Friday, May 30, 2014

Is a "Literal" Translation the Best?: Martin Luther Weighs In

What is the best Bible translation? Should I go with a ‘literal’ translation (word for word) or a dynamic equivalent one (thought for thought)?” How many times have we had someone ask us those questions? How many books and blog posts have we read on the subject? If you’ve been a Christian-intellectual-in-training for a while, then you have probably seen or heard your fair share. Some people swear up and down that there is only one correct translation (usually the KJV) or method (usually the literal with its current champion the ESV) while all the other ones are an abomination.

One of my colleagues at seminary, the Rev. Chad Brooks, said that while he was working at a Christian bookstore he actually had a man come in and ask for “one of those Bibles like Paul carried.” Chad replied, “I’m sorry, sir, we are fresh out of scrolls.” That little story illustrates the fact that too few people understand—unless we read Greek and Hebrew we are not reading the Bible as it was originally written. I have written about this more fully in my post Kissing Through a Veil. But if we get locked in on one method or translation we may miss the actual message of the Scripture itself.

Interestingly enough, debates of this nature go back to the Reformation. While some Reformed churches today get their britches in a wad over “dynamic equivalent” translations versus “literal translations” (one thinks of the nearly fallacious claims made about the ESV over and above translations like the NLT or NIV for instance), Dr. Martin Luther was battling this way of thinking as early as 1530 A.D. He did it in high style, lambasting Papists and calling many people “asses” along the way.

A couple of weeks ago I read a short treatise called “An Open Letter On Translating.” [Click here to read it.] In it Luther justifies his translating methods, particularly surrounding his decision to include sola fide even though it was not in the original language. He writes, “It has been charged by the despisers of truth that the text has been modified and even falsified in many places, which has shocked and startled many simple Christians, even among the educated who do not know any Hebrew or Greek.” This could easily have been written last week, but he moves on to explain why this claim has been made in the first place. “The letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these knotheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text-if the translation is to be clear and accurate, it belongs there…We do not have to ask about the literal Latin or how we are to speak German—as these asses do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this. We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.

Of course, he spends more space on his arguments than I have quoted here, but I hope you can catch the drift. For Luther, the most important thing was for common people to be able to understand the Bible in their own vernacular. He had no qualms in smoothing out idioms or shifting syntax to aid comprehension. I wonder how he would have weighed in on the subject if he were alive today.

 I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please let us know what you’re favorite translation is and why.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rethinking How We Teach: The Importance of Story

Over the last 14 months I have been working with middle and high school students on a weekly basis--teaching them, discipling them, trying to cut loose and have fun again. (It's amazing how a steady diet of academics can really turn you into an old man at heart!) For the first nine months, I had a curriculum that was topical and teen-centric, but I discovered that my youth were having trouble putting it all together (or remembering what we talked about for that matter).

The difficulties I find with teaching an unending stream of topics--regardless of whether or not they are "relevant"--is that we, in the church, often fail to lay a good foundation of meta-narrative, the over-arching story of scripture. It's like pulling a bunch of lines and scenes from a movie in random order when you've never watched the whole movie. Pieces and parts are very important, but when we loose the forest for the trees we giving people "twelve baskets of fragments." Information in and of itself is rarely inspiring. Stories are inspiring.

As a guy with a BA in English, I am well acquainted with story. I love stories. I try to read 15-20 fiction books a year. When I get tired of reading, I watch TV (I know, I know! Not very intellectual, but I can't get enough of my favorite characters). The Bible is chocked full of stories. The great stories of the OT, such as creation, Noah's flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham, Joseph, the exodus from Egypt, Joshua leading Israel into the promise land, etc. etc. The synoptic gospels are jam-packed with stories of healings and miracles and conflict with the religious leaders. Plus, Jesus loves answering questions with parables. In his excellent but highly academic book, The Faith of Jesus Christ: the Narrative Sub-structure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, Dr. Richard B. Hays and Scot McKnight in his less dense book, The King Jesus Gospel, have made a strong cases for "the Gospel" at basic level simply being the story of Jesus and the cross--even when someone like Paul seems to be writing a totally different type of material all together. When the gospel is referenced in most of the NT, it points back to basic plot points of a narrative...and narrative equals story.

God is clearly not afraid of stories. But stories can be messy. Story can be vague or unclear in what they ask us to do. Stories can require us to think creatively, so we skip story and Biblical narrative and meta-narrative and give people information dumps followed by three imperatives for the Christian life. Next week, when we ask what we learned about last week, we are greeted with crickets. We tried to inspire people with information, but information does not equal transformation. Transformation occurs when our minds are changed by the Holy Spirit through the Word. Transformation happens when our old sinful and fallen scripts for seeing the world and ourselves are called into question and replaced with a new narrative--a narrative of the cross.

Recently, I have been on a mission to discover how to better communicate with teens, or adults for that matter, by capturing their imaginations and inspiring them to grow in their knowledge of God and the scriptures. Many weeks I fail. Oftentimes I slide back into delivering content devoid of story. I tell myself that building a theological framework isn't sexy but it is necessary. Teaching people a difficult concept such as the Trinity is vital. Teaching them that Christianity is grounded in a historical reality is imperative. Teaching them that God has called His Church to be One as He is One is critical for developing disciples that will cross party lines to work together, "so that the world may believe" that the Father has sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world. I do believe this; however, I don't want theology to become the replacement "topic" to topical lessons and sermons. I want to capture people's imaginations for Christ.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and any stories you might share about your experiences in teaching and preaching. Have you found ways to teach theological lessons that inspire and spark imagination in your audience? Please share these with us in the comments below.

This Is A Ride You'll Want To Take: A Book Review of Notes From the Tilt-a-whirl

I have to admit that I started off slightly annoyed with this book. Perhaps it was because the stupid US
Postal Service torqued the package in such a way as to rip an inch long gash in my book half way down the spine. No fault of Wilson's that. Perhaps I didn't get the vibe of the book right away because it came around the time my second daughter was born and I wasn't quite in the right mood. Whatever it was didn't matter for long because it grew on me quickly. It might take you a couple of chapters to get into it too. Kind of like a kid on a new ride, not quite sure what to make of it. Stick it out. I'm sure you'll be saying, "Wee!" before long.

Imagine that you are conversing with a philosophically minded well-read poet with a British sense of humor and enough confidence in his faith to think irreverent thoughts with the ultimate goal of holy reverence. Imagine a Christian book that uses occasional "off-color" language and references songs like "The Bad Touch" by the Bloodhound Gang. Imagine that a writer could take you on a tilt-a-whirl ride through the seasons, describing each as he lives it in order to reflect on what kind of world this really is. Imagine that and you might just imagine this book.

It's hard to describe what this book is about in a concise way because it is a well-structured ramble. It is about words being the building blocks of the universe. It is about ants and aphids. It is about thunder storms. Hawks and rabbits and kittens. It is about Heaven and Hell. It is about Nietzsche, Plato, and C.S. Lewis. It is about children and the elderly. It is about all these things rolled into one.

In many ways N.D. Wilson seems like a kindred spirit (though I don't pretend to have his talent or knack for wordplay). I guess it's his sense of humor, his understated or flippant comments in which you better know what he's referencing because he's sure as heck isn't going to tell you. I love the fact that he is able to tackle topics that normally get treated with dust dry prose and copious footnotes with style and panache. I mean, when was the last time you read a Christian book and thought: "Wow. This is really artistic. This is well-crafted!"?

I loved it and highly recommend it!

Thomas Nelson Publishers and gave me a free copy of this book in exchange for this fair and unbiased review.