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.

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Contemplation and Its Discontents

My entry into contemplative Christianity was junior year of high school: J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Salinger himself was apparently some kind of Buddhist (or Buddhisht), and in that book Franny prays the Jesus Prayer on repeat after reading the classic Way of a Pilgrim. I followed that trail to Peoria Public Library, where I first learned both about hesychasm and about Zen Catholicism.

A couple years later I picked up Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for the first time. I had never heard of Merton before, but I liked what the dust jacket at Walden Books at the mall said. The book may have changed my life. Some moderately extensive reading in Merton and on Merton since have given me some sense (I think) of what connections Merton was drawing between Christian contemplation and other contemplative spiritualities of the world, Buddhism in particular.

Still a couple years after that, a counselor introduced me to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s particular use of Buddhist meditation in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (set out best in his Wherever You Go, There You Are). Perhaps a year after that I read Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the meeting of several rabbis with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist religious leaders, for an historic interfaith dialogue in India. That book also introduced me to the concept of Jewish Buddhism.

Around the same time I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation (TM) in Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, who has a thirty-year practice of the discipline going and described how it figures massively in his personal life and artistic process. The actual practice of TM is exactly the same as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer.

In the last couple weeks I’ve read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, and I am halfway through his Immortal Diamond. Rohr’s books have the same tendency toward blurring difference, not only with other religious traditions but with Jungian psychology and 20th/21st century physics.

Conclusions:

  1. It is a commonplace among contemporary contemplatives (dating back at least to the turn of the 19th into the 20th century) that there is a blurring of religious difference and boundaries in general on the contemplative frontiers. For the most part, writers on contemplation not only describe the blurring but express the belief that it is a positive.
  2. This commonplace needs to be interrogated. Not all difference is illusory (and sometimes lack of differentiation and union are themselves illusory). Not all difference is negative. Some differentiation is necessary to love, to respect, to human relating, to human-divine relating, to peacemaking and reconciliation, and to honest inter-faith dialogue. (The 1968 inter-religious summit at which Merton died recognized this. Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus recognized this.)
  3. The practice of contemplation is a genuine Christian vocation and charism. Like most Christian vocations and charisms, contemplation is to some extent for all, but it is more important for some. It exists in every case for the blessing of God and all of Creation.
  4. This post is the beginning of several conversations, not the end of any conversations.

an Ash Wednesday poem

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.

St. Bernard Gets It

I think you’ll see why they call Bernard of Clairvaux “Doctor Mellifluus.”

This the prudent Virgin understood when to the prevenient grace of a gratuitous promise she joined the merit of her own prayer, saying: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word. May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word. May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived—that is, clothed in flesh—which may remain. May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time. “God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets”1—to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures. Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.

Be it done unto me—not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me. In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.” Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me—” Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Saint Bernard, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas: Including the Famous Treatise on the Incarnation Called “Missus Est” (London; Manchester; Glasgow; New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: R. & T. Washbourne; Benziger Bros., 1909), 71–72.

Thomas Merton’s Childish and Child-like Love

Merton on Love

I’ve been reading really early Thomas Merton for the first time in a while. This is the Merton I fell in love with in The Seven Storey Mountain. I’m reading the first volume of his published journals, Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941). Here are that zest for life, intellect (and yes, some condescension), and drive to love God. Merton didn’t manufacture connections between his life and Augustine’s Confessions.

Ever present is the desire to become pure love, the knowledge that to become a saint is no more and no less than wanting to become a saint. Because God also wants it, God will accomplish it. Even if there was some prideful ambition at the outset, it quickly dissolved. For him, sainthood was not about being special, not even about being perfect, but rather it was about love. That’s why he wrote so often of the lives of the saints in these journals. That’s surely why he and others around him assumed the Franciscans would be a good home for him. Strange to think that if Merton lived today, the Franciscans would have been happy to take him, and who knows who Merton would have become apart from the Cistercians at Gethsemani?

Later Merton, much of the time a model for the non-judging way, had little but judgment for his younger self. Merton in 1939 was judging 16-year-old Merton, and Merton in the 50s and 60s was often annoyed by Seven Storey Mountain Merton. But I love early Merton, and I find him to be of much greater help in desiring God and desiring love alone than later Merton is. It has me wondering if, assuming that this is a less mature stage in Merton, it is still a necessary stage, not only for him but for anyone on the path of love. Do you have to hold the laughable ambition and child-like trust that you too can become a saint in order to even begin the journey on that way? I’m running to the mountain in that belief.

Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus

Death on a Friday Afternoon

The subtitle of John Richard Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon is Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Being a Protestant myself, I could not tell you what those last words are off the top of my head, but I can tell you that they are the seven final sayings (not single words, but sayings) of Jesus delivered from the cross, that they are drawn from across all four Gospels, and that they have been a vital devotional tool among Roman Catholics for hundreds of years. (I can also link to them.)

To structure the book, Neuhaus devotes one chapter apiece to each of the sayings, interpreting each around a single point. The result is truly a prophetic book. I call it prophetic intentionally, using a word that is overused and misused, because in this book the Jesus of the Scriptures, of human history, of the Great Tradition, of the Godhead, is proclaimed as the Jesus who speaks to our world today. These are the kind of words that Hebrews 4 describes as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We may not want to hear them, because we might get cut.

One very distinct message across the chapters which I did not expect to find here: Neuhaus believes that when we look deeply at Christ crucified, we will find in his suffering and death the hope of salvation for all. Here, Neuhaus’ understanding follows very closely on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? in arguing that love of neighbor and faith in a God who is love mean that Christians are on entirely solid theological and Biblical footing when we hope that Christ’s work will result in an empty Hell. This hope of universal salvation through Christ is raised repeatedly and strongly throughout the book.

Honestly, while Neuhaus’ legacy as a pastor and spiritual writer is forever (or maybe just for folks my age and older?) tangled in his political legacy, Neuhaus joined the Catholic Church in order to come under the authority of Christian orthodoxy, and his embrace of the hope for universal salvation through Christ is helpful to those sorting through that knotty-in-this-moment issue. That is to say, despite “conservatives” decrying Rob Bell’s 2011 Love Wins, which nudged us to imagine the eternal outcomes of the unfathomable love of God (my 3-part review of that book here), there were no peeps when Neuhaus, “conservative” champion, published his own popular audience book in 2000, writing forcefully,

Christians must hope that Hell is empty, that the mercy of God reaches also those who willed damnation for themselves, that God draws them back, despite themselves, into the heart of love. Balthasar writes, “Here lies hope for the person who, refusing all love, damns himself. Will not the person who wishes to be totally alone find beside him in Sheol the Someone who is lonelier still, the Son forsaken by the Father, who will prevent him from experiencing his self-chosen hell to the end?”

It is a question, but it is an inescapable question, that drives to the hope at the heart of the horror. If, as St. Paul says, Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us, can there be any sin he did not bear there on the cross? If the answer is no, as I believe it must be, then even the utterly forsaken one are not bereft of the company of the utterly forsaken one, the Son of God, and therefore not bereft of hope. Thus even the will to damnation is damned and thereby defeated by the One for whom and in whom damnation is not allowed the last word.

It is a powerful argument, because it makes those of us still unsure how to think of Hell within the love of God ask of ourselves, “Does the power of the cross fall short at some point?” It also make powerfully clear that from St. Paul to Jesus’ own words to other writers of the New Testament to theological giants including Aquinas and von Balthasar, there is some solid footing to hope.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, finally, is the kind of book that makes it harder for me to preach after reading, because I find my own words flogging the afflicted and leaving no one comforted in comparison. I recommend the book unreservedly, although it certainly (as you can see from the quoted portion) is heavy reading for many audiences.

If you’re going to die, do it like God did.

Yesterday morning I had the privilege of looking a bunch of people in the eye one-by-one and smudging up their foreheads a bit as I called them by name and told them, “I just want to remind you: you are going to die. Soon.”

Okay, no, I didn’t say that. I said it the proper, church-y way: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But, because I had mentioned in my homily how much preaching an Ash Wednesday service reminds me of preaching a funeral, and that that is exactly what the words and the ashes mean, I did have one of my parishioners smile back at me and reply, “Yup. Sooner rather than later.”

Laughing at death in a church. I think that’s exactly where we should laugh at death, because, no, it doesn’t seem right to laugh at death at a funeral. There is, after all, a time to grieve. But we do laugh and rejoice in the face of death, not because death has no power, but because it has no ultimate power (Life:Death::Lightning:Lightning Bug). There is a certain amount that Christians really do need to “Eat, drink, and be merry” in the face of death’s nearness.

It’s a combination of preaching week after week for all but four Sundays since last July plus spending some time lately with the Apostolic Fathers and now Justin Martyr that makes me see just how deeply strange is this thing we call Christian life. All the stories are strange, but old stories from any source are always strange. No, the strangest part of this Christian life is not those old stories but how we say they are not old–they are new and they are our story.

The things Christians do and call faithful worship evidence their truth in the reality that if we are not pointing to and participating in the Truth, then we are an ornate, expensive, time-wasting, needlessly painful circus act. Early Christians knew this as they gathered together and shared the Lord’s Supper, still repeating “This is my body. This is my blood.” They claimed his Body and Blood were true food and drink, fully aware that they were being accused of cannibalism. They sang songs and found joy and peace and hope in their loser God-Man (which is what again?), fully aware they were being called godless for rejecting all their culture’s gods in favor of this one god who was weak enough and dumb enough to get killed.

But for those early Christians, and for twenty-one Copts this week, and for each one of us who worships Jesus Christ, we believe that the God Who Has Died is the only god who can meet us even in death, the only god who has any right at all to tell us about Life.

Dead Jesus