Hesitant to Enter the Endless Understanding

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand—it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!” –Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance

I was at the Paul Simon farewell tour concert at the Hollywood Bowl a couple weeks ago, along with my family. Go ahead, take a moment to envy us. I’ll wait. I’ve been to some truly amazing concerts by some truly inspiring performers in my life, but this one topped them all. Really. That’s not just hyperbole. It’s true that his voice is not quite what it once was, though not at all bad for a 76 year old guy singing in such a wide variety of styles. But you don’t really think much about his vocal quality because he still has that astonishing and unique combination of intimacy and energy, humility and confidence that just draw you in to him and the music. Well, I could go on. And on and on. Because Paul Simon is in my not-at-all-humble opinion the very best songwriter and lyricist of my lifetime and I’ll be more than happy to defend that assertion if you’d like to quibble. But I digress.

Part of what made this concert so powerful was the amazing musicians who were performing with him on stage: Vincent Nguini, the impressive Nigerian guitarist; Mark Stewart, the astonishing multi-instrumentalist from New York; yMusic, the avant-garde string ensemble… the horns, the percussionists…I’m telling you, that was a killer band up there on the stage with him. And as they played together all the music of the decades of his life as a songwriter—his songs with South American roots, his songs with African roots, his songs that floated up out of the Louisiana bayou and cemeteries of New Orleans, and even a few of his old original 60s folkish songs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the decades of his musical journey, the path of his creativity, and how he had taken so many of us along for the ride with him.

I found myself remembering back to the first time I saw him in concert. It was November 15, 1969 at the Long Beach Arena. I confess, I had to look up the date, but I can close my eyes and still see and hear moments of that concert. It was Simon and Garfunkel, then and they were near the apex of their popularity as a duo. For the first two thirds of the evening they sang all the popular songs we all knew and loved from the albums we all already owned. Paul played guitar. I think a pianist and a couple of string players accompanied them on a few songs. Then Paul said they would like to introduce some new songs from their new album that was about to be released. With that a drum kit, a bass amp and a couple of electric guitar amps were rolled onto the stage along with some other percussion instruments, and an assortment of new musicians stepped up and plugged in to this new group of instruments. This did not look like Simon and Garfunkel folkish music. This looked like Rock. And some people started to boo.

Hard to believe, but more than a few people started to boo. I thought of that as I watched Paul Simon perform all these decades later accompanied by two electric guitars, a bass, a full horn section, an accordion, a zydeco organ, a very full percussion section including two large drum kits—I thought of those people who booed all those years ago and wondered if any of them were with us on this night to celebrate where the journey of music had taken him. I wondered if they regretted booing him in 1969. I wondered if they even remembered.

On that night in 1969, when the people booed, he simply smiled and said, “Now, now, give it a chance. I think you’ll like it.” And then they played Cecilia. And then El Condor Pasa. Then Keep the Customer Satisfied, and Baby Driver… and when they played Bridge Over Troubled Water there wasn’t a dry eye in the arena. And from then on they could do no wrong.  And I think we began to get an inkling that their music, his music, was going to take us in a new direction.  And behold, it was good.

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 20: Paul Simon performs onstage during The Nearness Of You Benefit Concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

When we love the old familiar songs so dearly it is sometimes hard to allow room in our hearts and minds for the new songs. Mary Chapin Carpenter once quipped at a concert that she wanted to break some songs out of “new song jail.” I think this same dynamic can apply to our theological thinking. Sometimes we’re reluctant to hear the melodies of our beliefs rearranged and played by different instrumentation, to different rhythms. We’ve lived so long with words like “grace,” and “atonement,” and “Trinity,” and “Incarnation,” and even “Creation” that they can sometimes trigger within us a neuro-theological version of Name That Tune. Just hearing the word activates a mental shortcut to an old recording of a belief structure and it’s enough to know it’s there even if we haven’t actually payed any attention to it in ages. And yet, if we dare to listen what some unexpected voices are singing on these themes, we might hear the ancient songs come alive and dance in a whole new way that reinvigorates our faith and our lives. And if you don’t like the new arrangements…well the old cantatas will still always be there.

“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” –Paul Simon

The same can be said for theology.

The Gospel According to Steinbeck


“We don’t take a trip, a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

We parked our motorcycles at the curb in front of the John Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas and paused a moment to get our bearings. We had meant to stop at the Steinbeck Museum for our afternoon break, but Pastor Dave, the only one of us three motorcycling pastors who had his phone mounted on his handlebars and Bluetooth connected to a com unit in his helmet had entered a little bit of misinformation into the guidance system. So there we were at the library. Not at the museum. “Let’s walk,” said Dave. “It’s only a few blocks and it will be good to stretch our legs.” So, carrying our helmets, jackets draped over our arms, off we went. For a few blocks. Very. Long. Blocks. And more than a few. Or maybe it just felt like that because our footwear, ideal for long miles on motorcycle foot pegs was a little less well-adapted for city hiking. And yet, because we were on foot we saw the town differently than if we had simply motored through it.  The buildings stood out, each proclaiming both its individuality and the timeless, simple elegance of a bygone era.

 “Try to understand [each other]. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a [person] well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” –John Steinbeck

If you ever find yourself near Salinas with a little extra time on your hands, the Steinbeck Museum is worth every minute  you can spare. I confess that I have not read much of his work beyond what was required in high school. I have seen a few old movies adapted from his works or written by him for the screen, but it has been so long ago that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, just how much impact he had on this country. To walk through settings that evoke both the scenes of his life and work as well as the decades and social conditions of the time while surrounded by quotes from his writing and well-selected video clips of film and stage scenes from his pen was a powerful and moving experience. I learned long ago that the Word of God can come to us in unexpected ways and through unexpected voices. I was reminded once again that one persistent, prophetic person whose eyes are wide open, who is really thinking about what they see and why they are seeing it, a voice who is not afraid to name both the injustice and the beauty of the world can make a difference, can nudge the slow tide of transformation in the direction of God’s vision for us all.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” –East of Eden

Life is a journey. That little chestnut is such a cliché that we tend to file it under the pile of overdue bills in the unsorted stacks of “things we’ll deal with later” in the cluttered corners of our souls. Cliché or not, it’s still true, and sometimes it takes an actual journey to remind us of that truth. We make choices or we don’t—which is also a choice. We pay attention or we don’t. We follow the map or just follow the road we’re on because we’re not sure where we’re going anyway. And even if we’re very careful and sure of our route the truth remains: “We don’t take a trip. A trip takes us.” Stuff happens. People say things. People do things. We respond. Sometimes our responses are good and appropriate. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes we stand firmly in the life and love and light of Christ. Sometimes in our own shadows.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” –East of Eden

 “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:38, except that he probably didn’t intend to say that at all, at least not in the way we tend to hear it. Walter Wink in his book Naming the Powers points out that in both Hebrew and Aramaic there is no such word as “perfect” as in flawless. Even the Greek word which gets translated as “perfect” was only very rarely used to mean flawless. In all three languages the word that gets translated as “perfect” really means “whole” or “complete.” Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole. Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete. Be the person God made you to be. Have integrity, be consistent, be good, be generous and loving, be forgiving, but don’t delude yourself that you can ever be flawless…at least not in this life. Doesn’t that make more sense? How much evil has been perpetrated by people trying to obtain or enforce some kind of externally defined “perfection?” How many people have twisted their own souls out of shape by trying to be flawless in a world where flawlessness is a self-righteous trap?

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –East of Eden


For God So Loved…

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be destroyed but may have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved through him. –John 3:16-17, translation by Richmond Lattimore

You get used to hearing a thing a certain way and it’s hard to hear it any other way. You get used to seeing things a certain way and it’s hard to see them any other way. It’s not just attitude or stubbornness that does this, it’s at least partly the way our brains work. The human brain, says psychologist James Alcock, is a belief engine. It automatically creates neural pathways to reinforce the patterns, ideas and meanings that we already know and it automatically reacts with wariness to anything that doesn’t quite fit the familiar paradigm.

Take that Bible verse above, for instance. John 3:16 is the most memorized verse in all the Christian scriptures. But I think most of us learned to see it and hear it a certain way when we were small. First, if your experience is like mine, you learned it in Sunday School and you learned it in isolation from what comes before it and after it. You memorized it and treasured it, but it pretty much stood alone in your mind, isolated from the story of Nicodemus, set apart from the very important message that Jesus didn’t come to judge but to save. I was a full grown adult before Pr. Darcy Jensen called my attention to that very important verse 17, and frankly, I was a bit gob smacked! Jesus did not come to judge (or condemn, depending on your translation) but to save!

And to save what? Well, the world, of course. Except not exactly the whole world, because most of us, I think, thought of “the world” as “the people,” the “everyone” the “whosoever” from verse 16. So what we really heard was “God so loved the people that he gave his only son…” And that’s okay as far as it goes except that the word for “world” in the original Greek text is kosmos. As in cosmos. As in all creation. God loves all creation. Jesus came to save all creation!

And there’s that verb to save again. Most of us learned, I think, that this meant Jesus would rescue us from a very painful and nasty afterlife that was the default destination for everyone except his special pals. And yes, to save can mean to rescue. But it can also mean to heal, to make whole, to restore, to preserve.

The point of all this is that sometimes new information does break through the old patterns so that we can see and hear old, familiar things in new ways and our world is enlarged. Sometimes that new information can be life-changing.

In The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett, Masklin, a gnome, tries to come to grips with all the strange ways that new information has been turning their comfortable little gnome world upside down. He does a capable job of leading their community through a nearly catastrophic series of changes, but the power of new information doesn’t really hit home with him until his girlfriend, Grimma, discovers an encyclopedia. New information changes her world, and by extension, his. He laments to a friend,

“I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs. She said there’s these hills where it’s hot and rains all the time, and in the rainforests there are these very tall trees and right in the top branches of the trees there are these like great big flowers called…bromeliads, I think, and water gets into the flowers and makes little pools and there’s a type of frog that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch and grow into new frogs and these little frogs live their whole lives in the flowers right at the top of the trees and don’t even know about the ground, and once you know the world is full of things like that, your life is never the same.”

Once you know, your life is never the same. “Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.” says Masklin in a later chapter. You can’t help it. And maybe that’s another reason we resist new information because once we see something in a new and different way, we can’t unsee it. But the transformative power of our faith lies, at least in part, in our ability to see the world and each other with fresh eyes. We are to continually be transformed by the renewing our minds.

For centuries our theology has, for the most part, been anthropocentric, centered on humanity. On us. But we don’t have to change too much in the way we read or hear our sacred texts to develop a theology of ecology. For God so loved the cosmos… This is how much God loved all of creation…

God, in Christ, is certainly calling us to do whatever we can to rescue the people of this world from the various and sundry miseries that can make life a living hell. But if we read it just a little differently, with new information, we might see that we, in Christ, are really being called to an even bigger job, to the healing and restoration of the whole world. All of it… including those tiny frogs who live in their tiny pools in the bromeliads in the tops of the Amazon trees.

The Unintentional Tyranny of the KJV

The other day we were having some back and forth on Facebook about Bible translation issues in response to an article I re-posted on my wall from http://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/ about some of the agenda-driven translation choices in the NIV. One problem not mentioned in the article, though, “afflicts” nearly all translation teams and is, I suspect, mandated by Bible publishers. That problem, and it has enormous implications, is the perceived obligation to not stray too far from the King James Version, especially in the most familiar passages. This is not because the KJV is a particularly good translation. In many, many ways, it is not, and for a fuller understanding of why, I strongly recommend the book God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson. But for all its faults as a translation, the KJV has been, for generations, The Bible; for some denominations, it is still the only translation allowed.

As a pastor who usually preaches the lectionary texts, I quite frequently find it necessary or useful to single out a particular word or phrase in the text and talk about translation choices—choices which may have significant impact on the theology and application that arises from the passage. In this week’s gospel, there’s a wonderful case in point from Matthew 11:29-30.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That’s the NRSV translation and it hews closely to the KJV though the language is updated. “Meek” becomes “gentle” and “ye” becomes “you,” and so on, but it still says what the KJV says.

Now, putting aside the fact that if you’re preaching or teaching this text you should probably spend a moment talking about what a yoke is unless you’re in a rural community where horses and mules are still used, the real translation issue here is that the Greek word zygon, which has been translated as “yoke” ever since it appeared that way in the KJV, has another meaning. It can also mean a balancing scale, the kind used in the marketplace to weigh something.

So here’s an alternate translation from the Greek. “Come alongside me all who are weary and burdened. Take up and use my scale and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my scale is kind and my burden is insignificant.”

Translating it this way makes the passage less about “pulling our weight” one way or another or letting Jesus help us bear the great load of life that weighs on us all, and more about the freedom and peace we find when we set aside our need to be constantly judging and evaluating both others and ourselves. It can also be heard as an invitation to lay down the burden of the criticisms and judgments others have leveled at us and, instead, let Jesus do the evaluating. This fits, too, with the earlier part of the text where Jesus takes the crowd to task for their cynical and critical attitude and their failure to simply accept him for who he is, as he is.

So you can see how the choice of how to translate even one word may make a difference in how a passage is understood and interpreted. The theology that arises from thinking we are called to put ourselves in Jesus’ harness and pull whatever load he would have us bear is not bad theology, but it’s quite different from the theology of finding rest for your soul by putting down the burden of criticism and judgmental thinking.

Another example of a passage where a significant difference in theological understanding depends on translation choices is one that Biblical literalists like to quote a lot: 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The NRSV renders it this way: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Once again, this echoes the KJV: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for…”

From a translating standpoint, there are two primary problems with this passage. The first is the choice to translate pasa graphei as “All Scripture.” In particular, the choice to translate graphei as “Scripture” (with a capital S) is a choice that was driven by a pre-decided theology. The word graphei, in its most common use, simply means “writings.” “Scripture” is a very weighted word; it implies that the writings in question are in some way holy or sacred. To the translating team addressing this passage in the early 17th century, this seemed entirely appropriate. In their minds there was no question that the work they were translating was, in fact, Holy Scripture, so it is natural that they would assume the original writer intended something similar, especially since in verse 15 he had reminded the recipient, Timothy, “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” But even referring to “sacred writings” in one verse doesn’t necessarily justify the leap to “All Scripture” in the next.

What we don’t have here is any concrete idea of what, exactly, the writer regarded as “sacred writings,” though we can make some good guesses. We do know that the early church made significant use of many books of the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), particularly Genesis and Psalms. We know that the prophetic books, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah were often used and quoted. One thing we have to bear in mind, however, is that when this letter to Timothy was written, nobody had decided which books could officially be regarded as “Scripture.” It would more than 250 years before serious discussions of the canon of scripture began in earnest. The Church, itself, would not be well-enough organized to find substantial commonality of doctrine for such discussions to be productive until after the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. And while the Rabbis who began meeting and teaching at Jamnia some time around 90 CE did have long and interesting discussions about which books “defiled the hands,” their way of saying they were to be considered holy, they came to no conclusions about an official canonical list for the Jewish Bible, although they universally agreed that Torah was to be considered supreme among all writings.

So back to the translation issue at hand: “All Scripture is inspired by God.” Bearing in mind that nobody had yet decided what was and what was not Scripture when this was written, is there another way to translate it? Let’s look at a literal word-for-word translation of the original Greek. Where there is more than one translation choice for a word, a second option is offered in parentheses. “All writings God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, for refuting error, for correction (or restoration), for instruction (or discipline) in righteousness…” Did you notice that “is” isn’t there? That’s the second important translation issue with this passage, and where you decided to put that little word “is,” which isn’t in the original but has to be inserted somewhere to make a sentence that makes sense in English, can make a pretty significant difference in how the verse is read and understood.

Here’s how the great Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore translated this passage: “Every writing that is divinely inspired is also useful for teaching, for argument, for correction, for education in righteousness…” Every writing that is divinely inspired. Every God-breathed writing. That’s a long way from “All Scripture is divinely inspired.” One translation presumes that the reader and the community of faith will discern which writings are and which are not “God-breathed.” The other implies that the canon of Scripture is clearly defined, known to all and, since it is God-breathed, not to trifled with.

Interestingly, that canon, itself was redefined in 1647 at the Westminster Convention of Reformed Churches, nearly 4 decades after the King James Translation was completed and published. They eliminated the books commonly known as The Apocrypha, reducing the total number of books to 66. They did this, of course, without the consent or participation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches or even, for that matter, the Lutherans. So, apparently, “All Scripture” can be redefined if a large enough group of the same theological persuasion agrees to do so.

It’s interesting to me that the theological descendants of those who prefer that King James or King James-ish translation, the theological descendants of the ones who were quick to discard a whole collection of books that didn’t fit their particular qualifications, are the ones who tend to be more often literalist in their reading of the Scriptures and lean more toward Fundamentalism in their theology. It makes sense, of course, if you believe that the question of divine inspiration is settled and put to bed. But if you translate that same passage another way, if you read it to mean that one of our jobs as people of faith is to discern if, when and how a writing is inspired, it leads to an entirely different understanding of how we encounter, understand and apply the Word of God in our communities and our lives.

Since its publication in 1611, the Authorized Version Commissioned by His Majesty King James has imposed a quiet and subtle tyranny over all subsequent translations. In doing so, it has also powerfully shaped the theologies of English language readers, Americans in particular. I think it could be argued that not all of that theological shaping has been for the best.