Let the Bible elevate your mind

Let the Bible elevate your mind December 1, 2012
Holy Bible
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There’s a conversation running right now on the relative value of certain Bible translations.

Depending on who’s talking and for what purpose, it might strike some as tedious. I happen to enjoy the discussion, and I think there’s one strain that’s worthy of consideration for those interested in how language might affect their spirituality.

In discussing the recent republication of the Knox Bible, a mid-twentieth century translation, Michael Brendan Dougherty mentions one “fatal” flaw, the use of sacral language, such as thee’s and thou’s. Apparently, translator Ronald Knox felt stuck using it in his day, but why not change that for the contemporary edition, asks Dougherty?

My answer is less about the Knox Bible than it is about the general loss of sacral language in our culture. It’s stodgy, we’re told, and nobody talks that way, right?

Yep. But we should be wary about losing it nonetheless.

Why? For starters, while the Bible may speak to our moment, it speaks across millennia. There are perhaps good reasons to favor contemporary English in some settings, but the overall loss of sacral language has, as Leroy Huizenga puts it, “accommodat[ed] the language of the Scripture to the barbarism of contemporary culture.” Instead of allowing the Bible its natural transcendence, sacrificing the sacral sensibility limits the scripture’s ability to correct our current perspectives because it’s too heavily reshaped by them.

Next, translating a text involves more than rendering one language into another. It involves rendering a mindset, rendering certain patterns of thought. This is sometimes lost in oversimplified conversations about thought-for-thought translations vs. word-for-word translations. To properly render the thought, attention to vocabulary, phrasing, and flow is essential. A flatfooted rendering of the Psalms, for instance, robs them of their power.

George Weigel addresses this issue relative to the new Roman Missal. While some object to its foreign-sounding phrases, Weigel explains, “The language of the liturgy is . . . meant to elevate us, to lift us out of the quotidian and the ordinary.” It’s not the patois of the parking lot. Rather, it’s “our privileged participation in the liturgy of saints and angels around the Throne of Grace, and the way we address the Lord, and each other, in those circumstances ought to reflect the awesome character of our baptismal dignity.” Importantly, even when the masses spoke Latin, the mass wasn’t everyday Latin.

Weigel’s observation applies to the scripture as well. Even in its day, King James English was dated. David Teems, author of Majestie and Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice, says that the translators chose the archaic style to intentionally elevate the experience of its hearers. It was supposed to smack of sacredness, hint at the holy in its very phrases and turns.

This is true of the original text of the Bible itself. While Paul’s letters may sometimes sound common and direct, much of the Bible is cast in more sacral tones. As Robert Alter notes in the introduction to his translation of the Pentateuch,

[T]he language of the biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by it audience as . . . distinct from the language of quotidian reality.

And as he says introducing his translation of 1 and 2 Samuel,

If one keeps in mind the strong element of stylization of the ancient language even in its own time, there is no good reason to render the biblical Hebrew as contemporary English, either lexically or syntactically.

I don’t accept that there is no good reason, but neither do I disagree with Alter’s main point. To encounter the scripture is to encounter the holy, and therefore its translators should honor the intent of its writers. The text of scripture communicates the grace of God to us. The language doesn’t have to be off-putting and alien, but it must be up that essential task.

I have no trouble believing that modern translations have done a lot of good. I work at a Bible publisher that publishes several different translations and see the value every day. But I do worry that we are increasingly unable to meet God on the scripture’s own terms. The text should enable the relationship, not handicap it.

Too often we want a plug-and-play Bible, but to recapture that sense of the holy, to experience the elevation possible in word and phrase, perhaps we need to spend time with a translation that lifts us out of ordinary life, instead of doubling as an echo chamber for it.

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  • Please excuse me:

    A had cataract surgery this morning and am not quite up to looking up scriptural locations for what I will mention. I will assume today that Patheos’ readers will have the ability to find them.

    I kind of laughed a little as I read this essay, so thanks for the amusement. The idea that the language of the Bible should be artificially elevated is and unfortunate way of thinking which Bible translators have followed for centuries and led to watering God’s expressions along the way. The Bible is meant to shove right in our faces how loathsome God considers man’s sinfulness and the Bible gets downright earthy at times expressing the idea. The most famous example used by scholars comes from the Old Testament where the Hebrew Profit speaks about human’s efforts being “Filthy,” and uses words which would make even jaded folks like us blush since it isn’t the word “filthy” he uses at all but a reference to something women go through during their childbearing years of a monthly basis. In the New Testaments the Apostle Paul declares human riches to be something equally filthy.

    Or take the taunting of the Baal priests by the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel when they couldn’t get a miracle out of their God as to the reasons he might not be answering. And Ezekiel’s language about Jerusalem and Samaria as Oholah and Oholibah and their activities. All of this is in there out of both honesty and to make us aware of how we are doomed without the sacrifice of Jesus and what that sacrifice opens up for us. The Pauline expression was to tell us how we should view what this world apart from God has to offer us, how we should see it as opposed to God’s promises. In this respect the language is forceful, but often get lost in the attempts to “elevate” the language. That is a disservice to the Bible’s readers in my opinion.

    For those who want the elevated the Bible has it without trying to artificially accentuate it. The wonderful story of the Shulamite maiden told for us in the Song of Solomon is a beautiful story told in a way it seems most cultures but our puritanical one can really appreciate. And it is a story allegorical of the Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. The whole story of God’s word is a wonderful one of how man fell, yet a God who laid importance on Justice and keeping his own word yet whose love found a way to let mankind live, and provide the means of man’s redemption and restoration to what was lost. Is there any more elevated and wonderful story than that?

    So why turn it into something it is not? Is it not better to translate the words, God’s thoughts, and his message as accurately as possible so his great message will shine through? Sadly fallen mankind has his own conception of what God should be and most just don’t want the unadulterated message. They shop for Bibles which fit their own concepts of God and biases of belief. and just about every Bible publisher knows that. And they don’t have the courage to publish such a Bible because they know it won’t sell. Sadly, that gives the godless scholars over on HuffPo the chance to shock the ignorant now and then, something that in God’s case he wanted to do to us himself to move us to repentance and obedience to his will and elevate our minds in the ways that really count.

    Think about it.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thank you for taking the time to write despite your surgery. But had you read with more care, you would have noticed that I said nothing about artificially elevating anything. Rather, I reiterated Robert Alter’s point that the Bible’s language is inherently elevated already (it’s not the language of the street or shop). The problem with many translations is that they mute that natural expression in an attempt to find a language that sounds more contemporary or common — to the disservice of both the text and the reader.

  • Excellent; very helpful thoughts. Thanks.

    1)Since the “thee”s and “thou”s are not there in the Hebrew or Greek, isn’t it misleading to elevate/include what was never elevated/there?

    2)Since the Koine Greek of the NR is decidedly NON-elevated, could you comment on that?

    Keep up the great work

  • typo: NT, not NR.