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It’s All about The Story

The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is hosting a consultation this week for the International Orality Network. I will be attending the consultation and learning all I can regarding this new and important missions emphasis that recognizes that most of the world consists of people who are oral preference learners. What excites me about the movement is that they focus on sharing the gospel by learning to tell great stories from the Bible in the mother language of the unreached people. This is exactly what we hoped to do with The Voice Bible.International Orality Network 1

One of the articles I read in preparation for the consultation is from Tom A. Steffen, former professor at Biola University and missionary for 20 years in the Philippines. In an article entitled, “Why Communicate the Gospel through Stories?” Steffen tells his own story about trying to teach new believers a simple version of systematic theology in the Ifugao language (one of Philippine dialects). Basically, his teaching fell flat because he insisted on relating the content using a western model of education, that is, teaching propositions and concepts. When he saw it wasn’t working, he decided to join his content with some wonderful stories from the Old Testament. He told stories of creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, the flood, and other stories on his way to telling the Jesus story. Once Steffen switched from teaching propositions and concepts to stories, the people caught on, got excited, and began to catch the essence of God’s redemptive love and purposes for the world.

I’ve said all along that human beings are hard-wired to tell stories. God has built that into our minds and hearts. So we are at our bests when we do tell stories. And we are good at it. Go on a trip and have something interesting happen to you and you can’t wait to tell someone. You call your best friend and tell them what happened. You put it on facebook. You may tweet it out. The point is that we are great producers and consumers of stories.

In the article I read Steffen quoted a statistic which I did know. I probably could have guessed at these numbers and gotten close but it is good to see it in print by someone who knows. Here is what he said: the Scriptures contain three kinds of literature: stories, poetry, and thought-organized material. Stories make up 75% of the Bible. Poetry makes up 15%. And thought-organized comprises the remaining 10%. By thought-organized he was referring to a good bit of Paul’s letters that make logical, linear arguments. But as N. T. Wright and others have pointed out, a lot of Paul’s theologizing involves retelling the essentially Jewish story around Jesus; so for Paul Jesus is the climax of the covenant story. In other words, even when Paul is making an argument for a particular idea (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus, the centrality of the cross) he is nibbling around the edges of narrative.
Amazing isn’t it that God chose primarily to reveal himself to us in these marvelous stories. I would have probably guessed that poetry was a higher percentage. I’d be interested to know how these decisions were made. For example, of Job’s 40+ chapters, all but 2 ½ are poetry. But Job’s poetry still tells a story. We might call it poetic narratives. The creation “story” in Genesis 1 is very poetic in its form. So how are these classified? I don’t know. And what about all the Proverbs, were they classified as poetry? I think they probably should have been because they are written in Hebrew poetic style.

It excites me to think is that in doing The Voice Bible we did something very different from other translations. We invited story-tellers, novelists, poets, and song-writers to help us retell the stories and poetry of Scripture. Scholars are very good at the technical bits of translation but we aren’t good at telling a story or of capturing the beauty and rhythm of a good poem. That’s why I think The Voice Bible has come of age when it has; we are moving deeper into a digital age that still recognizes the value of orality. Some scholars have taken to calling it a “digitoral age.” (I’m grateful to Dr. Samuel Chiang, executive director of the International Orality Network, for this useful term.) Too often we’ve tried to analyze the biblical stories using western logic to break them down into (4) points all beginning with the letter “P.” This way of preaching and teaching has had a tendency to obscure the story and make it hard to remember. Storytelling—God’s preferred method—has a way of capturing both the heart and mind for the sake of kingdom purposes.

If you’d like to know more about the International Orality Network, check out their website: http://www.orality.net/

Putting off . . . putting on

A new friend of mine—let’s call him HB—is an accomplished legal mind and great Bible teacher.  Recently, he started using The Voice in some of his teaching.  He posed a question to another friend—let’s call him ML (another accomplished legal mind and amazing Bible teacher)—about how to read Ephesians 4:22-24.  Paul uses two aorist infinitives for “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new self.  Most Bible commentaries describe the aorist as a one time act.  It is often called punctilliar aspect.  That’s probably telling you a lot more than you want to know.  But the idea would be that we decide once and for all to put off the old self and put on the new.  In other words it refers to a person’s salvation.  But Klyne Snodgrass, a distinguished professor at North Park Theological Seminary, has this to say: “The aorist tense is used for undefined action. Not necessarily ‘point action,’ as has been the traditional way of looking at the aorist tense!”

Now here is how we translated the passage in The Voice.

 baptismal font

22 then you know to take off your former way of life, your crumpled old self—that dark blot of a soul corrupted by deceitful desire and lust— 23 to take a fresh breath and to let God renew your attitude and spirit. 24 Then you are ready to put on your new self, modeled after the very likeness of God: truthful, righteous, and holy.

You may notice words in both regular font and italic font.  The regular font is more of a straight line translation from the original Greek.  The italic is “explanatory paraphrase;” this expresses the idea of the Greek because often it takes more than one word in English to express the nuance and artistry of the original language.

Eventually HB and ML kicked the question to me and here is what I said to them late Saturday night.

You are correct that Paul uses aorist infinitives for “putting off” (the old) and” putting on” (the new).  In between however, he employs a present infinitive to describe ongoing renewal by the Spirit which is to typify the Christian life.

There are times when the aorist points to a one-time event (punctilliar) and times when it is undefined.  After all Greek only has a few tenses to draw from. and it is probably unwise to pound the pulpit every time you see an aorist.  On this occasion, however, I think the punctilliar is warranted because most scholars are convinced that Paul is making use of baptismal language when he talks about putting off and putting on.  Since baptism was supposed to be a one-time act, these aorist forms are appropriate.  Christian baptism–widely understood as initiation into the Christian life–was seen as the decisive turning point when a person denied the old nature once and for all and took on (intentionally) the new nature.  This language about Christian baptism was taken so literally in the first part of the second century AD that the baptismal candidates took off their old clothes, went down into the water naked, and came up from the water to put on a new set of clothes.  That was one reason why the church needed women deacons, to superintend the baptism of women candidates.

That said, however, I think Paul would also agree that we are to always be working out our baptismal vows.  That means we are continually in the process of renewal, which means setting aside/repenting of the old and appropriating the newness of the Spirit. This is why we translated the passage in The Voice the way we did.

Perhaps you’ve gone to a church and noticed a water font at the entrance to the sanctuary.  They are usually small and off to one side.  The purpose of the font is to remind you of your baptism.  You may see people dip their finger in the water and make the sign of the cross.

The Ceremonial Washing of Baptism

We receive a lot of good questions about The Voice translation through this website and our facebook page.  Recently, we received a question from a fellow named Nathan who asked why we used the phrase “the ceremonial washing of baptism” where most Bibles simply have “baptism.”  Here is part of our response to him.

 Dear Nathan,

Let me suggest you take a look at The Story of The Voice (Thomas Nelson, 2013), a brief book which describes our translation philosophy, mission and an explanation of some of our translation decisions.  Perhaps that will explain things more fully. 

Briefly, our goal was to get people who have never read or do not regularly read the Bible started reading.  Many people don’t read the Bible because they find it hard and confusing.  We did this translation for them.  Our goal was not to replace anyone’s favorite translation. If you have a treasured translation, by all means read that.  But there is a growing number of people (hundreds of millions in the USA alone) who do not read the Bible for various reasons.  We wanted to give them a Bible they would understand in order to get them started reading the Bible and hopefully hearing the Voice of the Good Shepherd.baptism-top

As to the question you raised about how we translated the Greek word “baptizein” (verb most often translated “to baptize”) and “baptismata” (noun most often translated “baptism”).  We made a strategic decision in translating The Voice not to simply transliterate key words; we translated them.  For example, the transliteration of the Greek word “baptizein” is “baptize” (simply taking the Greek letters and putting them into a Latin alphabet); but the translation of “baptizein” is “to immerse or dip in water” (taking the meaning of the word from Greek to English).  So transliteration replicates the sound of a word; translation gets at the meaning of a word. Many key words in most Bible translations have simply been transliterated (e.g., Christ, angels, baptism, apostle, etc).  In order to communicate well with new readers we thought it was important to translate.  

Now back to “baptizein” and “baptizmata”.  When people who don’t know anything about the Scriptures read “baptism,” what do they understand?  It is confusing because some Christians immerse, some dip, some pour.  And whom do they immerse, dip or pour?  Sometimes children.  Sometimes teenagers.  Sometimes adults.  And why do they do it?  As a sign of prevenient grace, or as a sacrament to signify their chosenness by God, or to mark a person’s profession of faith.  So there is a lot of imprecision in the word “baptism” for people who know little to nothing of Christian tradition.  So what do we do as translators?

Well we went back to the original context.  The antecedent to Christian baptism is likely the immersion practices of second temple Jews like John the Baptist (John the Immerser).  Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these immersion pools over the last 200 years.  It is so important that there is a tractate on immersion pools in the Mishnah.  Essentially, the purpose of these immersions involved washing or cleansing.  But the washing was not hygienic—people then knew nothing of germs–it was “ceremonial” or “ritual.”  By this is meant an action taken simply because God required it.  mikvaIf you read the OT carefully, then you realize how often God required people to wash or cleanse themselves and other things.  This is why they built all of these immersion pools around synagogues, the temple and other holy sites. Again, we’ve uncovered hundreds and we have only unearthed about 20% of the archaeological sites. So when we translated “baptizein” and its cognates we rendered it “the ceremonial washing of baptism” or “the ritual cleaning of baptism.”  The point of this translation was to help readers understand the context. Namely, baptism is a washing or cleansing which God required and is done not for and by man but for and by God.  In baptism God acts to cleanse, wash and purify.  Now there is more to the theology of baptism than this (identification with the crucified and risen Jesus, for example) but I don’t think there is less.  If you are a veteran Bible reader, then you probably know all of this.  But most people know little to nothing of this.  We did The Voice to help them. 

I hope after reading this you will understand how seriously we took the original context as well as the context of our modern audience.  That is why we call this a “contextually equivalent” translation.  I assure you it would have been much easier just to do what every Bible translation in English has done before.  But does that help modern readers who are not used to reading the Bible, read it for all its worth?  These decisions were intentional and a number of scholars, pastors, and editors thought through them before we went to print. 

 

 

The Best Selling Book in Norway Is Not FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

In 2012 the best-selling book in Norway is a new translation of the Bible–yes, you heard that right, the Bible.  The Norwegian Bible is even outselling Fifty Shades of Grey.  Now this has caught a lot of people off-guard because Norway is one of the most secular countries in Europe, and Europe—as you may or may not know—has only a thin veneer left of its Christian cultural heritage.  Only about 1% of Norway’s 5 million citizens bother to go to church.Norwegian-Bible-510x287

And there is something else.  In one of Oslo’s most popular theaters there is a new, long (six hour) play called “Bibelen,” the Norwegian word for “Bible.”  Thousands of people are flocking to see the production that modernizes the Bible’s stories for a skeptical 21st century audience.

The Norwegian Bible Society released the translation in October 2011 to replace the 1978 edition.  The goal was to improve the Bible’s readability and accuracy.  In a move which sounds very familiar, they turned to poets and writers to help tell the story for a new generation.  Here is how the Norwegian Bible Society puts it on their website:

In 2000 work started on revising the 1978 translations. Five years later the New Testament was published and the full Bible in both languages will be finished in 2011. In addition to the principle of using a modern and easily understood language, the translators now emphasize a much closer connection to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek.

The process they used was unique:

In addition to three full time translators, the Bible Society used scholars in Greek and Hebrew, theology and professional authors and poets, who are specialists in the Norwegian languages. Their participation in the project from stage one, has been an exciting and important feature. In addition to give the translated Norwegian texts a very high linguistic quality, it gave the new Bible broad publicity. It has been remarkable to see how nationally famed authors and poets appear in media as Bible translators, strongly recommending the new translation and talking with enthusiasm about their own participation. Their participation has underlined the cultural importance of the Bible in modern society.

Once the translation was complete, marketers packaged the translation in a variety of fresh and relevant ways.  For teenagers they came up with pink leather and denim covers.  For adults, they worked toward a more sophisticated look and feel.

Norway Bible launchNorway’s heritage is Lutheran.  Until last year Lutheranism was the official state religion, but an act of Parliament changed all that.  Government leaders made “official” what everyone already knew; Norwegians have little time and interest in church.  Everyone thought that they would little interest in the Bible too.  But the new Norwegian translation has certainly challenged that.

Why the change?  Some people are speculating that now people are immigrating into Norway from Africa and the Middle East and bringing a variety of religions with them, people from Norway are taking a second look at their cultural heritage.  They are rediscovering some important things in the Bible, things they have decided not to forget.  As one writer who worked on the project said, “Thoughts and images from the Bible still have an impact on how we experience reality.”

What I find interesting is how similar the new Norwegian Bible translation sounds to “The Voice.”  There are significant differences in how the Norwegian Bible Society went about it, but the concept of inviting writers and poets to work alongside Greek and Hebrew scholars to create a  new translation is apparently an idea which dawned on them and Ecclesia Bible Society/Thomas Nelson at about the same time. Is it coincidence?  Perhaps.  But I’m betting on Providence.

Busy Isn’t a Virtue

In the January-February edition of Relevant magazine (relevantmagazine.com) there is an article by Christine and Adam Jeske entitled “13 Signs You Need to Get Unstuck.”  Number 7 in their 13 signs is this: “Your Standard Response to, “How Are You? Includes the Word ‘Busy.’”  Their article got me thinking about several things but especially about a problem which I think many of us have.  Whether we are “busy” or not—and we usually are—that has become everyone’s stock response.  How many times have you told someone you’re “busy” in the last week or heard others say they are “busy”?  I know I have.  It seems like we are addicted to busy-ness.busy image

We treat busy as if it is some virtue, but it is not.  Drug dealers and sex-traffickers can be busy.  So can health care workers and CEOs. But busy is not a virtue. In fact, it can be a real problem for our souls if we think somehow our worth is tied up with how busy we are.  Are we trying to justify our existence or our value?  Are we trying to underscore that we have skills that in short supply?  As Christine and Adam point out, we are all expendable, the sooner we realize that the better.

The real virtues, the real excellence of life, are found in other things.  Aristotle set the course for ethics when he defined the virtues as a balance between deficiency and excess.  The four cardinal virtues are: temperance, prudence, courage, and justice.  The Church over the centuries added to this number three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love (see 1 Corinthians 13). As you read carefully through the Scriptures, you will come across various lists of virtues.  Nowhere will “busy” be listed among them.  Here’s an example.  Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as: unconditional love, joy, peace, patience, kindheartedness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Do you see “busy” in there.  No.  I didn’t think so. Virtue, not busy-ness, is where true excellence and value are found.

The answer to our addiction to busy-ness involves repentance.  The Greek word which translates “repentance” means literally, “a change of mind.”  In other words, we have to change the way we think about these matters. We must realize that busy-ness can and will kill you physically and spiritually.  We must confess to God and ourselves that our true value is not found in how much we accomplish but in becoming a person “conformed to the image of  [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:29). We must create sacred times and spaces to rest and live according to a different rhythm.  The Scriptures call this “the Sabbath.” Take a nap. Read something just for fun. Go for a walk. Share a meal with a friend. Take a real vacation.  Your work—for yourself, for your boss, and for God—will become more meaningful and productive if you learn to live into a restful rhythm of life.  A friend of mine says it this way (pardon the alliteration): divert daily, withdraw weekly, abandon annually.  The point is this: God made us to rest regularly in order to be at our best as we partner with Him in the ongoing work of creation.

The next time someone asks you, “How are you?” Resist the temptation to justify your existence by saying , “Oh, I’m busy . . . “  Instead, break the cycle of addiction and try some other response like, “I’m learning to rest.” 

What do you think is the best response to the question: “How are you?”