Archive | December, 2009

Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please

15 Dec

The launch of a new online Bible version has been in the news lately: the Conservative Bible Project. The project’s overseer, Andrew Schlafly, even scored an interview this week on the current-events place to be, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

This “translation”  is being spotlighted because it differs from other Bible versions in at least two important ways. First, it’s written by readers. In Internet jargon, the content is open source, a “wiki.”

The theory is that, over time, the best version will emerge. It’s literary Darwinism, the survival of the textual fittest – which is ironic because the host site, Conservapedia, isn’t fond of evolution.

The other major difference is that the editors diligently impose a point of view on the text, vetting passages according to 10 “conservative guidelines.” Renderings must fit into the “framework against liberal bias … utilize powerful conservative terms … express free-market parables” and other criteria.

The results are mixed. Many changes are harmless. Others, however, mangle the meanings. For example, a straightforward translation of Acts 2:44 describes the earliest church in Jerusalem: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

According to the “proposed conservative” translation, however, “Everyone who believed was together and shared values, faith, and the truth.”

That last phrase simply isn’t in the actual text, Greek or otherwise. But as a note of “analysis” helpfully informs us, the original could be “misread as socialistic,” and so the Conservative Bible adds the gloss.

Likewise, when a rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the conservative version waters down Jesus’ words, almost doubling the word count in the process: “You lack one thing, you need to rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure to the point that if you were destitute you would still rejoice in the Lord. For doing so will give you the greatest treasure of all, the glory of heaven. Do this and follow my teachings.”

This, despite the Conservative Bible’s claim to favor “conciseness over liberal wordiness” and “not … diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity.”

Apparently, any guideline is trumped by the risk of Jesus actually challenging conservative policies.

And that’s the point. The problem isn’t about being conservative or liberal. For people who take scriptures – any scriptures – seriously, a more important principle is at stake.

The Conservapedia approach turns translation on its head. Instead of coming to Scripture as students to learn what God might be saying, translators turn into dictators, forcing the text to fit their preset ideas.

But the folks at the Conservative Bible Project are not alone in this sort of ideological narcissism. They’re just more obvious. We all want to see what we want. We’re all prone to emphasize some points and then neglect or even bend others that make us squirm.

We can see it on the right, this case in point. We can see it on the left as well when, for example, interpreters go through verbal gymnastics over those thorny passages about, say, homosexual relations, war or the exclusive claims of Jesus. But if we read the texts honestly, we’ll find plenty to upset everyone.

That’s inevitable. We’re all shaped by culture, by personal experience, by the company we keep, by a dozen other factors that affect our reading of Scripture and our response to it. The key is to keep that in mind – humility is the word – and try to compensate. (That is one reason most reliable translations are done by committees of people from various backgrounds, with scholars.) This is not easy work and perfect reading is impossible, but open eyes and open minds can get us closer.

One message of the Christmas story is that God isn’t bound by our assumptions about how the world works. God is clear on that point, according to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Jesus came by stealth, the story says, born to obscure working-class parents, which is not what most people expected. The ones who first recognized Jesus’ birth for what it was (at least without the help of singing angels) were traveling foreigners, probably pagan astrologers, who kept their eyes open. We still sing about them.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Dec 2009.

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Are we fighting a just war? I’m just asking.

8 Dec

President Obama’s speech on Tuesday, which laid out his plans for Afghanistan, Pakistan and al Qaeda, left me feeling conflicted, uncertain, even a little queasy. Apparently I’m not alone.

There’s only marginal agreement among Americans about the military buildup, with 51 percent supporting Obama’s plan, according to a USA Today-Gallup survey taken the day after his speech. But almost all of us are fretful. By an almost three-to-one margin (73 percent to 26 percent), Americans said they are worried that the costs of the war will make it more difficult to deal with problems close to home. That is besides the normal anxiety that comes with any major conflict.

In making his case, Obama declared that “in the midst of these storms … our cause is just,” echoing words from last year’s campaign, when he said that destroying al Qaeda is “a cause that could not be more just.” (Anyone who is surprised that Obama is focusing on Afghanistan hasn’t been paying attention.)

“Just” is a significant word when talking about war, hearkening to a way of thinking that dates back to the Romans and found its most enduring expression through Christianity. When we talk about a “just war,” we’re talking ethics and theology.

There’s irony here, since Jesus told his followers to pray for their enemies and “turn the other cheek” when insulted. For the first three centuries after he walked the earth, most Christian teachers steered followers away from military service.

But this pacifist position softened as the Christian faith gained respectability in the Roman Empire, especially after it was legalized in the early 300s and made the official state religion in 380.

The question was how Jesus’ instructions to his followers applied in a wider society. Christ taught peace, the reasoning goes, but people and nations – sinners all – must still deal with the world as it is. Part of that challenge is to determine what conditions must be met for a war to be justifiable, even while recognizing that war is a result of sin.

Augustine, a North African bishop and considered one of the church’s greatest teachers, framed a “just war” doctrine through his writings in the fourth and fifth centuries, as the collapsing Roman Empire was coming under siege from northern European “barbarians.” His teaching has formed the basis for most Christian thinking about war ever since.

In its current Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church summarizes just-war doctrine, saying that, “at one and the same time,

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking about the war in Afghanistan at West Point on Dec. 1.

Those who govern, “those who have responsibility for the common good,” are burdened with evaluating “these conditions for moral legitimacy,” the catechism says. In other words, war must be declared by legitimate authorities.

This being theology, of course, the answers aren’t as simple as this list suggests. Libraries are full of books that tease out various interpretations.

So does the war against al Qaeda via Afghanistan qualify as a just war? I’m no theologian and even less of a military expert, but a few answers seem clear.

It’s obvious that al Qaeda inflicted “lasting, grave and certain” damage on the U.S. and other places. (But how lasting?) Also, while success is never guaranteed – Vietnam is a harsh reminder – there seems to be “serious prospects” of success. The government has indeed approved the use of force. (An interesting footnote: Americans have not engaged in an officially declared war since 1945.)

When we beyond these few certainties, however, the answers grow murky.

For now, maybe it’s enough to make sure we ask ourselves questions like these – ethical and theological questions – if only to remind ourselves of what is at stake, even more than economics, politics or national security. As we should know by now and as Augustine and other theologians knew a long time ago, we don’t risk only the lives of soldiers when we go to war. We risk our souls.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Dec 2009.

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