How do we translate the bible to today’s society?
Ok It’s question-answer time, where I try my best to give a good informed answer to a question or suggestion that has been put to me for this blog.
“I would like to read more about how to express the Bible in our current society and without too much Biblical jargon…”
The question above is one that many people struggle with who live in societies that are, to one degree or another, more secularized. This is not the same problem one has in certain areas of South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, in Kenya if you ask the majority of people about what the bible says, whether they are Christian or not, they will likely be able to tell you or, if not, at least understand where they can get more information. The issue that most of these type of societies face is avoiding syncretism, which is the blending of Christianity with other, usually animistic or pantheistic, faiths and in avoiding a gross misunderstanding of the Gospel that puts it in terms almost entirely of health and wealth, to the exclusion of a spiritual salvation and the Kingdom of God.
With respect to secular cultures, which again would include the majority of “industrialized” nations, the problem is entirely different. There is both a strong ignorance of information or misinformation about the bible, and a set of deeply held and prejudicial assumptions, most of which are left unstated. While addressing this issue could, and at some theological schools does, cover an entire course or series of courses, and while there are a plethora of books about the subject (some of which I will reference below), I will try to give a good overview that is, hopefully, helpful without being too technical.
My first statement, unfortunately, is going to sound incredibly unhelpful, but let me explain it. If you are looking for some fool proof method and action that you can perform, some gimmick or something of that sort, that will work as either a catch all witnessing technique, or wonderful conversation starter, you won’t find it, such a thing doesn’t exist. Our culture is increasingly concerned with authenticity, and for the most part that is a very good thing. Any effort to use a gimmick or trick or foolproof icebreaker will come across as though you are trying to sell something, and that’s not what the Gospel is about. Nevertheless, this is actually a good thing for most of us. This means there’s no training that you are somehow missing, no inherent mistake that you are making, the simple fact is, in all likelihood, if you are trying to do something, you are not doing anything wrong. Ultimately, if you are wanting to talk with strangers or friends about the bible, it’s entirely up to you how you approach it. That being said, there might some principles to keep in mind that will help you, if not with results, at least with confidence, encouragement, and a sense of purpose and focus when you do go about trying to communicate the Bible to the culture around you. Following that, I might be able to give a few practical tips, but as I said, there is no one way to do this and what is successful with one person will fail with another and vice versa.
Some General Principles
A good place to start is with the very idea of translation and interpretation. In college my Greek professor, Dr Mac Roark (now retired), told us his philosophy of translation: “The Bible has two functions today. It is a window to the ancient world and a witness to the contemporary world.” This is a very helpful way for understanding not only translation in the sense of producing a new English version of the bible, but how we interpret and talk about the bible. When we read the bible we have to keep in mind that, at least in the most immediate context it was not written to you, a person living in the twentieth century who speaks neither Ancient Hebrew nor Hellenistic Greek. Now, let me clarify by saying that the bible was nevertheless written for you and, in a broader (non-immediate) sense it was written to you. But initially this was written to a particular audience and in a particular cultural idiom.
As with any act of communication there is a distance that must be traversed between the speaker or writer and the hearer or the audience. I’m going to avoid getting into the more technical material about how we communicate and the problems that poses and how they are compounded when we shift cultures, but, at the very least, everyone agrees that the culture of the bible was radically different than our own. We have things, like cars and skyscrapers and microwave dinners, that are fairly recent. We have a different culture, different language, different climate, and different understanding of worship than they did in the various times of the bible. Even the different cultures of the bible had different understandings of many of these things. The type of worship done by Israel during Moses time was not the same as that during the time of the Apostles Peter and Paul. There’s a gap of distance we have to cross. Maybe a picture will help.
One way we might understand the initial communication of the message of the bible is given below:
In the drawing above, we have a speaker giving a message (represented by the arrow) to an audience. He communicates this through a particular cultural idiom. In this case it’s been represented by the word “kairos.” This particular word we might be tempted to translate as simply “time.” While that is correct, it misses some of the nuance. In Greek, another word for time is “chronos.” During the Hellenistic period we might understand chronos to mean a more standard, regular time, one that we can measure in seconds, minutes, hours, days and so on. Kairos seems to be more of an “event-oriented” time, or understood as “opportune time.” Thus it would focus on well known historic events and is less concerned with things like duration. Now, in the context of the first Century church, this carries an additional nuance. Namely, it would immediately bring to mind events related to the Messiah, such as his birth, ministry, crucifixion or resurrection, or else his eventual return.
All of these layers are part of the idiom in which this one little Greek word is used in the New Testament. So what does that mean for our interpretation today then? The job of anyone reading the text today (as with reading any ancient text) is to translate that cultural idiom into a cultural idiom or expression that we understand today. So how do we go about doing this?
Thankfully, we live in a time when a lot of the work has been done for us. There are a wide variety of translations available for use that try to do most of the transition for us. Where needed, they have left the appropriate cultural clues that we might be able to translate this to modern day. What we have to do is do something called “hermeneutics.”
Hermeneutics is the “art and science of interpretation.” It’s essentially the process that gets us to where we want to go, making this text make sense to us. It’s called an art and a science because while there are some practical guidelines, a lot of it just takes practice and slow work. I’ll go more in depth on some practical ways everyday people can engage in hermeneutics in the next section. For now, let’s look at the goal hermeneutics in the bible.
The primary goal of biblical hermeneutics/biblical interpretation is to bring the message of the bible to the society, time and culture, in which the interpreter lives. Remember above when I talked about the two goals of the bible as a window and a witness. Hermeneutics, at least in the sense we’re concerned with, is more focused on the witness aspect. Let’s look back at the picture above:
I’ve added a line here. We might call that line interpretation or hermeneutics. We are translating not the specific wording or cultural idiom as it was heard by the original audience. They didn’t need much help interpreting because they shared enough of the culture with the speaker. Today we share almost nothing in common with these ancient speakers/writers so we need to focus on the message, what the speaker meant by his statement. We encounter this a lot. For instance, Bible translations are an early step in the process of interpreting the meaning of the bible for today, especially ones that easier to read like the NIV or NLT. Interpetation also happens when speakers give a sermon in churches (or at least it should) and in our bible studies. In fact, you’ve done it to some extent alone by yourself if you’ve read the bible on your own. You’ve probably asked yourself what a passage meant and tried to figure out how it applies to your life. Perhaps some examples from other cultures will help.
I’m going to share two stories; the first I’ve been unable to verify, but illustrates my point really well. The second is certainly historically accurate. The first one speaks of a group of missionaries who were tasked with providing a translation of the bible to one of these people groups completely cut off from others. They got to Jesus’ statement that “I am the bread of life” and had a problem. The people had no real concept of bread. They ate grains on occasion, but more out of necessity than as any staple of their diet. Their primary staple? Bananas. So the translators decided to translate the passage (and similar ones) as “I am the banana of life.” Now again, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but if it is, the translators understood the difference between the idiom and the message and worked wonderfully. Now something is possibly lost in such an exercise, but something is always lost in interpretation/translation. What is gained is usually very useful and worth the slight loss.
The second example comes from missionary Don Richardson and the book recounting his experience in Western New Guinea entitled The Peace Child. When Richardson and his family went to live among a tribal group that had been cut off from civilization they encountered a problem. Not only did the language prove exceedingly difficult to learn, but after learning it and telling the tribe the Gospel story, he found that Judas, not Jesus, was seen as the hero. It turned out that trickery and deceit against one’s enemies was considered an incredibly good trait in this culture, and the result was a constant battle. After a long time of working with the people, his wife providing medical care, the Richardsons had all but decided to leave, in large for the safety of their small child. Not wanting to lose them, in large part because of their friendship and assistance (including medical care), the two tribes who had been battling each other embarked on a compromise. Members of both tribes, and in particular the chiefs, gave their children to their sworn enemies. This was a sign that they could both be trusted and that they would not attack each other. So long as the child lived there would be a guarantee of peace. Don Richardson saw this as an excellent way to speak about the incarnation and that God had provided his own Son as a peace child who, after the resurrection, would never die ensuring peace. It’s a wonderful story, and while I don’t agree with everything Richardson has done since then, it beautifully illustrates a concept known as contextualization. This is what we are trying to do in today’s secularized society. Again, in the next section I’ll talk a bit more about ways we can contextualize the bible/gospel.
A final word should be said about this process of contextualization or interpretation, and here is both a word of warning and an encouragement. Contextualization can be taken too far. Often times we, myself included, are more concerned with not offending anyone with the gospel. We don’t want to cause trouble or make someone uncomfortable. Let me put that to rest a little bit. The Gospel is offensive. It just is and there’s no way around that. The bible speaks about a world, and a Kingdom that is not of this world. Because of that, on some level it will never be completely contextualized. It sounds foreign to us because it is foreign to us. In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions that the “word of the cross,” his term for the gospel, is “foolishness.” This brings us to another final principle.
No effort at contextualization should ever come before the central message of the gospel which is, essentially, that God became a human person, died a cursed death, and was raised from the dead in order to save us from our own selfishness and sinfulness. I’d like to mention two separate studies that approach this principle from two separate angles. The first is work by Gerd Theissen called The Bible and Contemporary Culture. While I don’t agree with everything Theissen says, he makes some very good points. Two in particular stand out. First, he notes that in a secular culture, particularly one heavily influenced by the Enlightenment as North America and Europe has been, cannot be “talked into” faith. The message of the bible will always, in some sense stand outside and separate from the culture. In many ways it stands against culture, subverting it. This is why Christians were against slavery, were in favor of women’s rights (like voting) and even today work in places no one else will go. Because Christians understand that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). Christians affirm the universal value and personhood of all human beings.
Marva J. Dawn approaches it from a slightly different angle. In her book Reaching out without Dumbing it Down she discusses the idea of “seeker friendly” worship services. She is primarily concerned with music and in the book she is referring primarily to music that mimics that of contemporary culture. She notes a few problems. Practically, it ends up often being a decade or two behind. Further, many outside the church feel it is shallow. Now, she admits there are some (very good) exceptions, but notes that in her discussion with (mostly) young adults, they felt that such a service was condescending and insulting to their intelligence. However, she’s not advocating for a return to strict liturgy or using only the old hymns, because she notices that congregations where this is typical are often dead and pay little attention to the outside world at all. Instead she points out that those outside the Church, who might be seeking, are already aware that Christianity is different; it is a mistake to hide this difference and doing so is detrimental. The general principle to take away is that Christianityis fundamentally different, and though we may contextualize a little bit, we can’t, nor should we, escape that fact. Nevertheless there are some practical helps in this.
1) Be authentic. Don’t hide who you are or what you believe. That’s a huge mistake. In an effort to make things more palatable in your conversation there’s a danger to disguise or downplay what you think; don’t do it, just be authentic. Authenticity is one of the most valued character traits in our society.
2) Ultimately, if you try to talk to someone about the bible or God, you’re not making a mistake. This is an important piece of advice. You’re act of obedience to the Great Commission (to go and make disciples) with some people ends as soon as you start to talk with them. If they decide to end the conversation or dismiss it, that’s their problem not yours (even if you really want them to accept it). It’s when they want to hear more that we have to try harder, to make them disciples. Whether or not they want to continue the conversation is beyond your control and no matter how persuasive or eloquent you are, you won’t talk them into it. Penn Jillette, the celebrity magician, is an outspoken atheist and often ridicules other faiths. However, when he recalls an incident when someone tried to witness to him and handed him a New Testament, he mentions the respect he had for the man who did so. In the video (which you can see here), one can see a man who seemed visibly moved by the action. While he confesses he’s not going to change his opinion based on one man, he repeatedly refers to the individual as “a good man.” Enough actions like that and who knows? The guy was authentic and obedient. Those are the two most important factors anyone has.
3) Most people already know it or understand it quickly. This is an important point brought up by Theissen’s book (mentioned above) and my experience has shown to be the case. While there may be some ignorance about some of the finer points, which you could easily clarify, most people know the general scheme. The bible has become part of Western Culture. However, even if someone has a completely misinformed view of the gospel, you can tell them what it means to you. The Holy Spirit aids the Christian in interpretation, yes, but there is a principle called “The Perspicuity of the Gospel.” What that means is that everything that is required for salvation is readily understood. It’s clear and able to be perceived. If you tell someone what Jesus has meant to you, they should be able to understand it, even if they don’t accept it.
4) Just because they reject what you say then, doesn’t mean they always will. You may be a link in the chain that doesn’t know it yet. As the Apostle Paul said, “Some plant, some water, and still others harvest, but it is God who causes the growth.” Everything doesn’t depend on you. In fact, none of it really does. That can be incredibly freeing. Keep praying even when it seems like someone has utterly rejected the message.
5) Don’t Get into a debate. These are rarely productive. It’s not that you can’t “win,” it’s that even if you win you may lose. There’s also the problem that someone who wants to debate often times has a set of presuppositions of which she or he may not even be aware. In that case a debate will likely be frustrating. Much more effective is being a friend. This isn’t to say you can’t have a friendly disagreement and discussion about it, but once things get heated, or someone starts talking about really minor or peripheral things, the discussion has likely stopped being productive.
6) Be a friend. If there’s a great new restaurant in town, whose opinion are you more likely to trust: a random person you’ve never met or barely know, or a close friend? It’s also important to know that I’m not saying talk about the bible just to your friends, but actively be a friend. When Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor”? He told a parable (the good Samaritan). The point was that the first question had the wrong emphasis. Jesus concluded by asking “Who was a neighbor”? It’s not who is my neighbor, but who can I act as a neighbor toward. In the same way it’s not just who your friends currently are, but how you can act as a friend to someone else.
7) Speak like you normally do. Too many times when we talk about the bible, we are tempted to use “bible” talk. This can sometimes be hard. How do we talk about sin? Or Redemption? These are complex concepts and we find it hard to translate to our language. Eugene Peterson has attempted to that a little bit with his The Message paraphrase. The same can be said of the earlier The Living Bible. While these are not necessarily appropriate for deep study of the bible, they can be useful on a daily basis. Another thing to do is try to think about what the Gospel means to you where you are, without automatically putting it in “church words.” Does your understanding of sin end up being a feeling of alienation or isolation? Do you understand salvation or redemption as “hope” and “joy”? If so, say that. Use the most basic way you know how to express it. A simple question to ask is what difference has Jesus made in your life? A church word for this is “testimony” but what we should say is this is your experience of what Jesus has done for you. Be practical and tangible. Find the hook that you can put your hat on, so to speak. When you first encountered Jesus in a radical way, what did that mean? Joy? Hope? A sense of purpose? A future? Relief? Help? Support? I can’t answer it for you, and this isn’t an exhaustive list, but think about what it means to you on the most basic level.
8) If you want to learn more about interpreting the bible there’s help. One of the books I recommend more than any other (besides the bible of course) is How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. It is not particularly “spiritual” or “inspiring”, but it is an excellent resource that I think should almost be required reading. It is an easy to understand crash course in interpreting the bible. Even if you don’t think you can invest the time to work through a book, you are usually better equipped to read and interpret than you think you are. One of the best things you can do is read the bible slowly and carefully stopping to rephrase sections every now and then. This makes sure you are not glazing over anything. Besides, as a Christian you have the Holy Spirit to help you.
9) Pray and ask others to do so. Ultimately we don’t talk to others about the bible on our own strength. Keeping in mind that God is the one who gives the growth, we need to pray for such a thing. As Jesus said “Whoever asks, receives.”
10) Practice makes perfect. If you’re worried about speaking about the bible in this culture, the only way to get better is to do it. It likely means you will have missteps, but that’s part of the learning process. And keep in mind, your missteps do not dictate the success of these type of conversations, your obedience does.
So what do you think? Have I answered the question clearly? Is there something I need to restate, elaborate on, or clarify? Is there something you think I got wrong? Or is there something else you’d like to see addressed in this post? Let me know in the comments.