Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Responding to comments on Modern English…

Sorry for not posting over last weekend. We had relatives in town and the bulk of our week was spent in fellowship with our family. Also, we’ve been visiting many of the Missions in California (as you may have noticed over at Imago Articulus) for our 4th grader’s California History schooling, and last Friday was spent at both Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Juan Capistrano. My two posts (here and here)on Modern English (and how it relates to Bible translation) have drawn some very good comments and questions. Keep in mind that this is a complex subject in that there are many aspects to the subject that can be addressed. Entire books have been written on or closely related to this subject, so a few measly blog posts can hardly be expected to comprehensively address the topic (ref. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth – Fee & Stuart, The Word of God in English – Ryken, and Playing With Fire – Russell). Tom asked, In your opinion would a bad translation or bad simplification block a spiritual encounter with God for a Christian? …In your opinion could that rebirth or even a daily connection with Jesus Christ be blocked or distorted for a Christian with text that's inappropriately translated? LotharBot gave a good answer, to which I’d like to add. While Christian apologists work towards a rational understanding of our faith, we understand that acceptance of the Christian faith is not merely a matter of being presented a set of arguments that prove a particular truth. If it were so then one would simply need to be shown that Christianity is true in the same sense that 2 + 2 = 4 is true. Now while I certainly think that there are sound and compelling arguments for the Christian faith, from rational grounds, such rational grounds do not cover the entire landscape of our psyche (e.g., I believe that it is futile to attempt to categorize a father’s love for his child in purely rational terms). That said, the Christian also understands that all who become Christians are initially drawn to God by the Holy Spirit through whatever methods or means He desires. So, while a bad translation may hinder an effective understanding of the text, it is not necessarily viewed as a hindrance to the Holy Spirit’s action. On the other hand, I do believe that a bad translation can be a hindrance for a proper daily connection with Jesus Christ in that such a translation could deprive an individual of the intended meaning of the text. Paul asked, But isn't all of this something of a contradiction, given that the King James and any other English bibles are translations. If you really want to know what the original meant, shouldn't you be reading the original, making the quality of a particular translation a secondary issue? I don’t view it as being a contradiction; rather, I see it as a “poor to best” arrangement. For example, using a street language paraphrase of the Bible is a poor method of study. Learning the original languages (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and reading from original manuscripts is the best method. Actually Paul, you echo the sentiment of many seminary presidents in stressing the use of original language(s). Some advocate that a pastor can best serve his flock only if he best understands God’s Word, and he can best understand God’s Word by studying it in its original language. For those of us who haven’t the time to do just that, we do have access to translator’s notes (as referenced by LotharBot) as well as resources such as: The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Greek dictionaries, exhaustive concordances, commentaries, etc. Using such study guides, though, takes time and effort. As Bonnie relates, our society typically avoids activities which require dedicated hard work and, rather, is more interested in being spoon-fed as they are entertained. It is truly amazing that, in a society in which we have access to some of the most comprehensive reference material on the Holy Scriptures ever published, we whine for translations that are easy to understand. Tom asked, So how can a Christian be sure that he or she is getting at a deeper level of the original text if our own contemporary poetry is puzzling? What is the Christian missing, since he or she has no idea what original sense the words played off each other in the sentence? And like Derrida might say, not all interpretations are equal, but what's the best one for bunches of cultures in 2005? Are you positing that we enter the world of deconstructionism? I haven’t read Derrida, but if I did, and if I held to the concept of deconstructionism, then I guess I would have to say that my interpretation of what he has written is that he completely agrees with me! Seriously, the first point we need to address and clarify here is that authors have intentions. If you’ve read something someone has written and don’t understand what his intentions were, you can ask him. Providing he doesn’t lie to you, you’ll get a clearer understanding of the meaning he intended to convey (kind of like what has been happening with this series of posts and comments). Note, however: the intended meaning of the text written by the author does not become dynamic simply because the author has died or because the culture he wrote it in is foreign to ours. If one or both of those events occur, then it is quite possible that we might never be able to determine what the author’s intended meaning was. We are hardly free, though, to then invent our own meaning for the text (an idea that many judges don’t seem to be able to grasp). It is not a crime to admit that we don’t know the intended meaning of a particular text. As you delve deeper into this topic you will find that there are various means by which we can analyze text with regards to intended meaning. I mentioned the fact that literature can be presented in many genres. The particular genre used generally tells us how easy or difficult it may be to interpret the text it contains. Consider the genre of Letters. Letters, by their very nature, are personal passages of text that extensively deal with personal events between the writer and the intended recipient. Do you know what was happening, culturally, philosophically, economically, and historically, on the island of Crete during the first century? Do you know any of the biographical facts regarding the life of St. Paul? Do you have knowledge of how the early Christian Church spread from Jews to Gentiles? If you did, then you’d have a better understanding of the meaning of the contents of a letter Paul wrote called Titus. In other words, the best understanding of a text written in the genre of a Letter comes only from increased knowledge of the author, recipient, and events surrounding the contents of the letter. There is a method of Bible study known as the Inductive Method. This method forces the reader to address the text and, using inductive study methods, ascertain what it is the text is telling us. I recently had the privilege of attending a Bible study, on the Old Testament book of Hosea, led by an Old Testament scholar (who was also one of the translators for the NIV translation of the Bible). As part of his syllabus he outlined the class objectives as:
1. Become familiar with the Biblical TEXT of Hosea. This is the primary emphasis for this course. We cannot intelligently DISCUSS or EVALUATE what we do not KNOW. 2. Explore the theological problems of the book that present themselves in the course of doing an exegesis of the text, with a special emphasis on God’s Love, Redemption and Judgment. 3. Become aware of the social, political, economic, religious, and historical backgrounds for the book of Hosea. 4. Become acquainted with the phenomenon of Hebraic prophecy, stressing the practical application of non-predictive prophecy and the role of the prophet as a preacher of theological righteousness and social justice rather than as a soothsayer.
Further into the syllabus he listed the basic procedure for such an inductive study (I’ve paraphrased or generalized many of the questions):
The purpose of inductive study is to see RELATIONSHIPS within a given passage before attempting to secure any meaning in depth. To interpret a passage without regard for contexts, both literary and historical, is irresponsible and prejudicial to its meaning. Inductive study will help us avoid such errors. 1. Survey the pericope. …Determine the message that is conveyed there. a. Structure: Determine the subject matter of the pericope, its main divisions, and select titles for these divisions that describe their contents. Show how they relate to one another, if possible. b. The Hearer: Who? When? Why? c. The Reader: Who? When? Why? d. Major impressions: Key areas, themes, or ideas? Locate and define important words. List contrasts and comparisons. 2. Analysis: Who speaks to whom about whom? Who is character 1? Who is character 2? What imagery do we have? What does phrase 1 mean? What does phrase 2 mean? Provide textual warrant for your answer. Do a word study on the idea of phrase 1 using a good, exhaustive concordance. What historical event 1 is spoken of here? What symbolism is being portrayed, then? What was the geographical location 1? What does it mean here? 3. Key Word Study: Using a good, exhaustive concordance and Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, determine the meaning of key words and phrases in the text. What do the words mean in this text? In other OT text? How do the words differ? How have they been rendered in other translations?
Thus, the inductive method of study stresses that it is from the text, and not our culture, with which we can gather the meaning of an ancient text.

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