Slow to Judge

Last week I had the great honor of flying to Nashville to present at the sales conference for Harper Collins Christian Publishing (Zondervan & Thomas Nelson).  I spoke briefly on the topic of a book I have coming out next summer with Thomas Nelson entitled Slow to Judge: Sometimes It’s OK to Listen.  The book is about a lot of things, but it is especially about the problem Christians have of being judgmental and being perceived as anti-this and anti-that.  Too often Christians are defined by what they are “against.”

An early version of the cover art for SLOW  TO JUDGE
An early version of the cover art for SLOW TO JUDGE

The big idea in this book is that it is possible to stand up for your faith, bear witness to it, defend it against detractors and yet not do so in a judgmental way because we have taken James’ advice: be quick to listen and slow to speak.

The book is part of the Refraction Series.  Here is a link to 2 minute video on YouTube about the series:

If you are interested in culture and faith, then you will want to track this series.  The first book is already out: How to Pick up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness by Todd Stephens.  A second book is out as well: The Reluctant Journey: Fulfilling God’s Purpose for You by Richard Leslie Parrott.

Slow to Judge is scheduled to release next summer.  I hope you’ll look for it particularly if you find yourself up close and personal with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and people from an assortment of faiths or no faith at all. It is chocked full of Scripture and events which have taken place over the last 30-40 years.  We’re living in interesting times. Here are my chapter titles:

Chapter 1        A Listening Heart

Chapter 2        “Do Not Judge” . . . Really?

Chapter 3        A Book by Its Cover

Chapter 4        Love & Forgiveness

Chapter 5        Homophobia, Islamophobia, Christophobia

Chapter 6        The Problem with Tolerance

Chapter 7        Authentic Tolerance

Chapter 8        Listening to a Muslim: Fetullah Gülen

Chapter 9        Listening to the Pagans: C. S. Lewis

From time to time I’ll share an excerpt from the book.  In the meantime watch for the Refraction Series.  The goal of the series is to help align God’s people with God’s purposes. My own effort has grown out of a radio show I co-host called “A Show of Faith.”  It airs Sunday evenings 7 to 9 pm (Central time) on 1070 KNTH The Answer out of Houston.  But, you can listen live weekly via the Internet or on the I Heart Radio app.

A Few Days in Austin

Most of the collaboration on The Voice took place by means of technology: through email, Internet, SKYPE, and cell phones.  In some cases the work was personal, that is, people knew and worked closely with their reviewers and commentators. In other cases the work was anonymous.  It is standard practice, for example, in scholarly work for a person’s book or article to be reviewed anonymously, meaning both the writers and reviewers do not know the identity of the person offering the review.  This process ensures that a person’s feelings—positively or negatively—about another does not affect the quality of the review.  I understood the need for those checks and balances.The Voice of Hebrews cover

But there were a few remarkable occasions when writers and scholars actually sat down together, face-to-face, to work through a translation.

One of my favorite times working on The Voice project took place in Austin, TX.  Greg Garrett, a noted novelist, was working on the translation of the book of Hebrews, so I drove over to spend a few days with him. It was summer so he had arranged for us to work in empty classrooms at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, an institution where he was writer-in-residence.  The staff of the school graciously allowed me to stay in one of the dorm rooms—on The Voice discount of course.

Over the next few days Greg and I shared meals, swopped stories, and settled down over the Greek text of the letter to the Hebrews.  I watched carefully and listened closely as Greg, a gifted writer, worked through the challenging prose of the New Testament’s most sophisticated and difficult-to-translate books.  We plotted the argument and puzzled over the best way to communicate to our modern audience the way our anonymous Jewish author went about persuading his Jewish audience about the superiority of God’s new covenant.  I remember watching Greg count out the syllables, the rhythm, of the prose.  I learned from watching Greg that well crafted prose has a rhythm; meter is not restricted to poetry.  I had never thought of it before, but working with Greg convinced me it was true. 

Scholars are often strong left-brained people; this means they are good on the technicalities.  A translator might say, “this word is a Greek adverbial concessive participle and its referent is thus-and-so” or “this syllable is a pronominal suffix on the Hebrew root and its antecedent is x-y-z.”  Scholars can do that sort of thing all day long.  But gifted writers, poets, and artists are often strong right-brained people.  They are better equipped than technical scholars at capturing the beauty of a phrase or finding the right word to resolve the rhythm of a poem.  This is why I’m fond of saying about The Voice, “Finally, a Bible for both sides of your brain!”

I remember leaving Austin on the last day a bit sad. Greg and I had run out of time, and we had not been able to translate through all 13 chapters of this tough letter.  We would have to go back to our respective lives to complete it, in between other duties.  I was sad too that more of my Voice-related experience had been so isolated.  Translation is often a solitary experience—the nature of the discipline demands it be so—even if you are working in a “collaborative environment.”  As I started the car and headed for home, I was grateful for Greg’s talent and friendship.  When I look back, those were good days.



What Is a Story?

“A story is a way to say something which can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say it.”  –Flannery O’Connor

I thought I’d revisit a post I wrote back in 2011 because it received a number of comments and continues to be relevant. I was inspired recently by a statement Flannery O’Connor made about “story.”  She was a gifted southern writer whose stories continue garner attention. 

We received a question on our Voice Facebook page from one of our fans.

Question: “What is propositional-based thought and how does it apply to us?”

The fan is referring to the introduction in one of The Voice products where we observe that people do not respond to propositions as well as they respond to stories. This, of course, is nothing new. People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Humans are hard-wired to tell stories, remember them and pass them along to others. 

Not long ago when people were sharing “the gospel,” they would boil it down to a set of manageable propositions:

1.  God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.

2.  But you are a sinner separated from God.

3.  Christ died for your sins and helps to bridge the gap between you and God.

4.  So put your trust in Jesus to be saved and you .

Now these propositions are true, but they make little sense when isolated from the greater story of God’s plan and purpose for the world and us. 

Let me illustrate it this way.  Here are some lines from one of the greatest films of all time (Casablanca 1942):

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

 “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”

  “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

 “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world and she walks into mine.”

 “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.”

Now these are some of the most memorable lines in the film. But without the rest of the story you have no clue what it going on. They might punctuate the story, remind you of the story, illustrate the story, but they are no substitute for the story itself.

Imagine deciding whether or not to marry someone based on a resume. You might say, “Well, he looks good on paper.” No. We would never do that. On a first date you don’t exchange resumes or give a list of your strengths and weaknesses (you don’t, that is, if you expect a second date!). No. You sit down over a good meal and begin to tell your story. You talk about where you come from, what you love to do, what it was like to be the older brother or sister in a family of four, or whatever is unique to your own story.  This is how we woo a potential partner and how we make friends, by telling our unique stories to those willing to listen. 

God did not give us a list of propositions to follow. He could have, but he didn’t. Instead he gave us 66 books that detail an amazing story of love and redemption. Thomas Nelson has created The Voice Bible because they recognize the power of stories to tell the truth and call us into a new life.

Word for word and/or thought for thought translations

WordsI’m often asked whether The Voice is a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation.  That phraseology has become a standard way of delineating the more formal from the less formal translations.  I wrote about this more thoroughly in a  book called The Story of The Voice.  It was released in spring 2013 by Thomas Nelson.

The categories are themselves problematic. To state the question as an either-or implies that there is a strict dichotomy between a word and a thought.  It assumes there is little to nothing in common between them.  In fact that is not true in the slightest.  When you think about it, every word is a thought expressed. People can keep a thought to themselves; but when they speak, they have expressed something they have thought.  We’ve all laughed at someone who speaks before they think because what comes out is nonsense. For those who know only one language the point is hard to illustrate but consider what it means to translate one word into another.

Take the Spanish word más.  What does it mean?  Well, you get a Spanish-English dictionary (assuming your target language is English) and look up más.  What do you find? You find the English word “more.”  So más means “more.”  Well, not exactly. Más means what English-speaking people mean when they say “more.”  That is quite a different thing.  Spanish people don’t think “more” and say más.  They think más and say más. “More” might be equivalent to más in meaning, but a Spanish-speaking person doesn’t hear más and think ”more.”  Are you confused?

How about this?  Have you ever searched for the right word to express a thought?  As people get older sometimes they have trouble coming up with the right word.  It could be a word they know well, a word they’ve said thousands of times, but for some reason at that moment they can’t come up with it. You’ve heard people say “it was on the tip of my tongue.”  What was on the tip of their tongue?  The right word to express what they were thinking.  It is very frustrating for people to have thoughts they can’t express clearly.

We’ve all had the experience of thinking only to discover we are “talking to ourselves.” We try not to do that out loud too much or people might think we have lost it.  In fact in some languages the word for “think” means essentially to talk to yourself.  Leaving aside for a moment that some people are more visual thinkers than others, thoughts do arise from our conscious minds and are expressed in words.

My point is that there is no strict dichotomy between a word and a thought.  Every word is a thought expressed. Those who distinguish strictly between a word-for-word translation and a thought-for thought translation exaggerate the difference and are trying to privilege one over the other.  Generally, the word-for-word translations are considered superior to the thought-for-thought.  But every translation team has to wrestle with words, their meanings, and the thoughts behind them. Unlike Islam, the Christian tradition has never held that God’s Word is inspired only in a specific language. Though we urge ministry students to read the Scriptures in their original languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic), we do not regard these texts as somehow more inspired than Luther’s German Bible or King James’ English Bible or any other translation.  God can and does speak through the words of the Scriptures whether they are in Mandarin, Dutch, Swahili or English.

So when people ask the question: “is The Voice a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought translation?” Say, “yes.”