When Disability Incites Misplaced Charity

Here are some great thoughts from my wife, who typed this up and sent it to me while she was out of town for a few day. It begins with an extended excerpt from a new biography of the Inklings.

“The Four Loves sustains the avuncular tones of the recorded talks as Lewis analyzes four forms of love: affection, friendship, Eros and Charity. The first three arising in the natural order of things may be beautiful or good but have the potential to be twisted into something ugly and destructive. Thus, Storche, or affection, the warm animal love between mother and child or dog and master May become a tyrannous stranglehold, as Lewis explains in a passage that may reflect his experiences with Mrs. Moore. If people are already unlovable, a continual demand on their part as a right to be loved: their manifest sense of injury; their reproaches, weather loud and clamorous or merely implicit in every book and gesture of resentful self-pity produce in us a sense of guilt (they are intended to do so), for a fault we could not have avoided and cannot cease to commit. Friendship, too, maybe perverted into exclusivity. Yet it offers incomparable joys, as in Lewis’s glowing account of male friends, gathering in an inn after a hard day’s walking, which doubles as an idealized portrait of the Inklings. Those are the golden sessions: when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze, and our drinks at our elbows. When the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk. And all are free men and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time and affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life, natural life, has no better gift to give; who could have deserved it? Eros, too, which binds two individuals together, transforming them into lover and the beloved, harbors its deadly snares, such as obsession and uncontrolled passion. Charity, however, stands alone. Charity, Agape, is supernatural: a sheer gift. Love Himself working in a man. It allows us to do what we would not ordinarily do: Embrace our enemies, kiss lepers, give away money, take on the sufferings of others. Through Charity, we draw close both to God, and to our fellow human beings. Lewis rejects the idea, which he discerns in Augustine’s account of the loss of his friend, Nebridius, that one must beware of creaturely love and embrace only God, who never dies. Instead, he stands with Charles Williams, without mentioning him by name, arguing that human and divine love complement and complete one another. And, that in the beatific vision, the culmination of Charity we will find our earthly beloveds in their completion and consummation, united in God.”

Excerpt from “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, c. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams”, By Phillip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Because Lewis defines Charity as coming at the sole impetus of God, he doesn’t acknowledge that Charity also can be warped, or perhaps misdefined, as in the case of unwanted pity, or misplaced altruism. Possibly because Lewis was rarely on the receiving end of such charity, it didn’t really register on his radar, but people with disabilities, especially in the modern era of technology when independence is more achievable, have to push back against this concept continually. When we were adopting our daughter, for instance, we received several comments about our “saintliness” with regards to read adopting a child who has a disability. The idea that parental affection can exist for a child with a disability in equal measure to a non-disabled child did not seem to occur to most people. Additionally, people who have disabilities are rarely seen as bringing in equal measure to the table qualities and attributes which a non-disabled person might covet. Therefore a parent would have to be a “saint” to parent a child with so much less to offer.

This brings us naturally to a discussion of Lewis’s second love: friendship, which he describes rather vividly as existing between “equal and free men”. Interestingly, one of the equal and free men to which Lewis undoubtedly refers, and greatly admired, was Charles Williams who had a significant vision impairment of the sort which inhibited many of his activities. However, he was not encouraged to discuss his vision with his circle of friends; no record of it occurs in any correspondence or records of their interchanges. He was left to get by completely on his own as best he could minimizing the impact that it had on his life at all times.

Likewise, society has encouraged me throughout my life to suppress or ignore any visual problems I may be having and not to identify with the blind community but to struggle through, passing as sighted. The pitfall of exclusivity that Lewis describes in connection with friendship has plagued me on both sides of the blindness and sighted divide, as one group throws gates in my way for receiving any sort of services or belonging their shared set of experiences, while the other mocks my inefficiencies and ineptitudes arising from lack of seeing, and ignores the intense strain I put myself under to do things their way. Thus am I never seen as free and equal and worthy of friendship but am often relegated to the arena of pity disguised as charity unless I am absolutely silent about my perceptions and experiences.

Other friends who are blind describe the same phenomenon. They will describe instances where people ask them if they are lost or need help in a building where they work for example. A sighted person, when reading such a statement does not understand why this should cause offense. The person will invariably say, “Well, weren’t they just trying to be nice?”

What must be understood in the circumstances, is that the blind person is perceived to be in need of charity, where in reality they are simply in need of friendship. Just like any person walking through their workplace looking to engage casually with a coworker, it’s assumed to be on free and equal terms. They belong there. When this assumption unravels because the sighted person decides that the blind person does not belong there and that the blind person is thought to be in need of pity or charity it creates an imbalance in the equality of the interaction.

This inequality constitutes the real pitfall of charity. Of course altruism, especially Christian love motivated solely by God is a wonderful thing. Through it is much suffering alleviated. The problem arises when like the pitfalls of the other loves sin creeps in–in this case in the form of fear or guilt; a sighted person who fears going blind will approach a blind person with the sort of consolation and help that he (or she) imagines he would need in the instance of himself going blind. This deep-seated fear usually results in pity which results in excessive over-helpfulness.

And this misguided charity also results in confusion when the recipient does not react in gratitude but rather in anger and offense. The reason for this is simple: the blind person was not in need of charity to begin with, but rather friendship. Most disabled people who are going about their daily lives desire love, friendship, and affection in equal measures to the general non-disabled public. What they often receive, is pity disguised as charity which is ultimately not from God but is an attempt to allay the giver’s fears or to make the giver feel better about himself. Like the other loves when they fail, charity taken to extreme and lavished upon misidentified subjects becomes smothering. One easy way to identify whether charity is misplaced or not, is to observe the gratitude level of the recipient.

Historically, people unwilling to receive charity were branded as prideful and reprimanded. What we need to do rather, is to realize that ingratitude may indicate an unwarranted amount of charity and a desire instead for affection, friendship or love. The thing needed to make these happen is both an acknowledgment of equality and an acknowledgment of complementarianism where inequality exists. As many disabled thinkers have pointed out, we are all interdependent. Once we accept interdependence and acknowledge that people with disabilities have value to bring to a relationship; that equality can be established and a friendship or romance can flourish.

True creation entails preservation

God views his work and is satisfied with it; this means that God loves his work and therefore wills to preserve it. Creation and preservation are two aspects of the one activity of God. It cannot be otherwise than that God’s work is good, that he does not reject or destroy but loves and preserves it. God sees his work; comes to rest; he see that it is good. God’s seeing protects the world from falling back into the void, protects it from total destruction.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p.22

My children want to save everything they make forever. My youngest son drew at least a hundred pictures of mallard ducks last year with colored markers. He kept them in a stack by his bed. As soon as I clean off the fridge and free all the magnets, it’s covered again with new drawings before I’ve had time to fill it with fresh groceries. Clay and Play-Doh works hide behind the curtains on window sills. An incredible number of Rubbermaid bins hold all piles of afternoon crafts, mixed with last years Sunday school creations and VBS projects. We are like God in that we love to create. This has been pointed out by many before, Dorthy Sayer’s “The Mind of the Maker” being the best treatment of the topic that I know of. But here, Bonhoeffer brings in another key component to the idea, the good, of Creation and that is its sustenance and maintenance. I had never considered this quite so acutely before, and so I’m writing about it.

God doesn’t just create something and then throw it in the trash. He keeps it around, because he loves it. He sustains it. He puts it somewhere safe. If it’s living, he feeds it and clothes it. To love making is to love preserving. They are inseparable. To be a builder is also to be a curator and a keeper.

A few years ago, I heard about a composer who had written a piece of software that composed symphonies in the style of Mozart all on it’s own. Imitating Mozart’s harmonic style and instrumentation, the app would develop a randomly generated melody into a sophisticated piece of high classical music. He was even able to fool several Mozart experts into believing he had found a previously undiscovered work. In the interview, he said that his software could generate a hundred such pieces just over his lunch break – music that a university student might slave over for months to produce. (I know, I used to be that very student.) The interviewer wondered aloud if this made the student’s music worthless, or if the programmer’s random pieces were worthless, or neither, or both. As much as I love software and have been a hobby programmer since I was eight years old, I experienced mostly distaste at the dehumanizing nature of the Mozart symphony generator. Yes, the end result was quantifiably the same on paper and even in the ear, but I had a rather visceral reaction to the thought. Why? I couldn’t answer at the time, but now I think I could say a bit more.

According to Bonhoeffer’s analysis here, true God-like creation doesn’t just create but sustains. Generating a hundred symphonies only to throw them into the virtual garbage can in the sky is not real creation. The pieces are never loved, never heard, never rehearsed, never played. It’s not just that their source was not in some kind of human emotional experience or muse (the first point most commenters made), but that AFTER it is made, it is not sustained.

The university student talks his friends into performing his piece. He arranges rehearsals. He rewrites parts after he discovers some of the passages are too difficult for his hack cellist buddy to pull off. He directs it during the composer’s concert and studies it with his professor for hours to discuss where he succeeded and failed in his compositional techniques. He knows it’s not that great, but it’s a significant stepping stone that he keeps in his memory as he works on future projects. Sometimes he pulls out the old CD recording that was made during his recital. The power of the music fades with memory but it only really dies when he, the composer dies. The hundreds of virtual symphonies die an instant digital death in silence as the volatile memory they are sitting on is reclaimed for the next task of the operating system. Perhaps the generated music could leave the computer and be cherished and nurtured – rehearsed, performed, and contemplated. In doing so, it would be loved and sustained and become much more like the student’s hard-won creation, even though it’s origin was different. But when that doesn’t happen (and for all but a handful of the generated symphonies, it didn’t), then the creation is essentially dead on arrival. It returns to the formless void from which it was conjured.

Our house would quickly be taken over by paintings and sculptures and Lego towers if my wife and I, as parents, didn’t put our foot down and throw things away and ensure they be disassembled. It’s completely necessary. Our kitchen table is for eating meals. It cannot be a permanent Lincoln Log museum. This is a lesson that all the kids have had to learn – not to throw a fit when their creations can no longer be sustained. I remember having to learn the same myself. I think it completely natural that this be a difficult lesson to learn. We want our creations to continue because we love them. To let them go is a mature exercise. Maybe this is what God feels like when he lets us rebel and go our own way. But it doesn’t seem like God would make anything that was destined for the trash can, even as he was building it. He also seems rather keen to often rescue things from the trash can and refashion them into even better creatures than before.

Not being embarrassed of God as “imaginary friend”

Secularists have often ridicule Christians for believing in an “imaginary friend”, conjuring up pictures of a young child playing a bit too seriously with a large teddy bear or having an engaging tea party with empty chair. In response sometimes, not wanting to be associated with what seems to be an embarrassing image, we have resorted to describing our faith more as an abstract set of ideas or of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force bringing well-being. Since Jesus and his serious work is anchored in the historical past, he naturally doesn’t fit into this embarrassing image from the skeptics and can be safely emphasized instead.

But the Holy Spirit is a person, not force. And his voice sounds with (almost) audible words in our hearts and heads. He is indeed much more like an imaginary friend than any of the less personal things we might substitute in his place to describe him. To be sure, he is augmented by our imagination, sometimes in ways that obscure his face, but that doesn’t mean he is entirely imaginary. He is real a person and here with us right now. Jesus is in heaven and will return, but in his stead, the Spirit (still completely God and completely personal) has joined with us in fellowship. Let’s not be quick to de-personalize him in an attempt to remain respectable to the skeptics. Let us instead pray the Holy Spirit speaks to them too, erroding their unbelief.

Is there anything new under the sun? (With the Holy Spirit, perhaps!)

Is man’s consciousness static or dynamic? Depending on your discipline or what you are used to reading, you might prefer if I ask whether it is ‘crystallized’ or ‘fluid’. Lately it seems that ‘rigid’ or ‘plastic’ are in vogue. I’m not just talking about one individual man or woman, but about all of mankind, throughout the known history of our race. Does our thinking really change throughout the ages, or has it pretty much been the same for time out of mind? Certainly cultures and technologies change, but does our thinking really do anything besides repeat itself in different permutations?

One currently prominent theory says that our thinking does indeed change. On the one hand, despite it’s largely imaginary evidence and origins, evolutionary theory is widely popular today. In this story, evolution, progression from a lower state into a higher state, is the recurring theme. Once we were monkeys, then animalic cavemen, then clever, but still superstitious pagans. The ‘Renaissance’ and the ‘Enlightenment’ exploded our minds and we fit contemporary ideas about our own longed-for trans-human ‘wokeness’ being part of this same trajectory. Of course consciousness is dynamic they say! Our brains are physically changing in size and density, our imaginations are expanding, and our incredibly rapid growth in technology in the last century is irrefutable proof. The secularization theory (that religion will fade and become irrelevant in the modern world), fills in the gaps.

On the other hand, Christianity has often taught (or at least emphasized) something that looks like the ‘static’ answer to the question above. Our thinking WAS at a certain place, but since the Fall of man, it’s been brought low and it’s been stuck low in sin ever since. We are born into sin and we die in sin. We are no more clever than the ancients. In fact, they were probably smarter than us, despite our spacecraft and smart phones. Though some woefully pronounce it a devolution, others are quick to point out that ancient Rome was just as morally corrupt as we are today and in many of exactly the same ways. The short answer is that there is nothing new under the sun. Oh, except Jesus. He’s a big deal, but things are pretty much going to stay the same until he comes back to redeem all of creation… later, perhaps much later. In the meantime, the world is full of stupid, petty jerks just like it always has been.

In the world of Christian thinking and scholarship, I have often observed a peculiar kind of push-back to and put-down of new or imaginative ideas. It’s often not explicit, but is more of an undercurrent – the idea that orthodox belief is unchanging in a reality that doesn’t change with minds that don’t change and brains that don’t really change either. We are not discovering truth so much as just articulating it better, or communicating it more effectively in the latest iteration of our corrupt cultural morass. C.S. Lewis’s condemnation of “chronological snobbery” is often invoked (I have invoked it myself on many occasions!), but it seems to me to be used too quickly and too often. The assumption is that there are no really new ideas – cannot be in fact. Even the Reformation, as big a deal as it was, wasn’t anything new but just a ‘back to basics’ ecclesiastical reform movement. Calvin didn’t say anything Augustine didn’t already say (or would have said if he had lived longer), and Augustine didn’t really say anything St. Paul didn’t already say, except that perhaps he was a more clever writer. We’re not evolving. We’re not getting better. Maybe we got some freebies dropped on us about the time of Pentecost, but that was straight from God and it was a long time ago. We aren’t ‘progressing’ like the ‘progressives’ want us to believe. In fact, the virtue of humility is often indicated in a public admission of how hopelessly derivative our work and thinking is.

But wait just a minute. Shouldn’t Christian theology allow for and even hopefully encourage us to expect new life, new ideas, new thinking, and (dare I say it), ‘progress’? Perhaps even a consciousness that wasn’t possible before? Something the prophets yearned to see but could not (but we can)? If the Holy Spirit is at work, constantly at work, relentlessly at work in our hearts and minds, and in the hearts and minds of (literally) millions and billions of people, shouldn’t we allow for the possibility of genuinely new ideas, or genuinely new awareness of aspects of reality? That is, actually improved philosophy and theology, even as we have actually improved science?

Someone is scared of this idea and the bad company it keeps and has decided that the best defense is to make theology (and a host of other disciplines along with it) as boring as possible.

C.S. Lewis argues in The Allegory of Love that something significant happened in the middle ages that dramatically and permanently changed our conception of what romantic love is. This wasn’t just a recycling of ideas or restating of them in a fresh way, but a deeply fresh thing in and of itself. The scripture writers did not foresee it. It hadn’t happened yet. We are so engulfed in it now that we project it back onto ALL the old stories as if things have always been that way. Even if we now scale it back or temper it with cynicism or “realism” or historical knowledge, we can’t get away from it entirely. Love has a new dimension to it and more possibilities than it ever did for our distant ancestors and there’s no reversing this (dare I say it again?), “progress”.

Rene Girard’s work also hinges on the possibility of man’s whole psychology and consciousness taking a crucial turn at a particular point in history. Girard shows that all the myths of Earth are always written by the victors in such a way as to cover up their founding murder and guilt. The victims, especially those cast out by their people, have no voice, no rights, and no recorded (true) history. Concern for victims wasn’t just uncommon, but was literally UNTHINKABLE. Only the Old Testament, especially a few of the psalms, even hint at other possibilities. That all changes with Jesus Christ. He’s innocent and everyone knows it, but is killed anyway, even while forgiving his enemies. He comes back from the dead and continues to acknowledge evil and then forgive it. In this way he is nothing like any of the other myths. From that moment in history forward, scapegoats quit working. Not entirely of course, but their power steadily diminishes and they become less and less effective at restoring order and helping us sweep our sin and failure under the rug. Things can never go back to the way they were. We are too deeply aware of the innocence of victims now.

One can disagree with all sorts of details regarding what I just recounted in both Lewis’s and Girard’s ideas. I’m not entirely convinced myself about parts of either of them. That’s fine. The point I want to make is that these are NOT boring ideas that emphasize how stagnant and static mankind is, but rather an account of how we have perhaps REALLY changed and for the better. Who could bring about such change in such a stubborn people? May I suggest the third person of the Trinity? Let’s be on the lookout for his hand rather than assuming he’s asleep. Man may be mired in sin like cement, but jackhammers exist.

Producing an Oromo braille bible, Part 5

Third time was a charm for getting old used embossers to work! A Juliet Pro 60 embosser we got on eBay for about $400 turned out to be in fully working condition. What’s more, it can print double-sided (interpoint) braille on large sheets of tractor feed paper. With the wider format and using both sides, we were able to squeeze the entire Oromo Gospel of John into 73 pages – low enough to fit in one volume. We used 2.5 inch 19-hole comb bindings to put them together. Here is a picture of all ten copies ready to go.

It also helped a lot to use the Duxbury software for formatting. We were able to get some help paying for a legit license. It saved a lot of time to not mess around with my own hand-written scripts as much. Incidentally, about this same time I received official permission from the International Bible Society to print and distribute these.

I sent them to Ethiopia in the extra suitcase of my friend Josh Quaade, who helps run One Changed Life, a street child sponsorship organization in Addis Ababa. He delivered them to my friends Berhanu and Tafesse who took them to Sebeta a few days later. I just received pictures of their arrival.

They were happy with the result. The only feedback I got was that plastic covers would help them stand up a lot longer. I agree. I looked into nice plastic 11 x 11.5 19-hole punch covers earlier, but they were $1.50 a sheet. I didn’t feel like making the project $30 more expensive was a good idea at the time. I’m going to try to find a less expensive source for them in the future – likely punching them myself. They are a pretty oddball size so not readily available.

The plan is to print and ship one more batch of scriptures sometime before the end of the year. This time maybe 50 volumes or more. I’m waiting to hear back on what books of scripture would be the most helpful to distribute. Maybe just more of John, but perhaps Psalms or other NT books. In addition to the fellowship of Oromo speakers in Sebeta, some of these would likely go further west to Bako.

Misc notes from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Christian Future

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

In need of a bigger tent for music aesthetics

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.

Misc notes on Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message

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

Producing an Oromo braille bible, Part 4

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.

A Girardian Eucatastrophe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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.