August 26, 2010

Do You Understand What You’re Reading?

Category: Bible,Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

In the course of his discussion of reading (better: hearing) the Bible, Eugene Peterson draws our attention to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “On the road to Gaza I find the focus for my hermeneutical work as pastor: the Ethiopian reading Scripture and not understanding it; Philip guiding him into comprehension” (Working the Angles 127).

While we often hear in the Bible about people listening to God’s Word in the assembly of God’s people, here we have a case of a man reading it all by himself.  I wonder if this stands out to us the way it should.  In much of the Christian world today, with its heavy emphasis on daily Bible reading, we may take it for granted that a man would read the Bible all by himself.  In fact, this may even be our preference: Ask Christians today which is more important, the private reading of the Bible or the corporate hearing of Scripture in church, and I suspect that many would point to the former.

More than that, I suspect that many trust the former more than the latter.  We prefer to read it for ourselves rather than hear someone read it to us, and so even when the minister is reading Scripture in church we open up our Bibles and follow along (or perhaps get distracted by the ways in which his translation differs from ours).  To really understand the Bible, we want to study it ourselves.

Now there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible all by yourself.  It was fine for the Ethiopian eunuch to be doing so, and it’s fine for us to do so as well.  But if we think that we can understand the Bible best if we study it all by ourselves, poring over the text without anyone else instructing us, then maybe we need to listen more carefully to the story in Acts, where God does not leave the Ethiopian eunuch alone.  Peterson writes:

Hermeneutics begins with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30).  The play on words in Philip’s Greek is untranslatable: ginoskeis ha anaginoskeis?  The difference between reading and understand seems so slight — a mere prefix (ana) in a Greek verb — that we are slow to realize the abyss that separates what Isaiah wrote from what we understand….  We ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.

The question is answered with a question: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (v. 31).  The questioner is questioned: Will you guide me?  The word choice is critical: not explain but guide.  The Greek words for “explain” and “guide” share the same verbal root, “to lead,” and have a common orientation in and concern for the text. But the explainer, the exegete, leads the meaning out of the text; the guide, the hodegete, leads you in the way (hodos) of the text.  Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more.  The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide.  This is going to take some time….  Philip decides on hodegesis.  He climbs into the chariot and shares the journey (127-128).

I wonder if it would occur to us, accustomed as we are to thinking that we can study the Bible best on our own, to answer Philip’s question the way the Ethiopian eunuch did: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”  The implication, surely, is that without a guide he could not have understood what we was reading in Isaiah.  He may have been able to grasp what the various sentences meant and yet he did not get the full meaning of the whole: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34).  In particular, he did not see that Isaiah was speaking about Jesus until he had a guide who led him down that path.

That, as Peterson says, is the calling of a pastor: to guide people into the right understanding of Scripture, and in particular to guide them to Christ.  And that is why we need pastors: How can we understand Scripture rightly without a guide?

Reading Scripture is not, it would seem, an autonomous activity.  The solitary reader of Isaiah in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-commanded Philip.  The Spirit brings people together over Scripture — listening, questioning, conversing toward faith.  The questioning reader was joined by the listening interpreter.  Isaiah, dead but word-present in the scroll, made a third.  The unseen but Spirit-present Christ became the fourth (130).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:10 pm | Discuss (2)
August 17, 2010

Uniform Dreariness

Category: Bible :: Permalink

After commenting that part of his work in writing the history of the Bible in English entails “the switching-off of special lighting, to reveal an illusion for what it is” — by which he means reducing the “King James Version”  from the “near-divine status” it has sometimes been given — David Daniell writes this:

In the later twentieth-century work of translating the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew, mundane lighting became the fashion.  From the 1980s, the trend to issue the English Bible in “the language we use today” went a long way further into reducing the Bible’s magnificence, and magnificent variety, to a uniform dreariness (The Bible in English, xv).

It will take me another 700 pages or so to get to Daniell’s chapter on the twentieth-century, in which I expect him to illustrate and defend this claim.  But I think he’s right.  Compare, for instance, the KJV translation of 1 Samuel 25:22, 34 with any other modern translation (which you can do here) and you’ll see one obvious example where the KJV translates accurately and vividly and the others — out of squeamishness? — don’t.

Now why is that the case (assuming that Daniell is right)?  One answer might be that we don’t like anything to sound strange in church today.  Go to a baseball game for the first time and you expect to have to learn a lot of new vocabulary.  Pick up woodworking as a hobby and you expect to have to master new terms.  But we think — we, not the unbelievers I’m about to mention — we think that if an unbeliever goes to church for the first time nothing ought to sound strange to him at all.  How odd is that?  And so we want a Bible translation that sounds like contemporary English, with short, easy-to-understand sentences, no strange words — and no work for the hearer to do.

And that relates to another culprit, namely our own laziness.  We want the translator to do the work of interpretation for us, to remove the ambiguities, to change “flesh” to “sinful nature” if that’s what he thinks it means in a particular passage (yes, I’m thinking of the NIV here).  And so we lose the striking images and metaphors and strong language of Scripture in the interests of ease.

But there’s at least one other culprit, which we find even in Daniell’s own book.  He writes:

The New Testament was written in the ordinary Greek of everyday literature, biographies, historical writings or fictions: in other words, the contemporary “hellenistic” Greek.  Only the first four verses of St Luke’s Gospel are in the stylised “classical” Greek of historiography, though the prologues to some of the Epistles follow classical Greek styles (3).

There you have the scholarly justification for the modern approach to translation: The New Testament was written in contemporary, ordinary, everyday Greek (for which the technical term is koine) and so it ought to be translated, not into the heightened language that the translators of the KJV chose to use, but rather in contemporary, ordinary, everyday English.

But is Daniell correct?  I don’t think so.  Sure, there are lots of similarities between New Testament Greek and koine.  But there are also a lot of differences, which are largely due to the NT writers being heavily influenced by the Scriptures in Hebrew.  What we have in the NT is not just ordinary Greek; it’s Greek strongly under the influence of biblical Hebrew.

It’s also frequently heightened language, though we might not know it from our modern translations.  Again and again in his letter to the Philippians, for instance, Paul affixes the prefix sum (which is roughly equivalent to our co-) to words (e.g., “co-partners”, 1:7; “co-struggling,” 1:27; “co-souled,” 2:2; “co-rejoice,” 2:17, 18; “co-worker,” 2:25; “co-soldier,” 2:25; “co-imitators,” 3:17; “co-yokebearer,” 3:3; “co-struggled,” 3:3).  Some of those may have been common terms, but others?  I bet Paul made them up.  He uses them — coins them even, perhaps — precisely to drive home one of the themes of the letter, namely, the unity of the church.  The heightened language is not accidental, nor does it get in the way of the message (as if it would have been better for Paul to speak in ordinary language); it’s deliberate and it communicates the message.

When modern translations opt for “uniform dreariness,” it seems to me, we’re not just losing some of the beauty of Scripture.  We’re also at least in danger of losing some of the message, too.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:52 pm | Discuss (2)
August 13, 2010

Schooling and Reading

Category: Bible,Education,Literature :: Permalink

A while back, I was blogging some things I had gleaned from Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles.  I hadn’t intended to give up that project, but I did get sidetracked into a bunch of other things.  In my last blog entry on this book, I talked about Peterson’s distinction between learning and schooling.  Peterson argues that in schooling, because of a drive toward standardization and uniform performance, there is a strong emphasis on the learning of facts and on the transfer of data from the teacher to the student “with as little personal contamination as possible” (94).  He goes on to say that this approach to education affects our ability to read:

The reading skills that we acquire under such conditions are inevitably attentive primarily to the informational: we are taught to read for the factual, the useful, the relevant.  Most pastors have twenty years or so of such training.  We read to pass examinations, to find out how to parse a Greek verb or to run a church office.  If we read occasionally to divert ourselves on a cold winter’s night it is not counted as serious reading.  We are not systematically taught over these twenty years (I don’t count an occasional course as “training”) to pick up nuance and allusion, catching the meaning and intent of the living voice behind the words on the page.  As a result we are impatient with metaphor and irritated at ambiguity.  But these are the stock-in-trade of persons, the most unpredictable of creatures, using language at their most personal and best.  Our schooling has narrowed our attitude toward reading: we want to know what is going on so that we can get on our way.  If it is not useful to us in doing our job or getting a better one, we don’t see the point (94-95).

Peterson goes on to say that, though language does provide information, its primary purpose is relational:

The primary reason for a book is to put a writer into relation with readers so that we can listen to his or her stories and find ourselves in them, listen to his or her songs and sing with them, listen to his or her answers and question them.  The Scriptures are almost entirely this kind of book.  If we read them impersonally with an information-gathering mind, we misread them (95).

I’m not sure if Peterson means to imply that we are to question the answers God gives in Scripture, and surely questioning is not the only thing we are to do with someone’s answers.   But leaving that aside, Peterson’s point is worth pondering.

How much exegesis is really a give-me-the-facts or give-me-something-useful approach to reading the text of Scripture?  The Bible is full of poetry, of metaphor, of allusion, of recurring patterns, of “deep weird” comments, of long lists, of a host of things that may not at first seem all that helpful.  What am I do to with all the repetition in Numbers 7?  Wouldn’t it have been better to say it all once (“Each prince presented …”) instead of saying it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again?  Would we really have lost any information if Moses had simply given us a summary?  And why did we need to know this stuff anyway?  How does having this information help us?  And so, as Peterson says, when we read for information or for something we think will be useful, we get frustrated with the Bible as it is.

There are certainly things that we can do to improve our reading — better: our hearing — of Scripture.  But Peterson is suggesting that one thing that would help would be a change in our approach to education, so that reading is not presented primarily as a fact-finding mission.

I realize that I know little about how literature is taught today, even in classical Christian schools.  So I’ll end with questions instead of ignorant assertions, and hope that someone who knows more (or better) than I do can help answer some of them.

Is Peterson right?  Do we do students a disservice with regard to their reading of the Bible — or of literature — by such things as focusing on whether the student picked up certain facts from reading a novel (e.g., a quiz on Pride and Prejudice that focuses on names and relationship and who did what and so forth) or by requiring students to paraphrase or summarize or (the thing I hated the most in school) find the theme of a given story or poem?  How could we improve our teaching of literature — and of reading in general — so that our reading of the Bible may also be improved?

Posted by John Barach @ 3:47 pm | Discuss (2)
August 11, 2010

The Language of the American South

Category: Language,Literature :: Permalink

I was glad to discover recently that the local library has a copy of Cleanth Brooks’s The Language of the American South, a slim volume containing Brooks’s three Lamar Memorial Lectures given at Mercer University in October 1984.

The primary thesis of the lectures, to which Brooks devotes the second and especially the third lectures, is that “the strength of even the more formal Southern writers stems from their knowledge of and rapport with the language spoken by the unlettered.  Most of our writers have in fact recognized the colloquial and even dialectical aspects for what they are: dialects of great vitality and power, dialects capable of eloquence and even of a kind of folk poetry” (17).  The examples Brooks provides to support this claim were interesting enough to make me want to read the writers he’s citing.

But what particularly caught my interest was his claim in the first lecture that the language and idiom of the American South, which often seems quaint to outsiders, is not “a corruption of proper English” or a “discoloring of the clear waters issuing from the well of English pure and undefiled” (4), but is instead an old-fashioned form of English.  “As far as pronunciation is concerned, we Americans speak an old-fashioned English.  Contrary to what the layman assumes, in pronunciation it is the mother language that usually changes, not the daughter language” (5).

That sounds right to me.  A friend of mine, who grew up in a Dutch-speaking home in Canada, went to visit the Netherlands.  He knew Dutch well enough, he thought, and so he spoke it when he was there.  The response?  “Why don’t you speak English?  When you speak Dutch, you sound like my grandmother.”  And no wonder.  My friend’s parents (or perhaps grandparents) had immigrated from Holland back in the late ’40s or early ’50s, and they continued to speak the sort of Dutch that was spoken at that time, while in the Netherlands the language continued to develop, certain words became archaic, other words were dropped almost completely, and so on.  Similarly, a friend here in Louisiana recently had some visitors from France.  When my friend spoke Cajun French, they told him that it sounded very much like the sort of French that you’d find spoken in France by old people who lived way out in the country.  The mother country undergoes a change in the language, while immigrants tend to maintain the language as it was on the day they immigrated.

But if that’s so, then doesn’t that imply that older forms of American English, such as the ones preserved in the American South, actually maintain the English language as it was when America was first settled, while the language continued to change and develop in England?  Yes, and that’s precisely what Brooks argues in this lecture.

The broad a which we associate with the English pronunciation of words like bath (“bawth”) and laugh (“lawf”), he points out, was probably not adopted into Standard English until the nineteenth century, so that the shorter a sound we associate with the American pronunciation of these words was probably closer to the original.  In particular, Brooks argues, “The language of the South almost certainly came from the south of England” (13), where we find similar pronunciation.

Some more examples:

* Brooks points out that the dropping of the final -g in words such as going, doing, and thinking is not a corruption of the way English was once spoken.  On the contrary, it is the way English was once spoken.  There are many rhymes in poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats that work only if that -g is dropped (4-5).

* “Would you expect to learn that when Uncle Remus has Brer Rabbit remark that he is ‘gwine’ to town, he is using a word that Thomas Hardy, at about the same time, was putting in the mouths of the Dorsetshire countrymen who figure in his famous Wessex novels?” (7).

* What about pronouncing mercy as massy (“Law’s-a-massy”)?  That was still heard in the southern counties of England in the twentieth century (7).

* Joel Chandler Harris has Uncle Remus pronounce muskmellon as mushmillion.  A mistake?  Brooks checked the Oxford English Dictionary and found that mushmillion is indeed an old English form of muskmellon, found in a letter dated 1592 and written by a man from Dorsetshire.

* When Brooks grew up in west Tennessee, he could hear someone say that a chiggerbite’s itch terrified him.  Did he mean that it frightened him?  No.  An examination of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals “that in the standard language terrify once had as one of its meanings ‘to irritate or torment,'” and even John Milton used it in that sense (14).  Brooks comments: “Though this meaning is now obsolete in Standard English, it is still to be found in the country dialects all over England, just as it is still to be found in our Southern states” (14).

* What about de, dis, and dat?  Brooks spends a fair bit of time on these pronunciations, showing that they were common in east Sussex and Kent in the 1600s: “Thus, any of the common folk of east Sussex and the neighboring county of Kent who set out for Virginia or the Carolinas might have brought with them such a pronunciation” (10).  Nor was that just an old pronunciation in England.  Brooks cites a number of authorities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who attest to these pronuniations in these counties.  And even as late as the 1960s, the d forms of these words could still be found, though rarely, in Kent and Sussex (11).

Brooks cites Mark Antony Lower’s translation of The Song of Solomon into Sussex English, which begins this way:

De song of songs, dat is Solomon’s,

Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth; for yer love is better dan wine.

Cause of de smell of yer good intments, yer naüm is lik intment tipped out; derefore de maidens love ye.

If you look up Lower’s translation online, you’ll find his guide to the pronunciation of the Sussex dialect, in which he points out that th often becomes d (as in dis, dat, dere), that the letter r is frequently suppressed (so that horse becomes hoss, children becomes childun, and I suspect barn becomes bahn and never might become nevah), that there are some different past tense forms (e.g., heared and brung), that the vowel a is often “very broadly sounded” so that it becomes ay-uh (so that taste becomes tay-ust or, as in the example above, name becomes naüm, pronounced nay-um), that ea is pronounced almost like the ai in pail (so that beans and peas sounds almost like bains and pays), that the d is dropped at the end of some words (e.g., hel’, han’, and stan’), that the g at the end of an active participle is rarely sounded (so that going becomes goin’), that oi is pronounced like a long i (so that spoil becomes spile), and that ask becomes ax.  And I bet you thought those were all characteristics of southern American English.

Brooks writes:

Now this pamphlet was not printed until 1860, and I can assure you that the villagers and the countrymen of this essentially rural county had probably never seen a black man, let alone heard one speak, in their entire lives.  If the resemblances between the Sussex dialect of 1860 and the Negro dialects of the Southern states just before the Civil War do amount to something more than pure happenstance, then what is the nature of the relation?  Clearly the men of Sussex did not derive their dialect from the American blacks.  Did the black people of our Southern states then derive their dialect from the dialects of such English counties as Sussex?  If so, what was the link?

The only link I can conceive of is this: the Englishmen who emigrated to the Southern states and from whom the black man necessarily had to learn his English — from whom else could he have learned it? — must have come predominantly from the counties of southern England (9).

What that would imply, then, is that those who view the Southern dialects — and particularly the Southern black dialects — as corruptions of pure, standard English, perhaps springing from poor education or some other defect, have things backwards.  If Brooks is correct, and his case seems pretty strong to me, it is precisely the Southern dialects that have preserved the older “standard English” from which the newer “standard English” has now deviated.

But what that also implies is that certain approaches to education can destroy this older dialect, along with its wealth of once understood but now almost obsolete words and idioms.  Brooks writes:

I am confident … that I can identify its most dangerous enemy.  It is not education properly understood, but miseducation: foolishly incorrect theories of what constitutes good English, an insistence on spelling pronunciations, and the propagation of bureaucratese, sociologese, and psychologese, which American business, politics, and academies seem to exude as a matter of course.  The grave faults are not the occasional use of ain’t but the bastard concotions from a Latinized vocabulary produced by people who never studied Latin.  Gobbledygook is a waste of everybody’s time (53).

Posted by John Barach @ 3:08 pm | Discuss (1)

Germaphobes or Doctors?

Category: Christian Life :: Permalink

The other day, I read Brian McLaren’s recent Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices.  On the whole, I thought it was weak, though (as with other McLaren books I’ve read) with occasional moments of insight — almost totally marred for me by the sort of syncretism that produces lines like this all through the book: “Although written by a Christian primarily for Christians, this initial book in the series extends our acknowledgment to unreligious people as well as to adherents of all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (6).  That’s not just a one-time thing in this book; repeatedly, McLaren speaks as if Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all more or less on the right path and as if the practices he presents in this book — fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving — will help Jews become better Jews, Christians better Christians, and Muslims better Muslims.  Sigh.

I’m not going to review the book.  But credit where credit is due.  I did appreciate this illustration, and so I’m preserving it here:

If your goal is to produce firefighters and rescue workers, you have to produce people willing to enter burning buildings.  They do this not because they love fire, but because they hate it, and they despise the damage it can do to people and their dreams.  Their hatred of fire and their love of safety draws them toward fire and danger.  Contrast this to two other kinds of people: pyromaniacs (or arsonists) and pyrophobes.  Pyromaniacs love fires and the damage they cause, and so start them.  Pyrophobes fear fires and avoid them at any cost.

Similarly, if your goal is to produce doctors and health care workers, you have to produce people willing to get close to disease.  They do this not because they love disease, but because they hate it and despise the damage that disease can do to people and their dreams.  Their hatred of disease and their love of health draw them close to sickness, seeking to understand it in order to treat it.  They aren’t like a careless sex addict who has HIV and doesn’t care whom he infects, nor are they like a person with OCD who is constantly driven by a fear of germs to wash her hands a hundred times a day and avoid anyone and anything that could possibly infect her.  In contrast, health care workers are willing to get up close and personal with disease, but they do so in order to fight disease and promote health (69-70).

McLaren goes on to say “My concern is that by making heaven after this life the destination of our way” — I would want to say: “By focusing predominantly on going to heaven when we die or on being raptured out of this world” — “we are spiritually forming people who run away from fire, disease, and the violence of our world” (71).

That is, we produce people who are, in a sense, germaphobes instead of doctors, people who fear the evil in the world and withdraw from engagement with it and hope that they’ll escape from it somehow instead of people who hate the evil and go on to do something about it — by prayer, by the gospel, and by deeds of love and mercy.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:05 pm | Discuss (0)
August 6, 2010

Humility & Play

Category: Family :: Permalink

In a previous blog entry, I discussed mainly the things I didn’t care for in Keri Wyatt Kent’s Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity.  I was struck, however, by something she said in a chapter on playing.  She’s speaking of the importance of humility:

But how do we cultivate humility?  It’s not easy in our culture, which lauds individual opinions and accomplishments, which teaches that self-esteem and self-confidence are of the highest value.  But I believe playfulness is a path to humility….

Play stretches our ability to be a fool, to engage in that which has no purpose other than simple joy.  Play forces us to loosen our grip on our ambition for a while; it trains us, almost subversively … in humility.  We often want to avoid the risk involved with being silly (159).

Children, of course, don’t mind being silly.  After we have supper and read the Bible and pray, my children leap off their chairs and do their silly dance, while Moriah and I laugh.  It would be possible for me to join them, though I usually don’t, but I can assure you that I wouldn’t be likely to if you were having supper with us.  In fact, I suspect that a lot of (sober) adults don’t dance or even try to dance because they are afraid of looking foolish.  “I don’t know how to do it very well,” we say, and so we don’t try.  But “I don’t know how to do it very well” has never stopped my daughter from dancing.

Perhaps Kent is correct in suggesting that we adults ought to play more with our children, to forget ourselves and our sense of our importance and dignity and enter fully into their play, and thereby learn humility from our children.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:41 pm | Discuss (0)
August 5, 2010

Sea Serpents

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

The other day, I read M. T. Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester to my daughter, Aletheia.   The book is a lot of fun, but even more fun (for me) was the historical note at the back about the many sea serpent sightings along the New England coast throughout the nineteenth century and particularly between 1817 and 1818.  I appreciated Anderson’s comment on the back flap of the book:

For generations, fishermen took for granted the existence of long, snakelike animals in the North Atlantic.  It takes a peculiar kind of snobbery to believe that men who worked on the sea all their lives — though illiterate — were by nature superstitious, confused, and gullible.

And what were these sea serpents doing?  According to the story, exactly what Psalm 104 says they do: they were playing (Ps. 104:24-26).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:58 pm | Discuss (4)

Sabbath for Me

Category: Ethics,Family :: Permalink

This morning, I finished reading Keri Wyatt Kent’s Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity.  I read it because I was interested in any suggestions she might make for making Sunday a restful and enjoyable day, but also because I was interested in seeing her approach to and defense of a Sabbath.

She talks a bit about the Fourth Commandment, though she stresses that she doesn’t want to fall into legalism and often seems to equate rules with legalism, which would surely be strange in other areas of life, wouldn’t it?  “‘Thou shalt not murder’ gives us a good impetus to avoid taking other people’s lives.  But we don’t want to get bogged down in all sorts of rules, such as ‘Don’t pull the trigger when the gun is pointing at your wife.’  We don’t want to be legalistic.”  Why are modern evangelicals so scared of commandments?

Most of her book, in fact, seems to me to ground a practice of “Sabbath-keeping” in the benefits such a practice has for us and for our families.  I suspect that’s an approach that many books on Sabbath take these days (as opposed to older books that grounded Sabbath keeping primarily on God’s command).  So she talks about the dangers that come from a lack of rest, the way in which even a workout coach tells you that your muscles have to work and then rest again and again to grow strong, how taking a day to rest can empower you for the week to come, and so forth.  A lot of that is good and true, but I wonder about this whole approach.

Sometimes you find the same approach taken in defenses of other things that Scripture requires.  For instance, when asked to justify “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” a Christian might go on to say that God knew, when He gave the commandment, all the bad consequences of such behavior.  Fornication and adultery lead to all sorts of misery.  They damage us and they damage other people, for generations to come.  The implication is that God decided to forbid such behavior because He knew that it would be bad for us or for others.

But it is God who so rules the world that there are such consequences — and not just consequences, but outright judgments.  Imagine telling a child that he shouldn’t backtalk.  “Why not?” the child asks.  “Well,” you say. “I’m telling you this for your own good.  Backtalking leads to all sorts of bad consequences.”  “Like what?”  “Well, like a sore bottom.”  “Wait a minute,” the child might respond.  “If I have a sore bottom as a consequence of backtalking, that’s only because you’re going to spank me.  How about this?  I backtalk and you don’t spank me.  Now is it okay to backtalk?”

It’s not as if God is locked into a certain world He doesn’t control, a world in which fornication automatically hurts people, so that the best He can do is warn people not to commit fornication because of those consequences.  The consequences don’t just happen; they happen because He sends them.  He rules things so that there are consequences.  He could have done otherwise, but He doesn’t want to.

And so, when He forbids something or commands something else, He doesn’t do so because He foresees that the one behavior will lead to misery and the other to happiness.  It is not the consequences that make adultery evil; adultery would be evil even if there were no consequences.  And there are consequences only because of He so rules that there will be.

So with the Fourth Word.  God didn’t command His people to “remember the Sabbath” because He knew that if He didn’t they’d get all tuckered out.  After all, God Himself “Sabbathed” on the seventh day of creation, and it wasn’t because He needed a break from His hard work.  Nor did Adam, who had been around for a little less than a day at that point and hadn’t done any real work yet.  That Sabbath wasn’t about catching your breath after a hard week’s work; it was about drawing near to God at the center of the world to say “Thank you” and to be nourished by Him before going to work.

If we want to defend “Sabbath keeping” today, we need to present a biblical argument, not a pragmatic one.  If we replace “Do it because God says to” (which requires us to discuss whether Sabbath keeping really is required in the New Testament and if it is, in what form and what the divinely mandated rules for Sabbath keeping are — the very topics you don’t find in Kent’s book) with “Do it because it’s good for you,” don’t we end up making the Sabbath — or any other obligation we defend that way — really about ourselves and our own sense of personal fulfillment?  It’s good to go to church and take part in the service, this book says, but sometimes you might end up skipping church if your son has soccer — that is, if you’ve determined something else is just as or even more fulfilling for yourself than church would be today.  And then who really is the authority in our lives?

I’ll add quickly that I have a couple more beefs with this book.  First, it’s disconcerting to me to hear Eugene Peterson’s The Message quoted as if it is Scripture. No, Jesus did not say, “Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest” (Matt. 11:28, cited on p. 9).  Nor did He says, “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions” (Mt. 6:33, cited on p. 201).

Second, I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s approach to Scripture, which seems to find new meanings by drawing on (likely post-AD 70) rabbinic interpretations or … from who knows where?  For instance, it simply isn’t the case that (as Kent cites Bell as saying) the name YHWH is “actually four Hebrew vowels” (200).   Those are consonants.  It isn’t the case that “the name was so sacred, it was actually unpronounceable” (200).  True, the Jews stopped pronouncing the name, but we have no reason to think that it wasn’t pronounced by Moses or David or Malachi or any of the Jews in the Old Testament.  The failure to pronounce the name wasn’t a matter of obedience or because it was really too sacred to say.  God taught Israel to say it.  And where in the world does Bell get the idea that “the name of God … is the sound of breathing” (200)?

Third, several times in this book, Kent cites Jewish writers, as if the Jewish understanding of the Torah is really the correct one.  In the light of the things Jesus says about the Pharisees and their traditions and understanding that Judaism after AD 70 was quite different from anything Moses taught, I find this approach generally unhelpful.  Of course, the rabbis may shed light on Scripture as they expound it.  But I don’t assume that an interpretation is correct because it’s a Jewish interpretation.

That said, there are some suggestions for making Sunday a special day in your home, which Christian families might benefit from, as well as some practical tips on rest throughout the week.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:47 pm | Discuss (0)
August 2, 2010

Psalm Singing

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms,Music,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In his lecture entitled “Introduction to Worship,” available here, James Jordan points out that one way to tell what Satan hates is to see what things that God wants in worship are missing or abused. What does Satan hate? One thing he hates is Psalm singing. Says Jordan,

The other thing the devil does not want is congregations singing the Psalms because the Psalms are full of holy war stuff. If you start singing the psalms, you start getting iron in your bones.

You know that Psalm 68, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered,” was the marching song of the French Reformation. They would sing it as they went into battle. The Huguenots in France would sing it all the time. Of course, they didn’t have air conditioning then, so the windows were open and all the Catholics heard it, and it made all the Catholics so afraid that eventually the king outlawed singing Psalm 68 in public. So they’d go around whistling. And they had to outlaw whistling that melody.

Now, people are not afraid when they hear us sing “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” They are not worried about you.

This move away from Psalm singing, it seems to me, has taken more than one form:

(1) Many churches do not sing the Psalms at all.  They may sing hymns or gospel songs or praise songs, but they don’t sing the Psalms.  In some of these churches, the Psalms are read; they may even be read responsively.  That’s better than nothing, but it’s also rather strange, isn’t it?  The Psalms were written to be sung.  David didn’t simply read them.  The Levites at David’s tabernacle didn’t simply read them out loud.  They sang them.  If you went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, you’d be pretty disappointed if the performers read the text instead of singing.  But in many churches, the Psalms are not sung and, in most services, are not read.  And what that means is that the Psalms do not shape the piety, worship, expectations, language, biblical understanding, and so forth of the Christians in these churches.

(2) In some churches, a few Psalms are sung.  If you look in a hymnal (e.g., the Trinity Hymnal produced by the OPC and PCA), you won’t find all the Psalms.  You’ll find only some of them.

(3) There are songs that incorporate only a line or two of a psalm.  Take the well-known praise song “As the Deer.”  If you look at the first two lines, you’ll see that they are drawn from Psalm 42:1.  But immediately the song leaves Psalm 42 behind.  There are alternate stanzas that incorporate more of the psalm, but I certainly didn’t learn them and I doubt that a lot of Christians have.  This is not Psalm singing.

(4) Most of the Psalms that are sung in churches — and I’m talking about churches that are committed to Psalm singing — are metrical Psalms.  That is, someone has taken the Psalm and paraphrased it, arranging the words to fit a rhyme and rhythm scheme.  Doing so necessarily requires you to depart from a strict word-for-word translation of the Psalm.  For instance, “God” doesn’t rhyme with “sword,” so perhaps you change “God” to “Lord” to make the rhyme work.  The length of each line of a metrical psalm has to be a certain number of syllables with the accent falling in a certain place (“Da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA”), so what do you do with a long line in the Psalm?  You abbreviate it to make it fit.  At times, you rearrange words, producing something like what Jordan calls “Psalms by Yoda” (e.g., “You’ve raised like ox my horn”).

Do these changes really matter? Yes. I’m not opposed to singing Psalm paraphrases, and I particularly love the Genevan psalms. They’re still, to my mind, the greatest versions of the Psalms produced. But nevertheless they depart from a strict translation of what God actually said, and I think it is important that we learn to sing God’s Words and not our paraphrases of them.

Metrical Psalm singing, good as it can be, is not full Psalm singing.  A metrical Psalm is to a Psalm what a sermon is to a passage of Scripture.  It’s a paraphrase, a poetic rendition, an explanation.  But what about singing a good translation of the Psalm itself?  Who would want to settle for a sermon instead of a Scripture reading?  Who would settle for a poetic paraphrase instead of a Scripture reading?

But to sing a good translation, word for word, would require either a through-composed Psalm (and they’re somewhat hard to learn, given that there’s no repetition in them) or — horrors! — chanting.  And immediately the objections start: “We can’t chant!”  Why not? “Chanting is Roman Catholic!”  No more than saying the creed or a host of other things we do in church.  “Chanting would be too hard.”  But aren’t a lot of worthwhile things hard at first? The question is: Do we really want to sing the Psalms or not?

(5) When churches do sing the Psalms, they sometimes do so in ways that rob them of their power.

*   C. S. Lewis said that a lot of hymns in his day were “fifth-rate poetry set to sixth-rate music,” and that’s true of some metrical psalm versions, too.  Sometimes the music doesn’t fit the words.  Check out, for instance, the version of Psalm 88 in the blue Christian Reformed Church Psalter Hymnal, where the darkest Psalm in the Bible is set to light, bouncy music.

* When people think of “chant,” they often think of Gregorian chant.  There are forms of Gregorian chant that can be quite powerful (e.g., the ones included in the Cantus Christi), but those aren’t what springs immediately to mind.  Instead, when you say the word “chant,” people think of a choir singing Gre-e-e-go-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-i-i-a-a-n cha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-n-nt, with every syllable stretched out over a series of notes, rising and falling in a soothing way.  That’s great for ambiance, with one candle lit, when you’re having dinner with your wife. But it isn’t warlike and it isn’t something the congregation can sing.

* The Anglican tradition includes a lot of Psalm chanting, but if you get a CD of it, chances are pretty good that it will be sung by a boys’ choir.  Now there’s nothing wrong with a bunch of young boys singing in their high-pitched prepubescent voices.  But the effect is more sweet than warlike, and such CDs don’t give you a good idea of what chant could be like.

* I mentioned above that I love the Genevan psalms.  Sung at a good pace, they’re lively, dancelike, and at the same time warlike.  You can imagine pounding your spear on the ground as you sing them.  But sung slowly, in a dirgelike fashion, few people can stand them for more than a stanza or two.  Ho hum.

And if you buy a CD of Genevan psalms, chances are that’s what you’ll get, perhaps because a choral performance, especially with people singing parts, needs to be slower to bring out the complexity of the music.  For that reason, Bach’s motet “Jesu, meine freude” is going to be sung more slowly than the hymn “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.”

The other thing you’ll find on a CD of Genevan psalms (or, worse, in the liturgy!) may be an organist doing improvisation for a while between each stanza. Don’t get me wrong. That kind of stuff is fine — for a concert. My acquaintance Harm Hoeve is a great Dutch organist and he does fantastic improvisations on the Genevan psalms. But it kills congregational singing and it makes it unlikely that the congregation will want to sing more than a couple of stanzas.

So when you listen to CDs of this sort of music, you have to use your imagination. Imagine what the Genevan psalms would sound like if they were kicked up a gear or two and sung by a bunch of David-like soldiers. Imagine that those Anglican chants were being belted out by a bunch of tribal warriors : “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”

Having said all of that, I must also say this:  In criticizing these traditions, I’m not saying, “My church does this rightly, but yours doesn’t.”  Rather, my aim is to point out something that the whole church, my congregation included, needs to work on.  I don’t know of very many churches at all that sing all 150 Psalms, let alone in a good literal translation, let alone in a lively and martial way.  What can we do to bring about a change?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:44 pm | Discuss (6)