Seeing gasoline rainbows

The following post appeared Tuesday, February 2nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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Sometimes, I am too young to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Or too old. Or too naïve. Or too refined. Often I wonder if God is holding a particular set of words in reserve for a particular time in my life — when I need those words I will finally hear them. Or perhaps I already have, and they have settled into the bedrock of my faith.

The words of Jesus are beautiful and dynamic. They grow in depth of meaning as I grow in depth of experience, emotion, and faith. Many of Jesus’ words mean something new to the disciples after the resurrection because the disciples are different after the resurrection. Likewise, the words of Jesus are the same, the chapters and verses are the same, but I am different every time I read them. In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says a similar thing about the natural history museum:

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finishing catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time…Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.

Both small differences in me from day to day and large changes in me from year to year can affect my reading of scripture and my encountering the words of Jesus. The climactic change in the lives of the disciples was the resurrection; for me, the changes tend to be small, the differences subtle. But a new encounter with Christ can erupt from even the smallest change, the subtlest difference. When I open myself up to seeing gasoline rainbows, when I realize I am different than I was before, I discover the power of the words of Christ working within me.

In a recent bout of nostalgia, I read some of my old writings and found that I had discussed the same verses on three occasions. After he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The words were the same each time, but I was different. Here’s what I mean.

It’s May 9, 2004, and Easter season blooms on the domain of Sewanee. I’m a junior in college. I’m two or three steps into the exhaustive process towards ordination. Classes are drawing to an end; exams are approaching. With flagging energy, I am writing lectionary-based reflections on xanga.com (before people ever used the word “blog”). And Jesus’ words encounter me:

“Wow. [Jesus] could not have put it more succinctly, or more beautifully. It does not take mighty acts or wondrous miracles to show people that we are followers of Christ. Just love. But I would argue that love is a mighty act, it is a miracle. Loving with the love Christ taught us – the only true love – is more powerful than anything. […] When we love with the love Christ taught us, we bring Christ to others. This love is powerful, transformative, life-changing, irresistible. Paul tells in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from it. And it is our duty, and it should be our joy, to spread this love to others.”

It’s March 7, 2005, and fog rolls into the domain along with Lent. I’m a senior in college. I’m a postulant for Holy Orders, and I’m waiting for my bishop’s decision about sending me to seminary next school year. I’ve broken John’s Gospel into forty passages, one reflection per day for my Lenten discipline. And Jesus’ same words encounter me again:

“This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian – to love one another as Christ loves us. We are capable of love because God loves us. Indeed, Paul tells us, ‘God is love.’ So how do we love? I think that is an impossible question to answer succinctly. In a past reflection, I called love the ‘conscious or unconscious search for God in other creatures.’ Searching for God means searching for all that is good, right, true, and graceful about another. However, this does not mean looking past all the other stuff. When we love truly, we see the good and the bad and continue to be in relationship. Contact (spiritual, emotional, &c.) is essential for love – only by staying in contact with God and others can we feel the love that purges our iniquities from us.”

It’s March 20, 2008, and Maundy Thursday comes impossibly early this year. I’m a senior in seminary. I’m a new deacon in the church, and I’m preaching at my field education parish. But the flu keelhauls me for five days, the middle of which is Palm Sunday. Being ill is all I can think about, and Jesus’ words encounter me a third time through that illness.

“Life is only worth living when it can be shared with others. This sharing is another word for love. And love shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency. When the flu knocked me out, my friends served me. I had no choice but to let them serve me because I could not serve myself. And I am better for it. They showed their love for me by bringing me medicine and food. In their act of loving service, they washed my feet. I have a share with them, and we all have a share with Jesus Christ. We are his disciples because we have love for one another. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency. An inability to accept the service of others masquerades as self-sufficiency. But this masquerade is a dismal half-life. Christ came that we may have life, and have it in abundance. Washing each other’s feet, serving one another, and loving each other with the love of God brings this full, abundant life in Christ.”

It’s January 26, 2010, and I’m seeing through the eyes of my old selves. On each day when I read those verses from the Gospel according to John, Jesus encountered me with the same words. And each time, Jesus used my gasoline rainbows to transform me into a new vessel for those words. Over the years, the same words have helped me change into the new person I am continually becoming.

I invite you to look for the gasoline rainbows in your life. You are a new person since you last picked up the Bible. How are you different from the last time you read a particular passage of scripture? What is new about you? How have Jesus’ words made you new? What are your gasoline rainbows?

Viral papyri (Bible study #10)

In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.

Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.

papyrusThe viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*

Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”

At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.

With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.

Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.

The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.

Footnotes

* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.

Twenty questions (Bible study #8)

In the last Bible study, I talked about reading the Bible out loud as a way to focus our interpretive endeavor. When we read aloud, we are forced to make interpretive choices that silent reading misses. This is especially true when reading dialogue. In the Gospel, narrators set scenes, but most of the important information is conveyed through characters’ interactions with one another. The evangelists* present these interactions in various ways, but each uses dialogue as the main vehicle of communication.

When you study the Gospel, pay attention to how the writers structure their dialogue. What is said? What is not said? What are the speaker’s preconceived notions? What are his motivations? What is her background?

Here’s one example. Every time someone calls Jesus “teacher” in the Gospel according to Matthew, that someone is not on Jesus’ side. They are scribes and Pharisees and people asking Jesus questions to test him. On the flip side, Jesus’ disciples and those asking for healing always call Jesus “Lord.” In this way, Matthew shows that the former group doesn’t get that there is so much more going on than an eccentric teacher wandering around spouting eccentric ideas. While “teacher” is not necessarily pejorative, Matthew uses it to show Jesus’ opponents attempting to stifle the rumors of his messiah-ship. With this simple comparison of title, Matthew communicates the struggle for influence between the establishment and Jesus’ disciples.

Matthew does all that with two little words: “teacher” and “Lord.” Across the Gospel, there is very little extraneous information, so we rarely get an explicit statement of a character’s mood or bearing. Besides Mark’s use of “immediately,” adverbs are in short supply in the Gospel. The dramatic force of characters’ interactions is driven by the dialogue itself; this dialogue is charged with intent, meaning, and suggestion, so descriptors are distracting at worst and ancillary at best. Read through all four accounts of the Gospel, and I bet you could count the number of times someone’s mood is described on one hand. (Check John 11 for a couple).

The narrators do not need to intrude into conversations because the evangelists are pretty darn good writers. How would it be if the text said: The woman said flirtatiously, “How can you get that living water?” Jesus, feigning ignorance of her advance, responded dispassionately, “You drink of this water…”

I know. Not the best writing ever. Rather than infesting their conversations with adverbs, good writers develop dialogue that suggests what I stated explicitly in the above example. Here’s how John writes the conversation: The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. (John 4:11-14)

Of course, I’m making an interpretive choice when I read flirtation into this conversation, but John’s dialogue leads me there. Pay attention to what the characters in the Gospel say and don’t say, especially the ubiquitous dialogical motif of a speaker failing to answer the question that is asked.

Try this one on for size. At the beginning of the Gospel according to John, some priests and Levites come to question John. They ask him: “Who are you?” Here’s what he doesn’t say: “I’m John from over yonder a bit. My parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth. I’m the crazy guy who eats locusts and wild honey and wears uncomfortable shirts.” Instead, he says, “I am not the Messiah.”** Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but this does not even come close to answering their question. If sobreadboxmeone came up to me and said, “Who are you,” then responding, “Well, I’m not a toaster oven,” doesn’t really narrow it down.

But John and the Levites keep playing twenty questions: “Are you Elijah?” I am not. “Are you the prophet? Nope. Obviously, because of John’s recent activity, both he and the Levites know that this little game is about more than who John is. If it were that simple, my answer about uncomfortable shirts would have been enough. They want to know what his significance is in the history of the salvation of Israel. With this in mind, his leap to downplaying rumors of messianism makes more sense. Rather than asking him if he’s larger than a breadbox, they try a new version of their original question: “What do you have to say about yourself?” And again, John doesn’t answer their question. He speaks not about himself but about the one to whom he points: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him a direct question about himself, John points to Jesus.

By structuring a conversation in which John answers different questions than the ones asked, the evangelist offers us insight into both parties. Watch out for this kind of conversation in the Gospel (especially John’s account).

Okay, I’m approaching a thousand words about this topic, so I think I’ll stop soon. When you read the conversations in the Bible, be sensitive to how the writers put the words together. Focus on the dialogue and let it speak to you. And know that Jesus is not just talking to the woman at the well or the crowd beneath the mount. He is speaking to you and to me.

Footnotes

* This is a handy shorthand for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authorities behind the four canonical accounts of the Gospel.

** Actually, according to the narrator, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” This is one of those odd places where the narrator does inject description into conversation. But it’s so rare that these few words take up lots of pages in commentaries.

Tabula rooster (Bible study #6)

For the first time in my life, a rooster woke me up this morning.

Before I go any further, let me say that I was none too pleased by this event. Everything I know about roosters comes from cartoons and various other early childhood media, and the aggregate sum of that knowledge boils down to two facts: (1) roosters are boy chickens and (2) roosters crow at sunrise. Now, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department, sunrise was at 7:09 this morning at longitude W80.0, latitude N38.7 where I happen to be on retreat. So, either the cartoons lied or the rooster was jet-lagged because that darn bird woke me up at 5:30.

As an aside, I’ve always thought clock-radios to be rather neutral devices, but the one in my room mocked me with its diabolical red numbers.

At first, I didn’t know what was making the noise. It was guttural, gravelly — like the rooster version of Tom Waits. Then, as sleep traitorously fled from me, I took stock of my position as it related to the unknown sound. I was in bed. I was in the middle of farm country. I was awake before I should be. The sound was not my alarm. Taking these four items into account, I deduced the encroaching noise was the call of a rooster — an overzealous rooster fiend — but a rooster, nonetheless.

So, what’s all this have to do with the Bible? Well, not much, in truth. I needed to vent. However, as I am writing this post, I realize that taking stock of my position helped me identify the rooster’s crow. In much the same way, taking stock of my position in relation to the various texts of the Bible facilitates a more authentic encounter with those texts.

Why does that one story make you angry? or sad? or joyful? or indifferent? What memories does that other story stir in your heart and mind? Maybe your grandmother recited the twenty-third Psalm to you every night as you fell asleep. Maybe that gesticulating street preacher quoted a verse at you while explaining that your bare legs condemned you to hell.  Maybe you were on the verge of mental collapse and you threw your Bible to the ground and it flopped open to Romans and you read and you were filled. Maybe you cannot read Paul because the slave owners justified their action with his words.*

Simply put, our positions, our baggage influence our readings of the text. None of us can achieve a state of Tabula Rasa when we open our Bibles; nor should we try. I don’t believe God wants blank slates to write words on. God wants us — in all our history and tragedy and comedy — wants to rearrange our baggage into those words of life. We bring ourselves to the texts of the Bible. All those positive and negative memories and emotions bubble up. Quelling them for the sake of “scholarship” or “study” makes no sense. The Bible should be too much a part of our lives to keep our lives from being a part of the Bible.

When you pick up the Bible, acknowledge that your position and your baggage do, in fact, influence your reading. Ironically, this acknowledgment will make you less biased in the long run because you will begin to see why a story strikes you a certain way and not just that it does. Chronicling your past associations with a particular text offers one way to chart your growth in your life of faith. The text does not change, but you do. What changes happened? How does the constancy of the text bring those changes to light?

Take stock of your position when you open the Bible.  Let the text encounter you — not the person you think you should be in order to be worthy of the Bible’s holiness nor the unobtainable Tabula Rasa, but the person you are in all your human particularity and messiness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the text will speak to this honest, baggage-ridden person. Where the text and your baggage intersect, you will have found your story in the Bible. You will know you aren’t alone in your experience for there are no new stories. There are just new people telling them, new combinations of baggage which add depth and innovation, new ways to proclaim that old, old story.

Who knows? Maybe the next time I read the Passion narrative and come to Peter’s denial of Jesus, I’ll think of that overzealous rooster fiend at longitude W80.0, latitude N38.7.

Footnotes

* In his wonderful and provoking book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman speaks of this in his own family.

** In the 4th study in this series, I spoke of a dual reading of the text — once with your context and the historical context and once in the light of a “holy naivete.” I think this holy naivete is different from the blank slate mentality. In the former, you let go of your baggage in order to set it into sharper relief in your reading. In the latter, you delude yourself into thinking you have nothing to offer the encounter.

Getting lost in the stacks (Bible study #5)

One of the easiest missteps people make when sitting down to study the Bible is mistaking the Bible for a book. I know it looks like a book — it has folios stitched together and a cover enclosing the whole bound volume. But whatever its resemblance to a book, it is not one. It is many. The word “Bible” began its career as the Greek phrase ta Biblia which means “the books.” Therefore, the Bible — all visual cues to the contrary — is, in point of fact, a library.

Here’s what I mean. What we call the Bible is a collection of all sorts of writing: transcribed oral tradition, history, prophecy, poetry, gospel, correspondence, sermon, song, vision, law code, genealogy, novella, advice column, propaganda, shopping list, architectural schematic. And these are just the ones I could come up with off the top of my head. The history of how the particular collections of what I will from now on rather lamely refer to as “texts” came together to form our modern day “Bible” is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that from history down to shopping list, each text somehow relates an encounter between God and God’s people. God’s people found the particular encounters that make up the texts revelatory and important, and they, in many a Spirit-filled decision, collected those texts together into the library that has become the Bible.

So, what’s all this have to do with studying the Bible? After picking your pericope, figuring out what type (or genre) of writing the passage comes from can help you begin to unpack it. You’d expect to find dialogue in a Gospel because the genre of Gospel is narrative.* You’d expect to find poetry in the collection of psalms because psalms were originally liturgical song. (Indeed, attached to many psalms are directions for the accompanying instrumentation.) But what if you found poetry in the Gospel. What would that tell you? Perhaps, the writer is reaching back to an earlier tradition and putting that liturgical song on the lips of a character. Check out Mary’s song in Luke 1, influenced clearly by Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. Check out Jesus’ words from the cross in Matthew and Mark, which come from Psalm 22.

Being sensitive to the various genera found in the biblical library gives us the opportunity to compare the myriad ways biblical writers explored their encounters with the living God. One writer finds God in the proportions of architecture, another in correspondence with the churches he has founded, another in the list of the generations of God’s family going all the way back to Abraham and before. Putting these different experiences in conversation with each other shows us the wonderful range of expressions of the life of faith.

So delve into the library of the Bible. Get lost in the stacks of the Hebrew Scriptures. Run your fingers along the volumes of Paul’s letters. Find one of those rolling stepping stools and reach the dusty top shelf of Revelation. Be aware of the different kinds of writing in the Bible, the various encounters of the people of God. And remember that you, yourself, are part of the greater story still being written, still being added to those last, unfilled shelves.

Footnotes

* Actually, as far as scholars can tell the form of “Gospel” as narrative is unique to Christian literature. Other ancient texts call themselves “gospel” but they tend to be something closer to news reports about various glorious victories for the Roman Empire. The fact that Mark calls Jesus’ message “Gospel” could be an ironic coopting of Roman phraseology — a literary “nah-nah-na-nah-nah,” if you will.

Expect to be surprised (Bible study #4)

I wasn’t planning to write about this particular aspect of Bible study for a while yet, but a few days ago I broke the very direction I’m about to relate to you. Before I tell you what this direction is, I must say that failing to observe my own guidelines is an odd and humbling experience. You might say, “Adam, you made them up; you can get rid of them just as easily.” Well, I’ve never liked when presidents dump their own executive orders when they get inconvenient. So I better stick to my guidelines and remember that God’s greatest gift to me is slapping me upside the head with humility.

Incidentally, I wonder if police officers experience any humility or remorse when they speed by with nary a siren or light turned on. I doubt it. Anyways, back to the Bible. So, I was beginning my sermon prep and reading through this Sunday’s lessons in a book that has all three of them conveniently grouped together. I finished the short passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and my eyes wandered down to the Gospel reading. “Matthew 16:13-20” said the bold headline. Right, I thought, that’s Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Messiah, keys to the kingdom and all that. Then I closed the book.

Yep, I closed the book. I closed the book WITHOUT READING THE GOSPEL LESSON. Take 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid before continuing to read this post………..right, let’s press on.

The next morning in the shower (I do all my best thinking in the shower), I was thinking about my sermon and realized I couldn’t remember what the Gospel text was for Sunday. I could, however, remember shutting the book after reading Romans. I took 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid. When I got to church, I pulled out my Bible, opened up to Matthew 16, and read it. And read it again. And read it again.

And I surprised myself so much that I threw my head back and laughed a manly laugh of triumph. Actually, I had an uncontrollable fit of giggles, but if Cameron Crowe ever makes my biopic, I hope he inaccurately portrays me so I seem less like a 12-year-old girl.

I giggled because I noticed something in the text I’ve never noticed before. I’ve read Matthew 16 a few dozen times over the years, but until Tuesday morning, I never saw that Jesus asks his disciples two different questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” I always saw the “those people/you disciples” distinction, but never the “Son of Man is/I am” one. My sermon is still percolating somewhere in the region of my belly, so I don’t know if this distinction will influence what I say on Sunday. But, the important thing is this: the text surprised me–this text that I thought I knew so well that I didn’t even need to read it to write a sermon about it surprised me with something new and exciting.

The title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron. If you’re expecting to be surprised, then will there really be a surprise? With birthday parties, No. With reading the Bible and living your life in God’s grace, Yes. God can and surely does surprise us when we are least expecting it. But we can also foster the faithful expectation that God’s sleeves are full of never-ending pocket handkerchiefs and affixed to God’s lapel is one of those flowers that squirts water and in God’s loving embrace await ever deeper and more beautiful surprises.*

When you read the Bible, practice expecting to be surprised, especially when you are studying the most familiar passages. And I do mean practice. Every reading will not yield some surprising event, but every expectant reading will cultivate an openness to the Holy Spirit, whose whole game plan is about surprising us with God’s grace and joy.

Here’s one exercise I find helpful. Read the passage twice, with a few minutes of silence in between. The first time, read as critically as you can, with all your past experience and knowledge of the historical context and history of tradition and understanding of ancient biblical languages and your kitchen sink. The second time, let all the baggage recede into your mind’s Green Room and read with the lightness of a holy naivete. Finally, have a conversation with yourself about how your two readings compared. What was the same/different? What was confusing/clear? What sprung from the page? As your intellect, curiosity, and hunger mingle with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you will find something new and exciting. And you might just giggle like a 12-year-old girl.

Footnotes

*After the first comment on this post, I think I’ll qualify my clown imagery. I was going for the surprising things clowns do. If you’ve ever met me, you know clowns really freak me out, but it’s the painted smiles, not the gags. The clown therapy people who frequented the hospital at which I worked one summer wore white lab coats like doctors. It was weird.

Alphabet soup (Bible study #3)

Well, I never thought I’d say this, but Google has failed me. I just gave up on a massive search to find how many English words the translators of the New International Version (NIV) used to translate the Bible.* Although I did not meet my main objective, I did discover a few helpful things:

  • There are some really nutty people on the Interwebs writing about biblical translations (especially ones who think the King James Version–which was translated 397 years ago–is still the cutting edge in biblical scholarship and modern translations are leading us along the path to destruction).
  • It’s difficult to find reputable biblical scholarship on the Series of Tubes.
  • Some Christians are just plain mean.

So, with full knowledge that I am continuing to add my voice to the wacky/sad/puzzling/repellent world of Internet biblical scholarship, I will offer my two cents on which translation to use when studying the Bible.

Cent #1: Use them all.

Cent #2: Get an Interlinear Bible.

While the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is the primary version I read (because my church uses it during worship), I consult multiple other translations to see how they render the Hebrew and Greek texts.**  Every translation is an interpretation because the biblical languages do not fit nicely and cozily into our grammatical system.

The ancient Hebrew language exists in another universe from modern English. Ancient Hebrew thrives on ambiguity and nuance and feeling. There are often assumed words left out. There is no standard word order. There are no vowels, for that matter. Translating ancient Hebrew is like painting a picture, not solving a math problem. So different translators will come up with different translations.

While Greek is both more exact than Hebrew and more closely related to English, translators still face challenges. Some of the writers of the New Testament nearly flunked Greek 101, so their sentence structure is often confusing. Other writers aced their Greek classes and like to show off, writing compound-complex (oh, so complex!) sentences with so many nouns, adjectives, and verbs that sorting out which goes with which is troublesome. Ironically enough, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews has the best Greek in the New Testament.

So, with the biblical languages proving to wiggle and squirm while we try to smoosh them into English,*** and with the biases of unbiased translators sneaking into their translations, reading a range of English translations is the way to go. Use the NIV for a Protestant outlook and the New Jerusalem Bible for a Catholic one. Use the NRSV for a mainline Protestant view and the New Living Version for a conservative Protestant one. Always read the King James for its poetry–they really knew how to write English in Shakespeare’s day. There are books you can buy called “Parallel Bibles” that line up several translations next to one another. There are also several good websites that put passages in parallel for you. Check out Bible Gateway for all your conservative Protestant versions and The Unbound Bible for mainline ones.

Okay, that cent turned into about a buck fifty, but my other cent will be short. Interlinear Bibles have text in the original languages with English translations under each word. Even if you don’t know the original languages, you can use this resource to compare words. Often the same Greek word will be translated with three or four different English words. Your Interlinear will show you this. On the other hand, several Greek words will be translated into the same English word. Your Interlinear will show you this, also. I’ve had sermon ideas light up and be snuffed out when I return to the original text. It’s always enlightening and even fun to piece together your own translation using an Interlinear and several English translations.

So, there’s my take on the alphabet soup of biblical translations. Remember that studying the Bible is about encountering God through the text. When you combine several different resources, these encounters can become more fruitful and they can further deepen your relationship with God.

Footnotes

* The reason I couldn’t find how many words the NIV uses is that (when I first conceived this post) I mixed up the NIV with Today’s English Version (or Good News Bible) which limited the number or English words in the translation. Originally, this version was produced for non-native English speakers. So, Google didn’t fail me…Adam = epic phail.

** A few chapters of Daniel are written in Aramaic, but for clarity’s sake, I will more often than not refer to Hebrew and Greek as the languages of the Bible.

*** I’m pretty sure “smoosh” is a technical term.

Weapons-grade interpretation (Bible study #1)

In the 2004 film Saved, Hillary Faye (after misinterpreting some advice from Pastor Skip) snatches the pregnant Mary from the street, pulls her into a van, and attempts a hasty and ill-conceived exorcism on her. Mary struggles free, and Hillary Faye calls after her: “Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.” Mary turns around and says, “You don’t know the first thing about love.” As Mary walks away, Hillary Faye chucks a Bible at her,  yelling: “I am filled with Christ’s love!” Picking up the recently hurled volume, Mary says, “This is not a weapon, you idiot!”

I think of this scene every time I begin the daunting and often humbling task of biblical interpretation. When I read the Bible, I breathe in the words of ancient men and women who had powerful and life-changing encounters with God, encounters which transformed their lives and altered the way they looked at the world. When I read the Bible, I am reminded that God still encounters people today and that studying the Bible makes me more aware of how God is moving in the world. When I read the Bible, I read how my life must change so that I can resonate more resoundingly with God’s presence.

At least, that’s how it works on the good days. On the bad days, I open up the PDF of the Bible I have on my laptop, search for a keyword, take a sentence completely out of context, and slam it down the throat of whoever is annoying me with an interpretation that is different from mine. On the bad days, I affix a trigger and barrel to my Bible and shoot verse-bullets at people who disagree with me.

Thankfully, my bad days are few and far between. But there are enough Christians in the world that there are always a couple bad days happening, a couple of bible-guns taking aim. And sadly, there are a few very vocal Christians who have built Heavy Water Reactors out of their Bibles and are constantly turning out weapons-grade interpretation.

Here are some warning signs to consider if you suspect WGI in your neighborhood:

  • Someone holds up a closed Bible while telling you what it says.
  • Someone says, “The Bible says…” and then strings together single verses from four different books.
  • Someone tells you that you should hate a particular group of people based on Scripture.
  • Someone says that if you don’t agree with his or her interpretation you are going to hell.

The vocal proponents of weapons-grade interpretation abuse the Bible for their own ends. Their agendas lead to irresponsible and destructive readings of the Bible, readings which prove rather than inform. The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. Let me say that again: The most dangerous way to read the Bible is to think you already know what it says. This leads to a closed book, closed minds, and closed hearts.

But biblical study should expand our hearts, not constrict them. It should open our minds to the wonders of God, not shut them in endless loops of refrigerator magnet theology. Good Bible study begins with a willingness to learn something new and enough humility to be surprised. Responsible Bible study doesn’t seek ammunition for attack, but nutrition for growth.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to post about the mechanics of biblical interpretation so as to foster responsible study for myself and others. I will ask questions such as these: How do we choose what piece of the Bible we are going to study? What should we be aware of when we read the Bible in English? What is the literary content of the passage? How does the passage function in its historical and societal contexts? How has the history of interpretation of the passage colored our understanding of it?

Tackling these questions is a step toward dismantling biblical Heavy Water Reactors. Weapons-grade interpretation damages our relationships with God and keeps people from seeking such relationships. I pray that the sad, unconscionable tradition of using the Bible as a weapon ceases so that the Good News of Jesus Christ can ring out undistorted.