Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Saint and Cynic Talks to God Again

Lord, sometimes I think that I would like to be an atheist. Really.

I wouldn't want to be one of those obnoxious, in-your-face atheists who tars all religious belief with the same broad brush and makes snide comments about “your invisible friend” almost as a knee-jerk reaction to any mention of God. The kind who mistake cheap shots for bon mots. Who insist that they aren't fundamentalists, but who are really just as bad, just as dogmatic, as the pushiest religious believers.

No, I'd want to be a friendly atheist, like most of the atheists I've encountered. The kind who will gladly discuss their lack of belief with a person but won't insist that they share it. The kind who are intelligent and reasonable and moral. The kind who just see no need for you.

Sometimes I think that it might be nice to believe in nothing that cannot be proved by observation, logical proof, or mathematics. It might be nice to rely on reason alone. It might be nice to have no higher authority than myself.

But of course you know, Lord, that I can't do that. Even though I can't prove your existence...

Is existence even the right word? Didn't Tillich say that existence is the wrong category to apply to you. That you, the Ground of Being, are essence beyond existence? Dear Tillich, you've got to love him. Right, Lord?

Anyway, there is too much of the mystic in me to insist that you exist. The mystic saints have taught us that you are known also as the Deus Absconditus. (That's Latin for “Hidden God” but I'm sure you knew that).

So let's just say that even though I cannot prove your existence, I can't deny your reality. I've tried. But there you are, anyway, tantalizing, mysterious and just out of reach, drawing me to yourself. So, I work my way toward you as best I can, praying, and studying Scripture, and clinging to the cross of Jesus, because that is the only way I've found.

And still, I sometimes think that I would like to be an atheist. To live without the demands of your holiness. To live without the demands of your grace.

It's hard to live by grace, Lord. It's hard to reach the end of my resources and have to trust in you. I'd much rather do things for myself.

You can be so demanding. You call me into account. You tell me to love my neighbors. I mean seriously, Lord, have you met my neighbors? And even while I'm busy failing at that, you tell me to love my enemies, too. That's why I sometimes think that I'd be happier if I didn't believe in you.

But I can't deny you, Lord. I'm stuck again. Stuck with you, with your unprovable reality and your demanding holiness and grace. And I guess you're stuck with me, too. Recalcitrant, unholy, unloving me.

Help me to walk in your grace. Inspire me to be a better person, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Leap Day


For Leap Day, a verse about leaping from the Common English Bible:

Jumping up, he began to walk around. He entered the temple with them, walking, leaping, and praising God.

 The first person to correctly identify the source of the quote by book, chapter, and verse wins a free copy of the Common English Bible. Make your answer in a comment to this post. Give me your name and mailing address so I can forward the information to the publisher. I promise that I will NOT publish your personal information.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Insult the Heretics Like Martin Luther

This has been picked up by a number of bloggers whom I read. I think I first saw it on Joel's site.

Click here for the Martin Luther Insult Generator.

Luther had a sharp wit and a sharp tongue. He often had intemperate things to say about his theological opponents. Some of the things he said are regrettable. Some are, well, just funny.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Saint and Cynic Talks to God

Sometimes, Lord, I think I’d like to be a Fundamentalist. You know, a biblicist, an inerrantist.

I don’t want to be one of those jerky Fundamentalists that you meet sometimes, the obnoxious ones who tell you what you have to believe what they believe and that you’re going to burn in hell forever if you don’t. As if what a person believes saves them from God’s eternal fiery, wrath. Doesn’t good doctrine teach us that not even good doctrine saves us? Doesn’t good doctrine teach us that we are saved by your grace alone?

No, I would want to be a Fundamentalist like my neighbors up the street. They’re nice people, Lord, bless them. They live their faith quietly and earnestly. They love you passionately and talk about you freely. I can respect that.

Sometimes I think that it would be nice to have their sense of certainty, to have an authority outside of myself that is absolutely infallible, a court of final appeal that trumps all other authorities. I think it would be nice to have the Bible as a kind of divine reference book, God’s Big Book O’ Answers, the font of all knowledge and truth. Got a question? Take the leather bound book down off the shelf, read the right verse, proclaim “The Bible says,” and that settles it. No more wrestling with moral issues. It’s all there in black and white and maybe a few red letters.

But of course I can’t be a Fundamentalist, Lord. That’s not how I’m made. You put this meat computer in my head and I can’t help using it. To be a biblicist would require me to deny too much evidence, too much reality. I can’t help but see that when an inerrantist says “The Bible says” it really means “My interpretation of the Bible says.” I can’t help but see that the Bible is not a single document. It doesn’t speak with a single voice. It raises more questions than it answers.

I can’t help but see that Fundamentalism is a defensive posture, closed and guarded against new information, threatened by contradictory evidence. Frightened. I can’t live my life that way. There is too much wonder, too much delight, too much surprise to guard against it all. Besides, what does it mean to be saved except to be safe? If I am saved by your grace, Lord, why would I need to be on the defensive? I can’t be a Fundamentalist.

I love the Bible, Lord. I read it. I study it. I wrestle with it. I find you revealed in it. But you are not contained in it. It’s not a God-in-the-Box. The Bible is a wonderful, maddening, conflicted, enlightening collection of rich spiritual documents. I’m thankful for it. In it I find the testimony of people like myself: saints and sinners and cynics and believers and doubters and clay-footed pilgrims...and I find that you love them all.

But I can’t surrender my brain to the Bible...or to someone’s interpretation of it. I can’t be a Fundamentalist. The cognitive dissonance would undo me.

So, I guess I’m stuck, Lord. Stuck with ambiguity. Stuck with a Bible that is not just black and white, but also full of grays. Yes, and red letters. Yes, and also orange, and yellow, and green, and blue, and purple.

I guess I’m stuck trusting in your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Winner!

CONGRATULATIONS... Victoria, whose comment on this thread amused me somewhat more than the Anonymous Armenian's comment. My amusement, after all, is what matters.

Victoria, if you would be so kind as to give me your address in a reply to this thread (I promise that I will NOT publish your personal information) I will forward it to the publisher, and soon you will receive a fresh, new paperback copy of the Common English Bible. (Sadly, you may find a few books missing, as it is a Protestant edition. The CEB does publish an edition with the Apocrypha, it just doesn't happen to be the one they are giving away).

Anonymous Armenian, I have a consolation prize for you. Come to text study Tuesday morning to collect it! And don't despair of getting a Bible. I'll be giving them away at the rate of one a week for the next 11 weeks.

God bless and thanks for playing!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Belated Ash Wednesday

I don't usually do this. I don't usually post my sermons on my blog. I believe that preaching is an oral event; sermons are preached not written. But, I am trying to post more frequently during Lent, and a certain assistant to the Bishop "strongly encouraged" me to do this. So, for those who may be interested, here is my Ash Wednesday sermon....

Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
     Joel 2:13b NRSV

Somehow, through the centuries, our culture got hold of Christmas and began adding all sorts of things to the Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ. Now we have trees and presents and Santa and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman.

Somehow our culture took the Church’s 12 day season that begins on December 25, and stretched it out to nearly two months and pushed it back to the day after Halloween, and filled it with an expectation that we will all be merry and jolly.

And, I’m not complaining. I actually like a lot of that Christmas stuff. But I am observing that a lot of our celebration of Christmas has more to do with our culture than our Church.

Easter, too, though maybe to a lesser extent, has been taken over by our culture. Now we have egg hunts and bunnies and bonnets and parades and jelly beans and marshmallow chicks....And a lot of those things are good things. I mean, I like marshmallow chicks, but what do they have to do with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? They’ve got more to do with our culture than our Church.

Don’t even start me on Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day. They barely even belong to the Church anymore.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And this is one Church holy day that the culture just doesn’t want.

Fat Tuesday? Yes. Whether you call it Mardi Gras or Carnival or Farewell to the Flesh, with its parties and parades and general debauchery, it’s the kind of celebration that our culture loves. But, as Nadia Bolz-Weber has pointed out, you’ll never see a Peanuts TV special called “It’s Ash Wednesday, Charlie Brown!”

This day belongs to the Church and to the Church alone. The culture doesn’t want it. In fact, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter-cultural with its confession of sin and its frank recognition of mortality. These are things our culture prefers to deny.

So why do we do this? Why do we gather in church tonight to confess our sin and remember that we must die?

Let me say that it is not just to feel bad about ourselves. There is no sense in that. It is, rather, to be honest with ourselves.

We confess that we are sinners, because, when we look at ourselves honestly, we know that we do things that are wrong--whether we want to or not. We incur guilt and we want, we need, to be forgiven.

But more than that, we are sinners because we live in a state of sin--a state of separation from God and from one another. We go about our daily lives mostly ignoring, and by our actions even denying, the reality of God in our lives.

And this is why we not only confess our sins, but also remember the fact of our mortality. Tonight we remember that we are dust and will return to dust. We remember that we are frail flesh and, though our culture would prefer to deny it, we will all one day die.

We remember, in short, that we are not God. We need God. Our help, our only help, is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

Now some people practice self-denial during Lent. They give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol. Or they try to lose weight or something. Some of us treat lent as a kind of self-improvement program or a New Year’s resolution that only lasts forty days.

And of course there is nothing wrong with self-improvement. We could all use a little self-improvement. I know I could. But just becoming a better person is not the point of Lenten discipline. Whether we give something up or take something on for Lent, the point is to grow in right relationship to God.

The point of self-denial is to remove from our lives those things that come between ourselves and God. The point of taking on a discipline like prayer, or Bible study or some form of service is to attend faithfully to the God whom we sinners tend more naturally to ignore.

In fact, I believe that Lent is all about growth in relationship to God. That’s why we begin with confession and a remembrance of our mortality--because this is how we grow. Jesus reminded us that a seed has to be planted before it can sprout.

Lent is not about the self. That’s why I say it’s not about feeling bad about yourself and its not about self-improvement. Lent is about our relationship to God. So on Ash Wednesday, we look at honestly at our sinful, mortal nature, and we also look at God’s nature.

We remember that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

So we begin Lent remembering that we are sinners AND remembering that God loves sinners.

We begin Lent remembering our mortality AND remembering that the immortal God embraced our mortality in the cross of Christ.

We begin Lent trusting that our hope is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth--The Lord who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God bless you in this Lenten season and grant you growth in your relationship with God.


Preaching is not only an oral event but, I believe it is also a team activity. A sermon lives in the interaction of the preacher, the congregation and the Holy Spirit. In my case, the Holy Spirit gets considerable assistance from several quarters. Let me acknowledge my Tuesday morning pastor's text study. My colleagues there challenge my thinking, sharpen my faith and improve my preaching in countless ways. For this sermon I must also acknowledge Nadia Bolz-Weber whose blog provided me not only with the sermon's best line ("It's Ash Wednesday, Charlie Brown") but also some key thoughts about how culture has absconded with some of our Church holy days. Also, where innumerable good preaching ideas are born. The photo illlustration came from wiki.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Translation Time


I studied Spanish in high school. I remember just enough of it to order lunch from the tolerant wait staff at a local Mexican restaurant. Should I ever find myself lost in Guadalajara, I could  ask a helpful native for directions to the library. I would not, however, be able to understand the answer.

Back in those high school classes, we used to recite little practice dialogues, like this one related to time.

¿Qué hora es?
Son las ocho menos cuarto.

A very literal translation of that dialogue would be:

What hour is [it]?
They are the eight minus [a] quarter.

While the Spanish is perfectly acceptable, the English is not so great. This is because Spanish has different idioms for time-telling than English. Put on your translator’s hat and think for a moment about how you would render that dialogue into good English.

While I think that the question “¿Qué hora es?” would almost universally be translated as “What time is it?” several options present themselves for the reply “Son las ocho menos cuarto.”

It is seven forty-five.
It’s a quarter of eight.
It’s quarter to eight.
Or, where I grew up:
Quarter ‘til.

In each case, the basic meaning of the reply is unchanged. How is a translator to choose among these possibilities?  Context might be a guide. Formal writing has different requirements than informal speech. If the dialogue is spoken, who is the speaker? Would a BBC broadcaster reply in the same way as a Jersey Shore cast member?

One reason that we have so many English versions of the Bible is that there are so many ways a given word or phrase can be translated. Here, for comparison, is 2 Corinthians 5:16 in four translations. Each has something to commend it:

New King James Version
Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.

New International Version
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

New Revised Standard Version
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

Common English Bible
So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now.

Does one of these translations speak to you more clearly than the others? Is there another translation that you like better? If so, why?

I am going to try to blog more regularly during Lent. We’ll see how that goes. I’m still trying to give away a copy of the Common English Bible through this post. Doesn’t anyone want to play?

The illustration is Salvador Dali's 1954 painting Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion. I chose it because Dali is Spanish and it's about time and...well...I just think it's cool, that's all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Idiot Looks At Idioms (With Footnotes)


An idiom is a figure of speech which is readily understood by the native speakers of a language, but which, if taken literally, may not make sense to a non-native. Every language has them. They pose particular difficulties for translators.

The following is a true story.

I was out for a bicycle ride with friends on a fine late-summer day. We were riding our mountain bikes on country back roads through northern Illinois farmland. As we rounded a particular corner, we saw a 5 gallon plastic pail in the middle of the road about fifty yards ahead of us. It was lying on its side, rolling back and forth in the breeze, creating a small hazard. I could see that the bucket was empty, so I sprinted ahead of my companions, and as I came alongside the pail, I booted it off into the ditch.

When the others caught up to me, my friend Tim said, “Now I can tell everyone that I saw you kick the bucket.”

To “kick the bucket” is, of course, an English idiom meaning “to die.” If there is any humor in that anecdote it resides in the disjuncture between the literal and figurative meanings of the expression.

Think for a moment about how you might translate that story meaningfully into another language, one that doesn’t have the same idiom.

One possibility might be to find an equivalent idiom in the target language and change the situation to fit it. According to the cartoon above, “kick the calendar” is a Polish idiom for dying. As a translator, you could change the bucket in my story into a calendar. That would preserve the idiom, but it is probably, in this instance, the least satisfactory solution. It's hard to picture a calendar in the road causing a hazard for bicyclists.

A second possibility would be to translate the meaning of the idiom and footnote* its literal sense. Like this:

When the others caught up to me, my friend Tim said, “Now I can tell everyone that I saw you die.” (1)

(1) lit. “kick the bucket.”

A third possibility would be to translate the idiom literally and footnote its figurative meaning. Thus:

When the others caught up to me, my friend Tim said, “Now I can tell everyone that I saw you kick the bucket.” (2)

(2) “Kick the bucket” is an English idiom meaning “to die.”

In the case of this particular story, the third possibility commends itself, but in other instances, one of the other strategies might serve better.

A curious idiom in New Testament Greek is the use of the word σπλάγχνον (splanchnon) which literally means “bowels” but figuratively means “loving concern or sympathy, commonly rendered heart”**

The venerable King James Version of the Bible tended to render the meaning of σπλάγχνον literally, with sometimes amusing results. For instance, Philippians 1:8:

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.

For comparison, here is the same verse from the more idiomatic Common English Bible***:

God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

Sometimes translating an idiom literally makes the meaning incomprehensible. Here's 2  Corinthians 6:12 from the KJV.

Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.

And again from the CEB:

There are no limits to the affection that we feel for you. You are the ones who placed boundaries on your affection for us.

One thing that sets English versions of the Bible apart from one another is the way that they deal with idioms.**** I'll have more to say on the subject of translations in future posts. The cartoon at the top of this blogpost came from this website.


*I like footnotes.

**Danker, Frederick William, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 326.

***To win a free copy of the Common English Bible, see this post.

****Did I mention that I like footnotes?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Babelfish and Bible Translation


If you’ve never played with the internet translation engine called babelfish, it is kind of fun and occasionally useful. You plug in a block of text in the source language, choose the language filter you desire, and it gives you a crude translation in your chosen target language. For an example, here’s Psalm 23:4 from the Common English Bible:

Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger
because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.

And here is how babelfish translated that verse into French:

Même lorsque je marche par la vallée la plus foncée, je ne crains aucun danger parce que vous êtes avec moi. Votre tige et votre — de personnel ils me protègent.

I don’t happen to speak French. Nor do I think I’ll ever try. (I was traumatized by a Parisian waiter once). Still, I think I see a little problem in babelfish’s result. Let’s translate it back into English and see what happens:

Even when I walk by the most sunk valley, I do not fear any danger because you are with me. Your stem and your — of personnel they protect me.

Translation is as much an art as a science. If translation were a science, babelfish would work better. Maybe one day, with advances in Artificial Intelligence, a translation engine will give better results.

One difficulty in translation, whether done by a computer or a human being, is that words have a range of meaning. The English noun staff can mean a shepherd’s crook or it can mean personnel. In this case, babelfish chose the wrong meaning.

Consider the verb “to spike.” (Never mind the noun)! You can spike a fever. You can spike a volleyball. You can spike the punchbowl at Senior Prom. Arguably these three meanings are related, but they are far from the same thing. Now, imagine the difficulties of translating the wordplay in the following English sentence into another language--any other language.

After she drank the spiked punch, she began to spike a fever and could not spike the volleyball.

Let’s see how babelfish does. In French:

Après que elle a bu du punch enrichi, elle a commencé à une fièvre et ne pouvait pas spike le volley-ball

And back into English:

After she drank the enriched punch, she began a fever and could not spike volleyball.

Not bad. The meaning is mostly preserved, but the repeated use of “spike” is lost.

There are perhaps as many as 500 translations of the Bible into English. This is the first of a series of blogposts dealing with translation, and what distinguishes all those Bible versions one from another.

The Common English Bible is sponsoring a second Blog Tour beginning this Wednesday, February 22. As a participant, I’ll be able to give away a free paperback copy of the CEB each week for the duration of the tour. If you would like to win this week’s free copy, cut and paste your favorite Bible verse (any English version) into the babelfish engine. Translate it into the language of your choice and then back into English. Post the results in the comments to this thread, and the one that amuses me most gets the Bible. This contest ends at 11:59 p.m. Central Time, Saturday February 25. You'll need to check back next week to see if you've won. Decision of the judge (me) is final and completely arbitrary, but play along. It’ll be fun!

Babelfish takes its name from a creature described in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The illustration of the babel fish was taken from this website. A good description of the fish, and how it proves, or disproves the existence of God can be found here.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Don't Believe In Evolution...


Two participants in a comments thread over at Living Lutheran were disagreeing about a point of biblical interpretation when one of them asked the other “Do you believe in evolution?”

A quick Google search shows that this question, in these terms, is not uncommon.

The question was not addressed to me but it arrested my attention, mostly because it was a non sequitur. It made me think, though, that my own answer to this question would have to be “No.”

I do not believe in evolution. I do, however, think that the theory of evolution accurately describes the processes of speciation and the origins of humankind. In other words, I find the evidence for evolution compelling and the arguments against it, well, not so much.

Still, I don’t believe in evolution.

In his recent book Speaking Christian (see chapter 10), Marcus Borg states that until the 17th century, the verb “believe” always had a person as its object, as when parents tell their children, “We believe in you.” Borg also notes that, at its roots, the word believe is closely related to the word belove. Believing, in this sense, connotes a relationship of fidelity and trust. This is the kind of belief that we confess when we recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

It is only since the Enlightenment that the word believe has taken on the meaning of “intellectual assent to a proposition.” The difference here is between believing in someone and believing that something is true. One believes in God. One believes that God exists. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

The question “Do you believe in evolution?” confuses the issue. It puts belief in evolution on a par with, and usually in opposition to, belief in God. It reduces belief in God to an intellectual assent to the proposition of God’s existence. I won’t go there.

I believe in God. I believe that the theory of evolution is true.

Last weekend was the Clergy Letter Project’s seventh annual Evolution Weekend. Though my signature is attached to the Clergy Letter, we did not observe Evolution Sunday in my Church. We never have. I don’t foresee that we ever will. Here’s why: even though I am convinced that the theory of evolution is the best available explanation for the phenomenon of speciation, and even though I do not think that the theory of evolution contradicts either the reality of God or a good understanding of the biblical texts, I’m not called to proclaim the theory of evolution. I’m called to preach the Gospel.

Or to break that down a little, I believe that evolution is true, but I believe in God.

 Good news! There will be a second Common English Bible Blog Tour beginning Ash Wednesday, February 22. I'll be giving away more free paperback copies of the CEB. Stay tuned!