Tag Archives: Shakespeare

rainbow after the storm

“Nothing to shout about”, or, my four-month break

It was July 4th. That was when I decided I needed a break. Four months. Important things have happened in that time. Much of it never made the news.

  • We found a new church home. My daughter was hugely relieved as she gets attached easily and “church dating” has been really hard on her.
  • I returned to Yosemite for the first time since my childhood best friend was killed there in a rock climbing accident in 2005. It was even more beautiful than I remembered.
  • In Monterey, my wife and I spent 10 hours battling seasickness in a tiny boat to see an actual, live albatross in flight overhead, something I had wanted to do since I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at age 12.
  • Within three days in late September, two of my favorite bloggers each posted that they are hanging it up, one for a break, and the other, for good.
  • My family witnessed, together, an outcome in the World Series unprecedented since before my daughter’s great-grandparents were born.
  • And yes, our country chose a new president, and I have sat with various friends through all their different reactions: some elated, some terrified.

I have posted before about sabbath: how important, and yet how little valued it is in our day. Especially for those who believe in their work, it is easy to justify the never-ending, bit-by-bit deplenishment of spirit that comes from doing just one more small thing.

Important things have been happening in our society. I know what I’m supposed to do if I want to be a successful writer: I need to write about what’s hot. I need to tap into the zeitgeist. I can only be relevant by connecting with an audience, and if this is a hard, cynical age, marked by division and mistrust, then I need to toss a coin, choose my side, and start shouting.

That is what I could not bring myself to do. As I stood on the sidelines these past four months, witness to all the sound and fury, I could not help remembering the words from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

I care passionately about what is happening in our society. I believe this is a historic moment. And I believe, at a time like this, that some things— like how we treat those who disagree— are more important than which side wins.

Some hear me calling for reconciliation and mutual respect, and they hear only the voice of white privilege, brimming with complaisance and naïveté. Some hear the voice of betrayal. Some hear nice words but with no real power. But I do not believe that Christ was complacent or naïve, or that bipartisanship equals betrayal, and as for those “nice words”: history has shown they are the only words with any real power to heal.

Outdated Bible

Is it time to give up on our outdated Bible?

The number one complaint about the Bible is, it’s outdated. It’s the only ancient writing any of us read with regularity. Some assert that, despite the millennia, all of it applies directly to us with no interpretation; others feel that in modern times it has become useless, if not harmful. Ironically, some even insist on both: more than once, an atheist has argued I must hold Bible to such a high standard that it cannot measure up and must be rejected, and even to attempt understanding by ordinary scholarship is “cheating”.

In fact, whatever we believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible, the reality is that it was set down by particular people in particular places, in their own languages and for their own cultures. We must take account of the original worldview if we are to ever understand what it meant to the original audience. Once we can do that, we have hope of understanding what it is supposed to mean to us.

Outdated

It is objectively true that the Bible is “outdated” in the same way that the plays of Shakespeare are outdated: our language and our worldview have changed since they were written.

Consider a phrase like, “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin, who would fardels bear?” Few would claim it is “cheating” to seek the meaning of such a phrase in the everyday speech of Shakespeare’s time, and then to take that as the intended meaning. This is done through study of his culture. We cannot understand Shakespeare without some understanding of Elizabethan England. The same is true of the Bible. No one now living has the same language and worldview as the original authors.

Even when a good translation renders the Bible into familiar language, the cultural distance remains, and attempts to take its meaning directly from our cultural perspective are likely to lead us astray. Again, consider other “outdated” works:

  • Shakespeare’s Henry V has several of his former close friends summarily executed; did Shakespeare intend us to take him as a murderous tyrant?
  • Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn uses “the N-word”; does that mean he hated black people?

In fact, Shakespeare intends Henry V as a wise and benevolent king, and Huckleberry Finn was a revolutionary in its advocacy for friendship-as-equals between black and white. Correct understanding of the authors’ intents is only available when we compare what happened to what the original audience would have expected.

For better or for worse, correct understanding of the Bible is rooted in some knowledge of Palestinian culture during the first and second millennia BCE. The question then becomes, why then and there? Why not here and now, and save us all the trouble of scriptural exegesis? And, since scripture was revealed then, does that reflect a divine endorsement of their particular culture? Or is “ancient Palestine” simply a lingua franca shared by all Christians throughout time and space?

Lingua franca

My (English-speaking) parents were chemistry majors, so they had to learn German. Meanwhile, many German-speaking pilots were learning English to talk to air traffic control. At one time, French was the language of diplomacy, and to this day, all passports worldwide (even yours) include French. And Latin, for many years, was the common language of scholarship, which is why the term for “common language”, lingua franca, is in Latin.

How do these languages get chosen?  Is it because they are intrinsically suited to the purpose? Not at all. It’s more or less random. Chemists wound up with German because the Beilstein Handbook is in German. French for diplomacy goes back to Napoleon. English for flight goes back to the Wright brothers.

So. In the same way that understanding the Beilstein Handbook requires knowledge of German, understanding the New Testament requires knowledge of 1st Century Palestinian culture. It is simply a shared reference point, not a divine endorsement. Jesus worked hard to change many aspects of their culture, just as I’m sure he would do with ours.

But this gets to the question of “ours”. Why shouldn’t God update the Bible to “our” culture? The question is profoundly narcissistic. What is “our” culture? Since January 1, 2016, even this humble blog has been read in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Which culture should God “update” the Bible to? Should he go pre-or-post microwave ovens, or VCRs, or automobiles, or the Internet?

Doing the work

The Bible is— yes— tied to specific times and places. But in so being, it is timeless. 21st Century Americans can look back and understand if they will take the trouble, just like we could in the 20th Century and in every century before that, and just like they can in Brazil and Iraq and China.

No matter our country, no matter our beliefs, there are parts of the Bible we embrace easily and parts that challenge us, and depending who we are, they are going to be different parts. I think that’s the point: no matter the standards we set for ourselves, we all fall short in some way, and God’s standards are no exception.

There is the fundamental core of the Gospel message, and then there is everything else. We have to interpret, based on culture, if we have any hope of figuring out which is which. We cannot separate “understanding the Bible” from “understanding the original intent”. The Bible can never mean what it was never intended to mean.

 

P.S. My 10-year-old daughter and her cousin got a glimpse of this blog during our visit. I think they said it best in a lot fewer words: “No,  I feel that we should keep the Bible. Many parts of the Bible are not meant to relate directly to our situations; instead, they provide motions towards the right directions for us.”