Translating God

Translating God September 29, 2020

Translating God

Glenn Taylor Webb

Understanding the great mystery of existence from birth to death is important to some people, including me. Many paths to understanding existence lead more deeply into the unknowable than others.  In terms of religion, faith in God inspires believers on all paths to accept whatever happens as God’s Will.  What that might be can be anything.  But some people insist on a translation.  For them, the mind of God must be put in human terms, which is to say the mystery must be solved.  Solutions are of course sought by scientists, too.  But they normally choose “Laws of the Universe” to describe their path to understanding rather than “Mind of God.”  Of course, there have always been a few religious mystics, who simply stand in awe of the mystery without naming it. But I digress. I’m here to say how Trump is in one translation.

During the presidency of Donald Trump, I have been puzzled by the large number of born-again Christians who idolize him, some even in his cabinet. Why would they overlook his obvious flaws?  How could such an inexperienced, immoral, egotistical buffoon become their hero?  After his inauguration I took comfort in the hope that military and governmental experts would keep him in check. Some of them even promised that Trump’s regime would maintain the nation’s commitment to democracy and international cooperation with friendly nations, as well as vigilance against nations whose goals conflicted with ours. None of that turned out to be true. In so many ways, these promises early on were quietly put away and never seen again.  Now we realize that Trump’s outrageous behavior has beguiled rather than offended nearly half the people in this country. Reading Bob Woodward’s “Rage” has helped me understand why.

Last night I watched a thousand-plus people packed cheek-to-jowl around a high platform where Trump gave his most racist, anti-immigrant rant so far.  Each cheap shot and insult received a roar of approval from the crowd.  It reminded me of the newsreels from the 1930s of Hitler shouting his nationalistic boasts over the heads of worshipful Germans.  I recognize the people in Trump’s audience.  They are ordinary Americans with no experience with other cultures and languages, and resent people who are “not like us” (which includes black and immigrant Americans.).  They believe every single crude remark Trump makes about “those” people, people they have secretly resented for years. I tried my best to see non-white faces in the crowd.  There were none.  This is what making America great again really looks like, I suppose.

But are there Christians in that crowd?  Of course.  Are they following Christ’s teaching about loving others as much as they love themselves?  No, they are not.

What do these Christians have against others?  Is it because they consider others to be leftists, anarchists, rapists and murderers?  Or because others insist on the right of a woman to make decisions about her own body, with the assistance of the latest medical care?  Or because they believe young men and women who come into the world claiming to be LGBT are just sick and sinful? Or do they think families who are covered by Obamacare don’t need it or should work to pay for it themselves?  Or because the “others” are part of the Democrats’ “deep state”?  The answer to all of these is, “Yes!”  Because their Bible tells them so.  Or more precisely, because their translation of God’s mind says that is the case.

Ever hear of Wheaton College?  Many of its alums are (or were) in Trump’s cabinet. Carol and I know something about this little school for evangelical Christians. Many of the policies coming out of the Trump Whitehouse began with translations of God’s Will issuing from Wheaton alumni. One in particular is noted in the early part of Woodward’s new book on Trump. In essence, evangelical Christians in the 45th POTUS cabinet considered their leader to be loathe-some in every respect.  But they felt he might be someone God was using to help them protect Christ’s America not only from immorality in general, but from, an amorphous “left-wing” ideology in particular. I was amazed and amused by one explanation Woodward cites for how Christians could stomach Trump while supporting his presidency.

It has to do with stories mentioned in the book of First Samuel showing how some 3000 years ago the God of Abraham had protected David from a jealous King Saul, who tried several times to kill his young rival. Several rabbinical versions of the Biblical account tell us that some of the creatures (such as stinging insects) who came to David’s rescue as an adult were creatures that young David had hated.  One of those versions tells how, when David was resting in a cave in the desert south of Bethlehem, Saul’s men were ordered to search that cave, but they saw that a large spider had spun a solid web over the entrance, making them conclude that David could not possibly be inside, since he naturally would have torn it down when he went into the cave. Translation?  God had used a spider to protect the future patriarch of Jewish (and ultimately, Christian) history. Could Donald J. Trump be God’s spider to keep “progressives” from taking over Christ’s Kingdom?

After finishing college in Texas in 1957 and heading by car for Chicago, where we would live for seven years, Carol and I moved into a tiny apartment in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb some 30 minutes west of downtown Chicago (where I studied at the Art Institute and Carol found work in the Merchandise Mart.)  Another 30 minutes further west from Oak Park was Wheaton, where the Christian school in question was located.  Our little apartment had two rooms, a living-sleeping room and a kitchen-dining room.  Another apartment exactly like it was on the back side of the building, with a shared bath in between. I mention this because you need to know that the occupants in the back apartment were a young couple with three children, ages one, two and three.  The father was a grad student in theology at Wheaton College.

We ourselves were children of “nondenominational” Christians (in Alabama and Oklahoma) whose religion (in the Church of Christ tradition) had very little in common with evangelicals except for the emphasis on a fairly rigorous study of Biblical texts in translation. The difference came with what you did with your study.  Evangelicals will not hesitate to ask you if you have been “saved” and (depending on your answer) go on from there, accepting or evangelizing you as they see fit.  Our parents preferred a quiet life of following what my father called first-century principles of the New Testament church based on cultural as well as scriptural evidence.  (He was a U.S. Army chaplain and a pretty good student of Aramaic, “the form of Hebrew that Jesus actually spoke,” he would say proudly.)

I found it odd that at the beginning of our Chicago years I would be in long conversations with Melvin (the young father next door) about how to translate the words of the God of the Bible.  I had been going in a very different, more personal direction for some time, even in high school, which expanded my own spiritual exploration beyond Biblical literature to include Spinosa, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, John Dewey, and especially D. T. Suzuki. One lengthy discussion I had with Melvin was about the meaning of the rock upon which God is said to have chosen to build his church!   At issue was whether Jesus was making a play on words or talking straight.

The scene goes like this:  John the Baptist, after baptizing Jesus, declared to his disciples that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  One of those disciples, Andrew, brought his brother Simon Peter to meet Jesus the next day.  When Jesus met him for the first time (John 1:42), he indicated that Simon son of Jonah – which in Hebrew literally means Jonah’s son who is always heard talking (shimon) – would henceforth not be called by the Greek word Petros or Peter (meaning rock), but by the name Kepha (pronounced kee-fah) – which itself is a phonetic rendering of the Aramaic word for rock or stone.

This event has long been interpreted as Jesus naming Peter as his successor, the “rock” or foundation upon which he built his church (Matthew 10:2 and 16:18), and that all subsequent popes in the church would be Peter’s descendants.  An alternate explanation has seen the “rock” as being John’s declaration that Jesus was indeed God in human flesh, the Messiah. With this pivotal truth established, Jesus then gave the keys to his kingdom to Peter/Kepha/Rock, who would then be entrusted to open its gates to the entire world.

Melvin was adamant that only the latter explanation is true, and that the history of Christianity according to all forms of Catholicism is wrong and must be seen as such. I said I was happy to keep both options open.  As I write this today, it is my understanding that only one or two Wheaton alums are left in Trump’s circle.  He seems to have promised them a lot but fired them all, leaving the rest of us wondering and worrying about his next moves.  My guess is they will certainly be to his benefit, represent his revenge on Obamacare, make Putin and white nationalists feel they have a man on their side, make it easier for anyone to own and use guns, take away the right for women to have abortions, take back from  same-sex couples all the rights they have gained up to now, provide tax breaks for people making over $400,000 a year, deny cultural warming and the need for clean energy, and of course, keep the conspiracy theories coming.


(GTW, September 2020)


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