optimism in mission work was due to his postmillenialism(!!!). This idea is long gone from the mission work that followed his, but it makes me wonder if he was on to something.

See http://contra-mundum.org/schirrmacher/careypostmil.html for more details.

On how the languages of “primitive” people’s can end up being just as sophisticated as the seemingly most highly developed ones.

Some European students of the language [Livingston] said, may imagine that there would be few obstacles in mastering the tongue of a primitive people, but his own experience was different:
In my own case, though I have had as much intercourse with the purest idiom as most Englishmen, and have studied the language carefully, yet I can never utter an important statement without doing so very slowly, and repeating it too, lest the foreign accent… should render the sense unintelligible… The capabilities of this language may be inferred from the fact that the Pentateuch is fully expressed in Mr. Moffat’s translation in fewer words than in the Greek Septuagint, and in a very considerably small number than in our own English version. (Livingston 1957, 114)
p.145

What we should stress here is that the pressure to articulate Christian insights with reference to the Hindu environment will escalate for the church if it in turn takes seriously its missionary obligation. Mission will be the crucible in which Indian Christians will become enmeshed in the world of vernacular self-understanding, with equally inevitable implications for the vernacular itself. for these Christians, India was no ephemeral.
p.141

Now for an interesting exercise, try replacing ‘India’ in the above paragraph with ‘America’. Also imagine someone speaking it today:

What we should stress here is that the pressure to articulate Christian insights with reference to the modern secular American environment will escalate for the church if it in turn takes seriously its missionary obligation. Mission will be the crucible in which American Christians will become enmeshed in the world of vernacular self-understanding, with equally inevitable implications for the vernacular itself. for these Christians, America was not ephemeral.

On the emotional power of your first language:

Men need two kinds of language, in fact; a language of the home, of emotion, of unexpressed associations; and a language of knowledge, exact argument, scientific truth, one in which words are world-current and steadfast in their meanings. Where the mother tongue does not answer both needs, the people must inevitably become bilingual; but however fluent they may succeed in being in the foreign speech, its words can never feel to them as their native words. To express the dear and intimate things which are the very breath and substance of life a man will fall back on the tongue he learnt not at school, but in the house – how, he remembers not. He may bargain in the other, or pass examinations in it, but he will pray in his home speech. If you wish to reach his heart you will address him in that language.
-Edwin Smith (translator of NT into Ila language of Zambia), 1930, 8
p.146

On how diversity is good:

This idea was expanded by Venn’s observation that although churches might be united in devotion and obedience to Christ, it was impossible that “distinctions and defects will vanish… But it may be doubted whether, to the last, the Church of Christ will not exhibit marked national characteristics which, in the overruling grace of God, will tend to its perfection and glory” (Knight 1880, 284; cf. Walls 1981, 48, and Warren 1971, 77). Venn’s observation was an acute sight into variety as a mark of Christianity.
p.169

The older I get, the more important ecumenicism seems to be to me. The fact that even in the toughest times, Catholics and Protestants have been able to put aside their differences and work together to translate and communicate scripture better gives me a lot of hope.

Denominational rivalries did, admittedly, introduce suspicion and misunderstanding in many communities, which would have led to deleterious consequences except for the mitigating influence of the vernacular Scriptures. All the major Protestant denominations were forced to set aside their difference and pool resources to make the Bible available in authentic translations. As Tom Beetham (who?) ob served, “The process of translation helped to heal the divisions of the Church… What has brought Protestant missions together more than anything else has been the fellowship in the work of translation of the Bible” (Beetham 1967, 55). one evidence of this fact has been increasing cooperation between Catholics and Protestants. “Protestant versions in a number of languages have been used through the years by Catholic missions”. A new and active sense of ecumenical solidarity has grown between Catholics and Protestants in translation projects, with joint work now in process in 170 areas. And what helped to overcome denominational resistance also worked to enlarge the scope of mutual understanding in Africa.
p.204

In vernacular translation and literacy, however, missionary methods were a great deal more effective, however unintended the consequences. With the help of vernacular Scriptures, for example, Zulu Christians found saction for their custom of dressing in skins (Gen. 3:21), and began to criticize missionaries for not being property dressed according to the scriptures. they voiced a similar criticism with regard to church services, with Africans insisting that missionary churches were unfaithful to the Scriptures, which call for dancing and music in worship and singing (Judg. 11:35, 1 Sam 18:6; 2 Sam. 6:14; Ps. 149:3; 1 Chron. 15:16; Luke 7:32; 15:25; Matt. 11:17). As for the custom of singing, Africans found in the scriptures a stream in full spate. No amount of missionary resistance could stand in their way.
p.213

A great and challenging anecdote. Similar reasoning was used by the charismatic church I attended in college for the use of dancing during worship. I think it’s still a pretty difficult-to-refute argument.

On the power (and interesting side effects) of calling God’s name in your mother tongue.

The “thorough knowledge of native customs and beliefs” required for effective communication points to the vernacular projects of mission and to the benchmark of “the eloquence of the native assembly.” In the process of introducing Christianity to societies beyond the West, God as an exclusive, jealous deity made way for local ideas of inclusion in the religious as well as the social spheres. When ndina or another indigenous equivalent is adopted as the God of Scripture, worship in God’s name elicits the full range of religious associations of the indigenous term. When converts prayed to the God of Jesus Christ as ndina, for example, they created an overlap with older notions and practices.

This does not deny that Christianity represented real change, only that it facilitates change by helping to resolve moral dilemmas and dealing with inbred fears and anxieties. As E. Bolaji-Idowu (1962, 209), one of Africa’s leading theologians, put it, Christianity enlarged the people’s vision, freed their minds from the shackles of superstition and the irrational, and liberated their spirits from besetting fears. Thus empowered, Africans could make the choice that Christianity demanded. The key remained the vernacular and its cultural magnetic field. Mother tongue Scripture was the standard bearer of God’s message, and the local believers’ trump card against foreign devaluation. It enshrined and sanctioned local understanding in the people’s own natural idiom, and often it spawned a people’s movement in church and society. Choice is empty without change.
p.214

Some more fun and thoughtful anecdotes on scripture translation.

To the Zanaki people living along the shores of Lake Victoria, translating the sentence “Behold I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:20) implied that Christ was declaring himself to be a thief, for in their culture only thieves made a practice of knocking on doors (to be certain no one was in). “An honest man will come to the house and call the name of the person inside, and in this way identify himself by voice” (Nida 1952, 47). The appropriate translation would therefore, be, “Behold I stand at the door and call.” Announcing oneslef in that way was delcaring one’s good intentions, which, it happens, gets at the sense of the text.
p.231

The word for “song” means [in the Mandinka lanugage of Gambia], literally, “egg of a dance,” with the understanding that rhythmic bodily movement is incubated in vocal music util dance appropriately “hatches” from it.
p.237

Not related to translation really, but some interesting thoughts on how nature worship ends up devaluing nature where as worship of God enhances nature.

Yet the theological insight of creation and humanity as the independent handiwork of a divine agent also gives us a loaded view of nature and culture as manifest demonstrations of the divine mind, of nature as symbol and index of God’s power and wisdom. Creation separates, worship unites. When we look at order in creation and society we are instructed by its power upon the mind and feeling. We have a lively appreciation of the world as illuminative of God’s providence and purpose. The light of sun, moon, and stars is the garment of God, the drapery through which we glimpse something of God’s majesty (Ps. 104:2); thunder is God’s voice, and the thundercloud God’s dwelling place (Ps. 29:3-5, 18:11); the volcanic eruption is the divine heaving a sign (Ps. 104:32). The whole of creation, charged with the divine emeth (truth) is full of God’s emissaries and executors (Ps. 33:4, 6-9). The winds are God’s messengers, the flames God’s servants. The whole army of angels is at God’s command, cherubim and seraphim God’s charges (Ps. 18:10). By emptying nature of gods and divinities, by draining the plurality of nature of religious fragmentation, and by subduing the human impulse of pride, the ancient Hebrews allowed nature to be seen as God’s achievement rather than as an immovable object. There is a sense in which nature worship devalues nature. God, the Psalmist affirms, made nature a spouse for fruit, not a courtesan for diversion. Thus subordinated to God, nature and culture have a built-in rule of renewal provided they resist the temptation of pretending to be God. Only then are they free to convey something of God’s supremacy and munificence at the same time.
p.241

The Arab/Ethiopian dude Enbaqom mentioned in this paragraph sounds really cool. Unfortunately the only information about him comes from a book in Ge’ez that has only ever been translated into French, so I can’t read any more about him (yet!).

Similarly, with the introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia, schools were established, and by the middle of the seventh century most of the translation work into Amharic had been completed, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church becomeing the nerve center of Ethiopian nationalism. The career of Enbaqom, a monk active at Debra Libanos in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and a convert from Islam, was devoted to translation and related theolocial interpretation. An Arab of Iraqi origin, Enbaqom was a student of several languages, including Portuguese, Latin, Copt, Ethiopian and his own native Arabic. His book, Anqasa Amin (The Door of Faith), he wrote as an apologetic work in response to the jihad of Ahmad Gran. In it Enbaqom defended Jesus against Muslim charges of idolatry (shirk), and, intestingly enough, defended Christianity’s multilingual translation of the Scriptures. Islam, he challenged, possesses a Qur’an that is restricted to a single language, Arabic, just as the Jewish Scriptures are restricted to a single language, Hebrew. Not so the gospel which is translated in all the languages available to Christians. The gospel message is not language-bound. For vindication, he lists several languages of Scriptures, declaring that cultural and linguistic variety secures the truth of the gospel, which is at home in all cultures and languages. Enbaqom was himself at home in many cultures, it seems. An Arab, he adopted Ethiopia and its language as his own. Furthermore, at the invitation of King Galawdewos, Enbaqom in his ripe old age was occupied with translating the Buddhist romance of Baralam and Yewusaf into Ge’ez (Donzel 1969). The work of Enbaqom is a convincing demonstration of how translation channeled internal religious and cultural transformation, and renewal of materials and sources that came in from outside. Translation achieved cultural naturalization and expanded other horizons as well.
p.258

In conclusion:

Bible translation is locked into that assumption, and is the basis of the Jewish-Gentile argument: the Jewish heritage is no more or less necssary for salvation as Greek materials, with the ironic twist that the Gospels were written in the inferior Greek of transitory populiations rather than in the hallowed tongue of Moses. Greek rather than Hebrew became the defining medium of Jesus’ teaching even though Jesus never spoke Greek. It left the gullible to speculate that perhaps Jesus knew Greek even if he did not speak it, showing how the force of the Greek medium in the Gospels has spawned definsiveness about it. Christians still struggle to acknowledge that their religion has been conveyed in languages unknown to the founder of their religion, especially when they claim normative authority for the affected languages. The declaration of Peter that God is no repsecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35) is still as contentious as when he first made it; two thousand years seem not to make an iota of difference.
p.240

A few weeks ago, my friend Tafesse made it back to Ethiopia with the first draft copy of Oromo Gospel of John in his suitcase. He was just able to send me this picture of some folks in their Christian fellowship meeting reading it for the first time. They sent me some feedback on how the formatting could be improved some, but overall they were very happy with it. I’m excited that it has been a success so far.

My next step will be to reformat it for larger paper that will be embossed on both sides. I’ll also be including additional navigation marks on the bottom right of each right-handed page. With luck, it may fit in one fat volume. Lutheran Braille Workers is rather swamped, but they’ve offered to help me try printing a small batch later this year, assuming I can get the files in exactly the right format.

This spring I’ve been playing Theseus in a local community theatre production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that my wife is helping direct. I’ve been involved in shows before but it’s always been from the orchestra pit and this is my first time acting or trying to memorize lines. It’s also only about my third brush with Shakespeare in general so there has been a lot to learn and discover. Along the way, I’ve been reading Rene Girard’s literary analysis of the play that is found in his book A Theater of Envy.

Girard devotes no fewer than six chapters to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, making it a favorite topic. I’m still a fan of Girard even though he suffers from a severe case of “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” syndrome with regards to his theory of mimetic desire. The bulk of his explanation sees the fairies in the play as a mythical projection of the escalating rivalries between the two sets of lovers – a hallucination to mask and offer a softer explanation of reality.

I was really surprised to discover though that nowhere does he address Theseus’s line when discovering the reconciled lovers asleep in the forest in Act 4:1. When I began rehearsing the play, this passage struck me as the most obviously “Girardian” of the entire work. Upon discovering the men Demetrius and Lysander sleeping peacefully next to each other with their lovers, the Duke of Athens remarks:

I know you two are rival enemies.
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
that hatred is so far from jealousy,
to sleep by hate and fear no enmity?

The climax of the play really begins when the fairy Puck sorts out the misapplied love potions in the scene right before this one, and it become fully real a moment later when the duke announces the wedding of the two couples. But here is when explicit light is shed on what just happened.

And what DID just happen? Two people hated each other. They fought over the same women, then forgot the woman and just sought to kill each other. The women, in parallel, dropped their friendship and became jealous and deeply angry at each other. But then POOF! – it’s all fixed. Later, allusions to how it could have gone abound. The offered entertainment for the wedding night includes “The Battle of the Centaurs” and “The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, tearing the Thracian singer in their rage” which both end it violent resolutions. Instead, Puck has led the warring rivals astray and cast them into deep sleep. There, sleeping without fear, their jealousy and hatred dissolves.

I think this can quite accurately be called a eucatastrophe, a term coined by Tolkien to describe some sudden cataclysmic good happening. The thing to notice here is that eucatastrophe doesn’t come from within ourselves. We’re a hopeless lot of jealous haters and dysfunctional lovers, despite our occasional virtuous intentions. We can’t save ourselves – not with our own cleverness or hard work or ordered thinking. No, we need an OUTSIDE power to intervene in our lives and set things right “by might, not merit”. The incarnation of Christ is such an injection of light from outside into the dark world. The resurrection of Christ is the explosion of that same disease-and-death-reversing light.

If there is one way I’d like most to tweak Girard’s general theory, it’s that I would like him to stop seeing sacrificial violence under every bush. Yes, it IS often there of course and it’s wise for us to realize that, but there may be something else instead. There may be the resurrection of Jesus, or at least an allusion to it under that same bush. As Tolkien said (in the voice of Gandalf), ‘There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.’ Cannot the Holy Spirit also (quite miraculously) erase our rivalry as well? I think so and I’d like to be able to discern it when he does.

“It is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are certain… For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident; to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less presumption. Therefore, as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for finding out the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good; yeah, is necessary, as we are persuaded.”

OK. The old language is a bit hard to follow, but in short:

1. Where scripture is vague, we should be vague.
2. A variety of translations are a good thing.

So where is that passage from? Wait for it…

…from the original 1611 preface to the Authorized Version, that is, the King James, written by the translators themselves. Oh the irony if they knew how their text would be treated by KJV-only folks in America some 400 years later.

The Translators to the Reader: The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited, edited by Rhodes and Lupas. Quotes in Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message.

Time was running out. My friend Tafesse is leaving for Ethiopia in just a few weeks, to live in Sebeta and help support the work there. He wasn’t coming back for six months so if I was going to get anything useful done, it would have to be soon. I decided to grit my teeth and just work from the PDF copy.

I began by pasting all the text straight from the PDF into Word. Then I used selective formatting find and replace to remove all the footnotes and inline annotation marks. I also “read” through the entire thing and cleaned up spots where the text flow had gotten mangled during paste, removed other extraneous formatting, such as navigation headings and page numbers. I now had a very messy plain text copy. From there, I wrote a script to massage and format the text for the brailler. I wrote it in PHP since that is what I use everyday in my job now, though I still miss C#. The script reads everything in, eliminates word-splitting hyphens that occurred on line breaks, converts capital letters to ascii braille format (comma prefix style), and makes numerous other punctuation substitutions and spacing corrections. It then wraps the entire text to 29 cell width, then pads it with 4 cells of space on the left of each line. Finally, it loops through the text and extracts inline verse numbers and places them in the left margin space in the appropriate line.

The Gospel of John ended up being 4311 lines in this format, each exactly 33 characters long plus a carriage return, 25 lines per page. A few of the finer points about the braille format for the Oromo were graciously answered by David at Duxbury Systems, maker of braille transcribing software, even though I’m not actually a paying customer (yet).

I began printing my first draft on my old hand-me-down Freedom Scientific “Braille Blazer”. It looked beautiful(!) – for about 10 pages. Then the brailler choked on me and began skipping dots. Some of them were very faint. It would occasionally make a screeching sound. Then it would insert random page advances for no apparent reason. Everything was going wrong. Fortunately, pushing through this sort of thing is maybe the only thing I’m decently skilled at. After numerous trial and error runs, I discovered that anything else but a very strict stream of data would make the old embosser wig out and cause any number of unpredictable and page-ruining behaviors. I also found that if ran for more than about 2 minutes straight, it would begin to skip. Tearing it apart and blowing compressed air on everything seemed to help as bit, as did banging on it hard, but in the end, I found the device could just not be trusted to print more than one single page at a time, which an equal amount of rest between pages. Oh, and you absolutely HAD to clear it’s memory buffer inbetween each page using a special three-finger key combination on the control pad. BUT, if you did all that right, and prayed, it would produce a nice page of braille. And so that’s what I did all week long whenever I had a spare minute, I’d get it banging away on another page, then tear it off, make sure it wasn’t hosed, remove the tractor edges, and start it up again.

IMG 1912 from Matt Jepsen on Vimeo.

As it neared completion, I began working on the cover page. This was a lot of fun. I wrote it in Oromo, Amharic, and English, on pages pre-embossed in Oromo braille. I even got to put the Oromo dictionary I bought in Ethiopia to good use.

170 single-side pages is pretty thick! In the end I divided it into 5 volumes held together with plastic comb binding. My wife helped me put the finishing touches on it tonight.

So it’s done! Praise God. The Gospel of John in braille, in the Oromo language – the first copy to ever exist. I’m excited to hear how it’s received by the fellowship of blind Christians in Sebeta, many of whom are literate in braille.

I just finished reading Lamin Sanneh’s most important work, ‘Translating the Message’. It’s inspired me to keep going when this project got rough.

Setbacks everywhere!

First I need the text of the scriptures in Oromo. Surely a quick Google search will pull it up. Nope. I searched for hours and couldn’t find a clean copy anywhere and the fragments i did find were for an old (and apparently inferior) copy from the early 90s. There is an Android app that contains the text, so I downloaded the package for it and tried to crack it open. But the text was stored in encrypted SQLite files. Dead end. After much searching, I finally found a PDF-only version of the New Testament on the Bible Gateway site. Somehow, it had totally slipped through the cracks of my earlier searches. Or maybe I was so bent on finding a plain text copy, I had ignored it. The PDF copy is still a long way from what I really need though.

The same day that I discovered that copy, the updated version from 2006, I finally heard back from some folks at the International Bible Society. I had tried emailing and calling a bunch of different people there, but hadn’t made much headway. I ended up filling out a long permission request form with them and they think it likely that I’ll eventually be able to get the source files from them along with explicit permission to reprint the material in braille. That’s cool, but could still take months.

In other news, I’m having numerous hardware problems. Braille embossers are rather expensive (about $4000) and despite the fact that we use a lot of braille in our house, we haven’t ever shelled out the bucks for one. Someone gave us an old small one for free a while back, but I had only had limited success ever getting it to print anything without choking. I had chalked up my failure to not have the right software to talk to the thing. The most widely used software is made by Duxbury and costs another $600. This is an experimental project I’m trying to do on the cheap! That’s not going to fly. I don’t want to use the small brailler anyway since it only takes 8.5″ x 11″ paper. It would take a lot fewer pages to use the more common larger format, especially if I could print double-sided, slightly offset dots like the pros do.

Behold, a much nicer and newer braille embosser appears on eBay for only $250! It’s big and mean and even has a legit USB interface (instead of a 36-pin parallel port). We jump on it. It arrives from Texas a few weeks later, weighing all of 50 pounds.

…and, it doesn’t work. Oh it tries to work. The electronic interface works and it powers up, but the page advance motor is apparently hosed and when placed in diagnostic mode, it appears only half the dot-punching solenoids are functioning. To top it off, it plays the Chopin funeral dirge melody on power-on, indicating that it’s self-test has failed for (who knows) what reason. So it makes a lot of noise, but in the end just punches the same few dots over and over. I reach for my tools, but it’s been carefully constructed to NOT be user-serviceable. I check with the manufacturer. Sounds like $500 minimum just to have someone take a look at it. I complain to the seller on eBay and he miraculously opts to take it back at no charge. Amazing! So in the end I’m not out any money, but I’m back to where I started – still not having a good way to print.

About this same time, I receive word that my friend Tafesse is returning to Ethiopia to live in Sebeta and work with the ministry there. He’s leaving in early March and will likely be there for 6 months. Of, if only I could send a first draft with him! It looks grim though at this point.

So what do you do with a word when it’s meaning has so dramatically changed in the ears of it’s hearers that using it is almost certain to miscommunicate dreadfully?

At that point, the speaker must stop and chose whether to

A) adjust and use a different word or phrase instead that hopefully means the same thing, or

B) talk longer and provide additional clarifying background information such that the word can then be successfully used just-in-time on the lately educated listener, or

C) abandon the idea altogether as there is no feasible substitute and the risk of miscommunication is too great.

Example 1: The speaker wishes to say that Scrooge from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol behaved “niggardly”, but as this word will almost certainly be heard in listeners ears as having something to do with the the taboo word “nigger”, he opts to use the word “stingy” instead. (Option A)

Example 2: The writer is telling a story about how a grandfather let slip what all the children were going to receive for Christmas gifts that year. She loves the metaphorical phrase “he let the cat out of the bag” but realizes that many of her readers will be from South Asia and English will be their second language. She is concerned they might not be familiar with the idiom and so she adds a parenthetical explanation for possibly confused readers. (Option B)

Example 3: The academic theologian is talking about how the temple cult of ancient Israel included ceremonial animal sacrifice. However, he realizes that to his audience, the word “cult” has only ever been used to describe dangerous religious sects like the Church of Scientology, or worse, groups of Satanists in fiction and horror movies. The idea that their own faith could be legitimately described in a sentence that contains the word “cult” would be distasteful to them in a way that no short explanation can fix (Option B). He could reword everything to talk about “ceremonies” or “acts of devotion” (Option A), but feels what he’s trying to say would sound clunky. He decides to just axe that part of his presentation completely as it’s not really essential to his main thesis and more likely to add noise. (Option C)

Example 4: An financial analyst being interviewed on TV attempts to explain the latest accounting scandal with an insurance firm on Wall Street. He tosses around the words “revenue”, “profit”, “income”, “earnings”, “dividends”, and “credits” without realizing that much of the audience doesn’t understand the subtle differences between all these things, given the context. (Isn’t profit and revenue the same thing? Wait, what?) Nearly all the listeners, including the interviewer are left confused. He should have used a generous mix of options A, B, and C articulated above.

So far, so good. These are basic communication principals really. This has endless application in the realms of gospel preaching and bible translation. It also helps explain why an old translation may become deficient overtime. If numerous bible scholars thought the word “propitiation” was accurate and useful in years past, but you are worried that using it will miscommunicate, you can use a word like “appease” instead, and risk introducing baggage associated with that word. You can stop and give everyone a mini-lesson on what “propitiation” means and why it’s in the bible. Or you can choose to not use the word and all and describe the passage some other way.

Here is 1 John 2:2 in several versions:

New King James Version
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

Reformation Study Bible
And He Himself is the propitiation* for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

* A propitiation is a sacrifice to God meant to take away the enmity brought by sin between God and the worshiper. Only Christ can be an effective propitiation.

New International Version
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
NIV

The Message
When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.

The King James, even in it’s modernized form contains the original word. An example study bible includes an explanatory footnote (Option B). The more contemporary NIV decides to replace it with “atoning sacrifice” (Option A). Peterson in The Message decides to rewrite the sentence too. (Option A)

Of course in this context, translating scripture entirely, Option C (throwing it out) is not an option.

What do you do if you are translating scripture into another language – one where no equivalent word exists? Do you actually INVENT a new word? Maybe! You might have to. That’s the nuclear bomb version of Option B though and will need to be done carefully as zero of your readers will initially know what it means and it could take several generations for that to be sufficiently patched up.

I think a bigger problem arises when the word in question has had it’s meaning mangled beyond recognition, BUT no worthy alternative exists. The word I have in mind is “love”. Incidentally, we go back to 1 John:

1 John 4:7-8

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

I just overheard a guy in the coffee shop today trying to explain how “God is love” to another dude. Much confusion ensued.

The word “love” is a complete train wreck today. As far as I can tell, it’s been a problem for centuries, so I’m not quite sure how much worse it is today, but nevertheless things aren’t good.

“I love coffee.”
(Really?)

“Love is the answer.”
(Answer to what? How’s that supposed to work?)

“Love is blind”
(Sure doesn’t seem like it, are you sure?)

“Love wins”
(What lost exactly? How was it fighting? What did that/will that look like?)

“Marriage is about love, not gender. – On an LGBTQ poster I saw yesterday.
(OK, so does that mean it IS about sex, or it isn’t?)

Love Actually – Movie title.
(Sheds zero light on the subject.)

Pop radio always provides endless great examples:

“Love me harder!” – Ariana Grande song
(The music video confirms this is pretty much exclusively about sex, not devotion. Also, why is The Weeknd on this track?)

“I hate u, I love u.” – Gnash, another band currently on the radio at the time of writing this.
(Can you have both at the same time? Yes.)

“Love is evolution’s very best day” – Bono, U2
(What does that even mean?)

“I don’t wanna know know know, who’s takin’ you home home home, and lovin’ you so so so, the way I used to love you oh” – Maroon 5, currently on the radio about every 10 minutes
(So how exactly did you “used to lover her so”? By takin’ her home? Maybe she got tired of that and wanted someone who would be a good father and not go clubbing and drink too much booze every night (see the other verses). So maybe the new dude she’s with isn’t “loving” her anything like you were. Maybe it’s really different. Then again, maybe it’s more of the same.

“If you love your kids, you won’t spank them.”
(This is a steaming heap of nonsense.)

“Be careful to show love to these people by not triggering them.”
(That may be kindness, depending on the context, but I’m pretty sure love is something else.)

“I would love to get a new iPhone 7.”
(That’s nice, but that’s a pretty different use than the above.)

When people encounter the word “love” in scripture (and it’s there over 500 times in most translations), what are they going to think? Who knows. Just like people who had abusive fathers have difficulty imagining God the Father, our exposure to a myriad of meanings for “love” also causes God’s holy word to fall on confused ears.

I think there are something we can do to model love in such a way as to make it’s meaning more accurate. A strong community will have more of this. Certainly we can educate people on it’s true meaning, but this is difficult and it’s effectiveness is probably overrated.

I believe that at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit must give us all a deep (often unarticulatable) sense of what “love” is. Many of the Christian mystic writers speak often of a deeper sense of the meaning of God’s love that was given to them over the course of a life of meditation and prayer. It’s a common theme and they always struggle to describe it. Most of them end up falling back on that word, “love” again. I think we need someone perfect to show us what it means.

I didn’t read as many books or blog as much this year because life is busier. Kids take a lot of time. Work takes a lot of time. It’s that season. In addition, a lot of time I would have spent reading was spent practicing Amharic! We’ll see what next year holds – it may be even shorter.

The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White (read aloud to the kids)
A Celtic Miscellany, Tran. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin (audio book)
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (read aloud to the kids)
The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, Jeff Ryan (read aloud with my oldest son)
The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli (read aloud to the kids, 2nd time)
The Juniper Tree: and Other Tales from Grimm, Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak version (read some aloud do the kids)
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (read aloud to the kids)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (read aloud to the kids, partial)
Solomon Among the Postmoderns, Peter Leithart
Several small (and difficult to find) books on the history of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, some of them edited by Kessis Kefyalew Merahi.

Lonely Planet Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook (very well worn!)
The Essential Guide to Amharic, Andrew Tadross and Abraham Teklu (used this to death)
Concise Amharic Dictionary, Wolf Leslau (referred to at least a thousand times)