All Things “New”

Psalm 23 KJV

“Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew.”

-Robert Alter, “Introduction,” The Five Books of Moses

When church members and other folks ask me what Bible translation I would recommend, I boil it down to 1) a decent translation into English 2) that you will actually read. Over the years, I’ve personally both enjoyed and had problems with the NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, New Jerusalem, RSV, NRSV, and ESV, and I’d endorse any of those but the KJV for a first-time reader. They are all (including the KJV) decent translations into English, and you may note I don’t place a single paraphrase on the list.

The latest translation I’m both enjoying and having problems with is the Common English Bible. It’s probably the main claimant to a replacement of the NRSV for mainline Protestant churches, and it’s very good, even though it smooths over textual difficulties from time to time (just as every pleasant-to-read English translation ever has). The CEB also makes some translation choices that follow trends in current scholarship but can be pretty jarring to those familiar with older translation conventions.

The big one, which the editors and translators defend in the “Preface”: Jesus’ familiar self-identification as “the Son of Man” is rendered “the Human One.” I mean, yes, that’s an accurate translation, and I recognize that “Man” is no longer gender-inclusive in modern English usage…but why not “Son of Humanity?” Why break that far from convention? There’s a reason that so many contemporary translations still follow conventions from the King James (and the Tyndale, from which the King James heavily borrowed): the King James is brilliant and beautiful English, and it will never be beaten in terms of influence.

But the reason I’m writing this post is that the Common English Bible is the first mainstream translation I’m aware of (unless you want to argue the NET Bible is mainstream) that embraces the “new” (or new?) reading of pistis Christou in Paul. It’s hard to find an online summary to describe the New Perspective on Paul controversy (as you can see on this food fight of a Wikipedia page), so I’ll show you instead.

These are various takes on Galatians 2:16, with the English translation of the Greek pistis Christou (in these cases, pisteos) rendered in bold…

King James Version

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

New International Version

know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

New Revised Standard Version

yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

English Standard Version

 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law,because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Common English Bible

 However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law—because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law.

If you’re unfamiliar with the debate, the reason it matters to people so much is that theological arguments turn on it. Very briefly, is the pistis (faith, faithfulness) from the human’s side or Jesus’ side? If it’s on the human’s side, then how does it not become just another kind of work to earn God’s acceptance? If it’s on God’s side, then how does human will, choice, assent, or cooperation come into it? The “new” scholarship says it’s on Jesus’ side, which makes much better sense of Paul, who has experienced and believes that it’s grace all the way down.

And you’ll note that alongside the Common English Bible, the other translation reflecting this “new” reading isthe KJV.

“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

Schmemann Icon

Tuesday Reading Roundup

“Dan Wakefield gives a list of Vonnegut readings for making life decisions” (Onion AV Club) by Andrea Battleground. A close friend and editor of Vonnegut gives very specific and entertaining reading recommendations.

“The Debt: When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them?” (Slate) by Emily Yoffe. An important read as Mother’s Day approaches, especially for pastors. Churches have made (some) progress in becoming more sensitive to those who wish they were mothers, those who have miscarried, and those who have lost children to death, but this article makes me wonder how we are addressing the pain many experience when they think of their own mothers.

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Although this is not an “authorized” biography, in this interview on The Nerdist, Jim Henson’s son, Brian, says that even he learned things about his father which he never knew by reading this book. Frank Oz says the same on the book’s cover. I’m no Muppets superfan (although my family’s Christmas movie is A Muppet Christmas Carol), but I am loving this book.

“Literary Style: 15 Writers’ Bedrooms” (Apartment Therapy). Capote, Woolf, Hemingway, and 12 others’ personal (and often professional) space.

On the Trinity by Saint Augustine. I am proud to say that I will finally finish this tonight. Hopefully I’ll also have a post around a lengthy quote up soon too.

“The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease” (WSJ) by Nina Teicholz. The best I’ve read giving a decades-long history of the science and social side of no-fat dieting.

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided on race today than in 1985” (Vox) by Ezra Klein. Lots of helpful visualizations here too.

Sabriel by Garth Nix. Sabriel is a young woman whose father is a necromancer, the good kind, concerned with keeping Death from entering into Life, helping the Dead to find their rest. When something happens to her father, Sabriel is forced to step into his shoes before she is ready. Wonderful, quick read with inventive takes on everything in it. Heck, Lloyd Alexander blurbed for it.

“Stop Calling Clarence Thomas an ‘Uncle Tom'” (Washington Post) by Jonathan Capehart. “Sure, the n-bomb is a kick in the groin. But being called a ‘Tom’ is a kick in the stomach…”

“Zen and the art of keeping the NHS bill under control” (Guardian) by Madeleine Bunting. Jon Kabat-Zinn continues his giant influence as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is weighed in the UK as part of National Health Services.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

Song for a Dark Girl by Hughes and McCalla

leyla mccalla

Earlier this year, Leyla McCalla, a blues cellist (and multi-instrumentalist) and singer released Vari-Colored Songs, an album dedicated to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Today at the tail end of National Poetry Month, I’m telling you that she is among the greatest musicians we have. Below the sound file I’ve provided, I’ve copied the Langston Hughes text so you can read along.

Along with my basic message to you to check her music out on her album and on YouTube and on tour, the interpretation she makes of Hughes’ text serves as explanation of why James Cone‘s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is on my reading list for the second half of 2014.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

“Tuesday” Reading Roundup

“Ascetic Aesthetics: How Gerard Manley Hopkins Found Beauty in Dogma” (First Things) by Julia Yost. The author argues against the mainstream of criticism which says GMH’s sonnets took a nosedive as he became older and more dogmatic, reminding us along the way that Hopkins was one-of-a-kind: “The slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted in graceful sprays.”

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton. Maybe lighter and less hilarious than some of Edgerton’s others, but this would be a great one to pack along on any beach vacations you may have coming up.

“How Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Exploits U.S. Guilt” (The Wall Street Journal) by Howard W. French. The popular messages we hear and want to hear of the success of reconciliation are an oversimplification of the rampant corruption and inability to deal with its past that Rwanda is still reckoning with twenty years after genocide. This article is a must-read.

“Is Richard Dawkins Leading People to Jesus?” (The Telegraph) by Damian Thompson. While I don’t seek out arguments with atheists, I do appreciate a good atheist argument. Dawkins indeed disappoints on that count, as those who have “converted” under his teaching have experienced. Thompson writes, “If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might conclude that Prof Dawkins secretly converted to Christianity decades ago, and then asked himself: ‘How can I best win souls? By straightforward argument, or by turning myself from a respected academic into a comic figure fulminating against religion like a fruitcake at Speakers’ Corner, thereby discrediting atheism?'”

The New Testament, Revised Standard Version. This week I finished reading the NT in the RSV, a translation which I enjoyed but thought I might love. One thing wonderful and new about this time through was that day when my reading plan meant I finished Revelation 22 and then flipped back to continue with Genesis 1 in the same sitting.

Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. One of those where the art and the writing fight it out on every page to see which can be the best, everyone who has ever liked any sci-fi anything ever should at least check out this series.

“Why I’m a Pro-Life Liberal” (The Week) by Elizabeth Stoker. The pro-life leftist position maintains that human life is so significant, so inherently valuable, so irreplaceable that it should be the central subject of political concern.” Believe it or not, @e_stoker received some responses on Twitter over this one. Except for a couple bits, I agree with the whole thing.

 


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

The Cross Through a Trinitarian Lens

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

Augustine writes in Bk. IV, Ch. 3 of De Trinitate,

Now there are four things to be considered in every sacrifice: whom it is offered to, whom it is offered by, what it is that is offered, and whom it is offered for. And this one true mediator, in reconciling us to God by his sacrifice of peace, would remain one with him to whom he offered it, and make one in himself those for whom he offered it, and be himself who offered it one and the same as what he offered.

 

I don’t know about which theological conversations are the popular ones in other Christian traditions, but evangelicals and liberal Protestants talk a lot about the relationship between violence and the atonement. The views which at least recognize that this is a problem worth reckoning with are as far-ranging as A.) Insisting we recognize Christ as victim of the evil of violence (versus God as promoter of violence for our salvation) to X.) Decentralizing the Cross as the place where reconciliation is accomplished (see Delores S. Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness). [I leave out Y and Z, because there probably are a Y and a Z out beyond Williams.]

On this Good Friday, what are we thinking about the Cross? What are we hearing in sermons today (and what are we preaching)? What do we believe happened on the Cross in time and in eternity? Finally, how do we make sense of the Cross’ violence?

Scriptures throughout the Old and New Testament undeniably and regularly speak of God’s reconciliation with humankind and all of Creation in the language of sacrifice. However, there are wrong ways and right ways (and worse ways and better ways) to understand that sacrificial language and what it says about the character of God. One route that we cannot take when approaching these texts is this: contrary to some broad brushstrokes takes on human history brought to bear on Biblical criticism (whether by Borg/Crossan or Girard), there is not some monolithic, bloodthirsty, primitive humanity that can be blamed for twisting up the Gospel into an unrecognizable state, marred by humans’ love of violence.

I am convinced that all our arguments are really about one question: Who is God? This is why I quote Augustine. When Christians talk about God at all, we are talking about the Trinity (Gregory Nazianzen, memorably: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). Our talk of the atonement and of the Cross and of sacrifice is just one of many areas in which we tend to forget this and to start talking of a God who is not Trinitarian (that is, a “God’ who is not God).

In our beliefs, in our thinking, in our reading, in our speech, in our arguments, is the Cross a Trinitarian action of God? Does our Jesus “remain one with him to whom he offered” himself? If not, our Cross is not the Cross of Christ, and our atonement is not the one which God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–accomplished. But, if Jesus crucified indeed remains one with the Godhead, then how we must re-understand the nature of our atonement with God and what the Cross has to do with it?


Bonus Link: “Pope Francis, Marc Chagall and the Jews” (RNS)

 

“I am going out of life dragging their corpses.”

Katherine of Aragon

I was going to say that it takes a great writer to bring me near tears at the death of Katherine of Aragon. The truth is, Hilary Mantel (author of Bring Up the Bodies, which includes Katherine’s death) is a great writer, but the reality of Katherine of Aragon’s life is as tear-inducing as anything in Thomas Hardy: born Spanish royalty, betrothed to English royalty, married to a king, suffered the death of her infant son, had her daughter taken away from her, was herself thrown away, died soon after. Although Mantel’s portrayal is fiction and although it is hard for some to believe that a woman who died surrounded by servants and wealth was a woman abused, that is part of who she was.

The following is a conversation from Bring Up the Bodies between Thomas Cromwell and the ambassador of Emperor Charles V to England, Eustache Chapuys, in which Chapuys is voicing his regret at having not been present at Katherine’s death. Her words are those of a dying woman abused by her husband for long enough that she came to believe she deserved it.:

He rubs his blue hands. ‘I told her chaplain, you know. When she is on her deathbed, I said, ask her whether Prince Arthur left her a virgin or not. All the world must believe a declaration made by a dying woman. But he is an old man. In his grief and trouble he forgot. So now we will never be sure.’

That is a large admission, [Cromwell] thinks: that the truth may be other than what Katherine had told us all these years. ‘But you do know,’ Chapuys says, ‘before I left her, she said a troubling thing to me. She said, “It might be all my fault. That I stood out against the king, when I could have made an honorable withdrawal and let him marry again.” I said to her, madam–because I was amazed–madam, what are you thinking, you have right on your side, the great weight of opinion, lay and clerical –
“Ah, but,” she said to me, “to the lawyers there was doubt in the case. And if I erred, then I drove the king, who does not brook opposition, to act according to his worse nature, and therefore I partly share in the guilt of his sin.” I said to her, good madam, only the harshest authority would say so; let the king bear his own sins, let him answer for them. But she shook her head.’ Chapuys shakes his, distressed, perplexed. ‘All those deaths, the good Bishop Fisher, Thomas More, the sainted monks of the Charterhouse…”I am going out of life,” she said, “dragging their corpses.”