‘The Right Club’ and what offends God

Hemant Mehta tells us about an atheist billboard in Kentucky and the tribalist response from a local church.

“Don’t believe in God?” the atheist billboard reads, “Join the club.”

So a local Nazarene church put up a sign that says, “We believe in God. Join the right club!”

So much wrong there in the multiple meanings of that word, “club.”

The church’s pastor said Christians like him were offended by the billboard. He seems to assume we’ll all understand why such offense is appropriate, although it’s not obvious to me.

The sign’s message, essentially, is: 1) Atheists exist; and 2) If you are an atheist, you’re not alone. Both of those things strike me as unremarkably and inoffensively true. And yet, for some reason, Pastor Jared Henry of the Lafeyette Church of the Nazarene finds these unremarkable statements of fact offensive.

Henry also said that God “was probably offended” by the billboard, because God, apparently, was unaware of the existence of such unbelievers until one day recently when God was stuck in traffic on Wilhite Drive in Lexington and then looked up in horror to see this billboard.

Henry, of course, isn’t really worried about God so much as about Team God — the tribal clique to which he pledges his allegiance. The sad comeback he rushed to put up on his church sign — “the right club,” oh snap! — has nothing to do with defending God, of course, but only with scoring points for Team God.

Unfortunately for the team, Pastor Henry trips over his clobber verse in discussing the sign with a local news crew: “Proverbs says a fool says in his heart there is no God.”

Thanks for playing, pastor, but that’s not Proverbs.

It’s Psalm 14, actually. The first verse of that psalm — “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” — is often invoked as a rebuke to atheism, but this psalm isn’t really about that. It’s not about what we “believe,” but about how we live. And specifically, about how we live in relation to others.

The psalm is a rebuke to those who live as though there is no God. And what does that look like? According to Psalm 14, that means devouring the poor (“treating people like a fast-food meal,” in Eugene Peterson’s translation) and “confounding the plans of the poor.”

For the psalmist here, to say “there is no God” means thinking you can treat people like objects with impunity. Belief in God, in this passage, mainly entails accountability for how we treat others. The “fools” denounced here are not condemned because of any intellectual “beliefs” about the existence or non-existence of God. They are not condemned for joining the wrong “club.” They are denounced because they foolishly think they’re going to get away with preying on the weak.

Here’s a bit more of Psalm 14 from Peterson’s “The Message” translation:

Don’t they know they can’t get away with this—
Treating people like a fast-food meal over which they’re too busy to pray?

Night is coming for them, and nightmares, for God takes the side of victims.
Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor?
You can’t, for God makes their dreams come true.

It has nothing to do with joining “the right club.” It has to do with how we treat others, regardless of what “club” they do or do not belong to. The psalmist is saying, essentially, that Instant Karma’s gonna get you.

Pastor Henry doesn’t seem to have read any of Psalm 14 except that first verse. He also got it mixed up with Proverbs.

As it happens, the book of Proverbs does have quite a bit to say about what God finds offensive. It doesn’t mention anything about billboards or tribal disputes between clubs, but it does say this “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”

 

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    My biggest problem with the entire idea that pastor is going for is that he doesn’t seem to get that there are simply people who disagree with the Bible’s authority.  This argument won’t work for him at all, since all he cares is that “the Bible says” and there’s something about fools saying there’s no god.  A collection of atheists are going to look at that and say, “Yeah, so?”

    He’s not going to listen to Fred, either, since he doesn’t actually care what “the Bible says.”  All he cares is that he can find a place in the Bible that says something similar to what he already believes.  Context doesn’t matter.  Actual content doesn’t matter.  He’s offended by something, he finds something in the Bible that allows him to express his offense, and he’s good to go.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    So it’s like:

    Team Edward – Sparkling and Dead is better than Alive and Human
    Team Jacob – At least I still have a heartbeat
    Team Atheism – You know, we do in fact exist.
    Team God – Other options exist, but they’re all WRONG.
    Team Leah – Why does the author hate me so much?
    Team Alice – I know how this ends…
    Team Rayford – Your life and death do not concern me.
    Team Buck – Violating Journalistic Ethics since 1995
    Team Chloe – Remember when I had character?  Whatever happened to that?
    Team Nicolae – Is there anything I can’t do?  I mean, I just blew up ten cities with radiation free 100 megaton nuclear weapons without stopping auto dealerships from working just because I felt like it.
    Team Eris – Marijuana of the Lunatic Fringe
    Team Mike -  At least I’m human for fuck’s sake.
    Team Eric – At least I’m not as much of an ass as Mike.
    Team Hattie – What Leah said.
    Team Leon – I thought I was supposed to be a major player but everyone always picks on me.
    Team Bruce – I knew I shouldn’t have signed a two book contract when they others were offered 12 books.  Renewal my ass.
    Team Tsion – Thick accent, thicker stereotypes, for the win.
    Team Chaim – I killed the mother fucking Antichrist.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Team Chang – I play both sides of the fence, and no, Naomi, I don’t mean I’m bisexual.
    Team Naomi – Badass teenage hacker chick, at your service.

  • Indiana Joe

    Team Eris should be, “Five tons of flax.” :-)

  • Carstonio

    For the psalmist here, to say “there is no God” means thinking you can treat people like objects with impunity. Belief in God, in this passage, mainly entails accountability for how we treat others.

    Fred comes close here to endorsing the idea that belief in a god is required to treat people with humanity and dignity, that people would naturally treat others as objects without a powerful being to keep them in line. I hope he doesn’t believe that. The psalmist doesn’t explain why “living as though there is no god” amounts to preying on the weak and believing that one can get away with it. If anything, it reduces gods to hall monitors or traffic cops. Surely one should treat people with humanity and dignity because it’s the right thing to do, not because one fears punishment for doing otherwise.

  • Ben English

    Team Lily – What do you mean I should tolerate racial slurs from a friend involved in a racist terrorist group?
    Team Severus – Goddamn this kid is confusing–he looks like a man I hate but has his mother’s eyes. Time to set my passive aggression quotient to MAXIMUM.

  • Ben English

    Also, I wrote this: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/8548453/1/

    A fanfic in which superheroes find themselves in the LB universe.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    The psalmist doesn’t explain why “living as though there is no god” amounts to preying on the weak and believing that one can get away with it. If anything, it reduces gods to hall monitors or traffic cops. Surely one should treat people with humanity and dignity because it’s the right thing to do, not because one fears punishment for doing otherwise.

    Indeed. And, as it turns out, for some believers the function of God is not to punish doing the wrong thing, but to illustrate the right thing.

  • Hexep

    To be fair, when the psalms were written, ethics hadn’t really been invented yet, or at least hadn’t been introduced to the region.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I liked that! You made Buck even seem kind of competent, and Chloe rather kick-ass. :)

    The Teen Titans stumbling into the LB-verse was a nice touch. :P

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Team Voldemort – Avada Kedavra. Just on general principle.

  • Hawker40

    “Join the right team”… anyone else think of the scene in the first Harry Potter movie, where Harry, having just met the other two members of his power trio, runs into Draco Malfoy, who tells him about how he wants to hang out with ‘the right sort’ while giving Hermoine and Ron a look reserved for those who come from the wrong side of the tracks?*
    Ah, yes, join the ‘right’ club, meet the ‘right’ people, make the ‘right’ connections, isn’t that what school is for?**
    And Life itself, also.

    *and the sentence runs ever on…
    **Sarcasm!

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    Fred doesn’t believe that. He’s expressed that multiple times. But there is a small subset of people who only refrain from treating people like crap because they are worried about being punished.

    It’s the theological equivalent of a murderer thinking “I’ll never get caught” before they do it.

    Most people won’t commit murder anyway but for some people negative personal consequences are the only reason to refrain from using others. (And bizarrely since sola fide removes personal consequences we have an explanation for RTC asshattery – there’s no consequence for them in acting otherwise.)

    And people who think that way tend to assume the same of other people.

    Hence we get “If you’re an atheist why don’t you *heinious act*?”

    But contextually what this means is “some people think they can get away with anything, but they won’t”.

  • AnonymousSam

    Eugene Peterson’s translation reminds me of Ron Hogan’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. I don’t know if it amuses me or annoys me to see “modern English” in religious books.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ianracey Ian C. Racey

     I’d say he comes close here to saying it’s the psalmist’s view that the two things are inextricably linked. I don’t see anywhere where he endorses such a position.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Vahid-Fozi/1011002293 Vahid Fozi

    how do you feel about pound’s cantos or any version of the iliad or odyssey? it’s all in “modern english” to some extent.

  • AnonymousSam

    Not quite. There’s a difference between translation and localization — changing the meaning of the words to suit the audience. Not only do these translations both change the language and change the content of the language, but they also bring it down from formal writing to casual writing.

    Unless you really want to argue that “For I say unto you, ‘Where do you go, my child?’ ” and “So I said, ‘Wassup kid?’ ” are the exact same thing.

  • Ben English

    There’s two axes here, I think. On the one hand, being as accurate as possible allows you to see nuances in the text that bad translations miss. Such translations are absolutely essential.

    The Message or other ‘modernized’ translations can also help us by recontextualizing things so that they’re relatable for modern readers. That said, the fact that the Message actually uses the fast food metaphor… make me hesitant to endorse THAT specific form of modernization.

    It’s like letting William the Bloody translate the Bible for you.

  • AnonymousSam

    This is why I like http://www.duhtao.com — not only does it have several translations of the Tao Te Ching, but it also has a translation comparison feature that lets you set two translations side by side. Try running J. H. McDonald’s translation against Ron Hogan’s and you’ll see two modern translations with very different contents. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think the Hogan translation seriously loses something.

  • Vermic

    The first rule of Right Club is that you always talk about Right Club.

    Second rule of Right Club, you ALWAYS TALK ABOUT RIGHT CLUB.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    Unless you really want to argue that “For I say unto you, ‘Where do you
    go, my child?’ ” and “So I said, ‘Wassup kid?’ ” are the exact same
    thing.

    I don’t especially want to argue that, but neither do I want to argue that “For I say unto you, ‘Where do you
    go, my child?’ ” said to an upper-class British audience in 1936 is the exact same thing as “For I say unto you, ‘Where do you
    go, my child?’ ” said to a lower-class Brooklyn audience in 1992.

    I mostly think “the exact same thing” is a red herring in this sort of discussion. All reading is an interaction between the text and the audience, and the audience is always changing, so whether we keep the text constant or not the reading will change.

    Once we accept that, we can move on to talk about what we want to preserve about the reading, what we want to emphasize, and how to do that for different audiences.

  • Dave Lartigue

    I also think that this:

    “Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor?
    You can’t, for God makes their dreams come true.”

    also counts as preying on the poor.

  • Lori

     

    Fred comes close here to endorsing the idea that belief in a god is required
    to treat people with humanity and dignity, that people would naturally
    treat others as objects without a powerful being to keep them in line.  

    Actually he’s saying the opposite of that. He’s saying that treating the poor well is necessary for claiming a belief in God, not that belief in God is necessary for treating the poor well.

  • LMM22

    Not only do these translations both change the language and change the content of the language, but they also bring it down from formal writing to casual writing.

    Do you speak Greek?

    The whole point of printing the Bible was to make the text available in a language that commoners could read. I suspect (though can’t confirm) that our conceptualization of ‘formal’ religious language is quite closely related to the way that we’re still using the KJV today.

    Either way, though, from what I’ve heard, Mark’s Greek, at the very least, is rather rough and unpolished — in short, *not* something you’d translate formally.

    Not to mention, if you’re relying on ancient metaphors, chances are, you’re not going to get the actual message. Localization makes a lot of sense when you’re dealing with people who want to actually follow the *message* of the Bible, rather than relying upon loopholes that have grown from archaic writing.

  • AnonymousSam

    But on the other hand, a translation which plays fast and loose with wording and paraphrases the literal text (where we actually understand the literal translation — plenty of terms in the Bible grow out of words that we’ve translated a certain way by convention, or omitted from modern translations altogether, both because we don’t know what the original wording was supposed to mean) runs the risk of changing the message altogether by adopting a different tone in its delivery.

    Or… simplifying, the words one chooses tend to contain a message of their own, and these kinds of translations seem to have a tendency to choose wording which makes the speaker come across as more of a juvenile to me, which in turn negatively affects how I would read the message. It’s the difference between “Say not that which aggrieves your neighbor” and “Shut up before you piss someone off.”

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    “I’ve got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” -Groucho Marx, Duck Soup

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    Why is a less formal style for the Bible categorically bad? (I have hesitations myself, but they’re less about translation philosophy than pure mainline tribalism.)

  • Jurgan

    Peterson explains that in the introductions to the various books.  In the introduction to the New Testament, he says that Greek of the time was either formal or informal, and while poetry, philosophy, legal documents, etc. would have been written formally, the New Testament writings were in the informal dialect (most of the Old Testament probably was, too, but the authorship was a lot more varied in time and location).  When you think about it, that ways that God doesn’t expect us to climb up to a high place to meet him- he comes to meet us where we are.  That’s what that whole Jesus thing was about, after all.

  • guest

    ‘It’s the difference between “Say not that which aggrieves your neighbor” and “Shut up before you piss someone off.”‘

    The impression I get is that the latter is closer to what contemporary readers of the Bible would have read.  Wouldn’t you rather have as close to a contemporary experience as possible?

  • caryjamesbond

    One thing I would like to see-  “thee” and “thou” are English’s long lost INFORMAL second-person.  (Although oddly enough, its now come to be seen as more formal. )

    So that means all that thee-ing and thou-ing god is doing is really him speaking in a very familar and friendly manner. I’m not sure how you’d convey that in modern english though. 

    It’s the difference between “Say not that which aggrieves your neighbor” and “Shut up before you piss someone off.”

    Heck with the lolcats translation. I want a Glaswegian Scots translation now. 

    “An’ then Jesus said, “Oi!  Don’t be a fuckin’ wanker. You don’t like it when people treat you like shite, do ya?  So don’t act like a right fuckin’ bastard to everybody fuckin’ else, ya hoor!”
    And lo- the Lord did turn water into Famous Grouse, and there was great rejoicing.” 

    (Personal note, btw- I remember some people here liked my deconstruction of Atlas Shrugged- I put up a few new ones if anyone’s interested.  over at newscum.wordpress.com/)  

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but no, non-formal equivalence
    doesn’t “run the risk of changing the message.” Not any more. That ship
    sailed with the NIV thirty years ago.

    What impresses me about the Message is that it has a built-in safeguard against message corruption: it’s so casual that it will never be approved for liturgical or academic use. As far as I can tell Eugene Peterson didn’t intend it to be anybody’s primary Bible; and while the plural of anecdotes isn’t data, the people I’m aware of who like it most generally use it as a second or third translation at best.

    Just my two cents.

  • Tricksterson

    “I could never join a club that would want me as a member”– Also Groucho Marx

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The question of how best to translate is both important and complex and has, unsurprisingly, been argued over for quite some time.

    Generally the discussion takes place between two poles.  On the one hand you have translations that try to communicate the sense of what is being said to a culture unfamiliar with those things that would have been understood like second nature to the original audience itself.  See, for example, Amy Richlin’s Rome and the Mysterious Orient which completely ignores the restrictions of literal translation and instead attempts to translate the three plays in question into a form that a modern American audience would understand as the Roman audience understood the original.

    For example offensive Roman stereotypes are replaced with offensive American stereotypes of roughly equivalent value.

    On the other hand you have the translation that tries to say exactly what the original text was literally saying, word for word if possible, and gives up on any hope of a modern audience understanding it as an ancient one would have unless said audience is willing to devote the next twelve years of their life to understand the cultural context in which the work was produced.

    Between these two poles is where you’ll find most translations, but by no means all.  The fact that these are the poles the debate usually takes place between does not mean that they represent a spectrum on which all translations fall.  There are more dimensions than just a sense-literal axis.

    The problem with strictly literal translations is that it’s impossible for you to understand what the original author was actually saying without doing a lot of work to understand the context, footnotes or endnotes might help with this, but generally speaking you’re just going to fall short of fully understanding meaning.

    The problem with things that try to translate sense is that they are extremely tied to the time and place of their own creation, and quickly become dated, are not intended for multiple cultures before they become dated, and don’t leave you knowing what was actually said or done, one what the meaning behind it was and only then if you are the intended audience.  If you’re not in the intended audience a sense based translation is going to take as much work for you to truly understand as a literal one because either way you have to somehow invade the mindset of a culture not your own.  That takes a lot of work.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

     Oh yeah, best solution I know of?  Multiple translations.

    If you’re not going to devote your life to understanding the culture in which it is written, and are going to look at things only in translation rather than in the original, get multiple translations that fall in different places with regard to whether they value the literal meaning or the sense behind it.

  • ReverendRef

    The church’s pastor said Christians like him were offended by the billboard.

    My response to these people will only ever be, “And Jesus said, ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.’  Why does the idea of people outside your congregation, denomination or faith frighten you so much?”

  • AnonymousSam

    Formal speech tends to be associated with higher education and well-learned authority figures. Religious texts are used for instruction and teaching purposes, so the two go hand in hand. I’ve had some pretty informal instructors myself, but there’s a limit to exactly how informal one can get before they start coming across as disrespectful to those they’re supposed to be teaching.

  • Carstonio

    Yes, Fred has expressed that multiple times, which made this entry seem all the more confusing. Implied in my post was that I was giving Fred the benefit of the doubt.

    We don’t know that people who think they can get away with it are wrong, for the same general reason that we don’t know if an afterlife exists. Fred and the psalmist seem to be describing absolute or infinite justice, a hope that assholes who prosper in this life will face accounting in the next life. No acknowledgment of the possibility that both saints and assholes face the same fate at the ends of their lives.

    Also, we don’t know if any particular scripture is right about what a particular god might find offensive.

  • AnonymousSam

    Whose contemporary experiences are being used as comparison? I would contest that our expected voice for formal writing is probably more alike than the informal speech of different regions, since we draw upon mostly standardized grammatical rules for formal speech and regional vernacular for informal.

  • AnonymousSam

    Okay, I’d buy that purely for amusement purposes. The difference is, I wouldn’t think that version was being put out as a serious product. :p

  • Carstonio

     That could still be read as a slam against people who don’t believe in the Christian god but still treat the poor well anyway, as saying that there’s something wrong with them if they lack belief.

  • vsm

    No acknowledgment of the possibility that both saints and assholes face the same fate at the ends of their lives
    Fred is a Christian who writes about various things from an explicitly Christian perspective. Does he really need to add a disclaimer saying he might be wrong after every post?

  • AnonymousSam

    To be fair, we have no way of knowing if even the original versions changed the message or not (that is, even the oral history would have had differences in each retelling). I’m not talking about whether or not Junia(s) was a male or female disciple, though; I’m talking strictly about choice of wording and metaphor creating an entirely different message by altering how the reader visualizes the speaker. If Jesus says “my dogs” instead of “my brothers,” I’m sure some people read it the same either way, but no doubt that the majority of readers will read it differently even if they know ahead of time that “my dogs” is a term of companionship among some people.

    I have a hard time grasping the idea of writing a translation that isn’t intended to be relied upon. What would be its purpose? It seems to me that the only reason to make a new translation of something is to improve upon the existing translations.

  • ReverendRef

     “Oi!  Don’t be a fuckin’ wanker.

    If you put that caption on a Precious Moments figurine, I’d buy one.

  • Fusina

     I kind of take it as a slam against those who call themselves christians and talk about all the good things they do, and then basically screw over those who are living in poverty (cough cough mittandannromney cough cough). As in, they profess aloud their religious credentials, but in their heart, they don’t actually care. But I could be wrong.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That could still be read as a slam against people who don’t believe in
    the Christian god but still treat the poor well anyway, as saying that
    there’s something wrong with them if they lack belief.

    Only if one believes that treating the poor well is both a necessary and sufficient condition for belief in God, rather than merely a necessary condition.

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    I have a hard time grasping the idea of writing a translation that isn’t
    intended to be relied upon. What would be its purpose? It seems to me
    that the only reason to make a new translation of something is to
    improve upon the existing translations.

    Absolutely not! The NKJV categorically rejected the motive for all
    post-KJV English Bible translations (specifically, its textual
    flaws) so that Thomas Nelson could pitch it to the KJV’s market
    demographic and say in the game against Tyndale, Zondervan and Lockman.  The RSV didn’t have glaring textual flaws that I’m aware of, but it was still supplanted by the NRSV for stylistic reasons and the ESV for sectarian ones. Nowadays, the main motive for a new Bible translation is to make it say what it says the way you want it to.

    IIRC, Eugene Peterson’s motives for the Message were to AVOID Biblish, because he found that it was disenfranchising: people either screened it out, or “already knew” what the Bible said. The Message isn’t meant to be “relied upon,” in the way that (for instance) people trust the authority of the KJV; it’s meant to be engaged, either by ignoring Biblish or by directly challenging our assumptions of what the Bible is, says, and “should” be. The Message isn’t meant to supplant other Bibles; it’s meant to supplement them.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Blinks, re-reads, blinks again* I think I must be starved for oxygen in the brain. I understand the whole of what you’re saying, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. I could understand it as a supplementary document if it were based on another English translation, but he based it on the rough Greek. I’m not sure how that’s not intended to be a superior version to existing Bibles or how it could be used as a supplement to them, since having done the translations by hand means his version will inevitably conflict with others.

    Also, I found a spot where I can definitively point out where I can point out that it definitely seems to have gone awry- Matthew 6.

    With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:
    Our Father in heaven,
    Reveal who you are.
    Set the world right;
    Do what’s best— as above, so below.
    Keep us alive with three square meals.
    Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
    Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
    You’re in charge!
    You can do anything you want!
    You’re ablaze in beauty!
    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    It has a message… I can see similarities between this and other translations… but at this point, it doesn’t even feel like a translation; it feels like someone paraphrasing the Lord’s Prayer from memory and embellishing it in the hopes of getting it by an uncaring audience. That feels disrespectful to me, but maybe just to me. I don’t know.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    So, Pastor Henry thinks the psalm says that atheists are stupid. Fred corrects him, pointing out that the psalm says atheists are jerks, not stupid.

    Gee, I feel better now.

  • Darkrose

    It’s the difference between “Say not that which aggrieves your neighbor” and “Shut up before you piss someone off.”

    Yeah, I can see that. I’d interpret the first as “Don’t be a dick,” which is different from the second, which comes across as an implied threat.

  • Hexep

    If nothing else, it’s a blow for truthful representation of a physical document.


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