I've long said that preaching is an act of translation. In a good sermon you take the complex theological ideas you encountered in school or in your private study, along with your detailed method of exegesis, and you translate them into a cultural language which anticipates and attempts to meet the spiritual needs of the people in the pews in a way that they can understand. But, of course, as the Gospel message spreads across the face of the Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many other and more literal forms of translation going on.
All of us in the English speaking world benefit from this too often unnoticed translation, as (despite the protests of a 7th grader in a class I once taught) neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke English. Despite being written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the Bible has since the 15th century CE been a major part of English language literature. The King James Bible, for instance, first published in 1611 as the "Authorized Version," is held next to the works of Shakespeare for its majestic use of the English language. So majestic is its language that even though it sometimes deviates radically from the best translations of the Greek and Hebrew texts, it is still preferred by many who see it as the definitive word of God, perhaps even more divinely inspired than the original manuscripts.
But as the Gospel message moves from culture to culture, more than just the language is translated. Literal translations too often, in translating jokes and colloquial expressions words for word, lose the humor and insight of both. Similarly, because the Biblical text responds to the needs and questions of a particular time and place, it may fail to speak to similarly urgent needs and questions of a new time and place.
My bedtime reading this week has been Jaroslav Pelikan's gem of a book, Whose Bible is It?. After giving a brief history of the way in which the book which we call the Bible (which is not a single book, but rather a collection of many separate books composed at different times in different places, and compiled into not one but three major canons representing two distinct religions) has been compiled and read, Pelikan begins exploring the way in which the Biblical message and particularly the Gospel has been translated for new cultures.
The 20th Century, Pelikan argues, was a time of unprecedented spreading of the Gospel, with missionary agencies dedicated to bringing the Biblical text to cultures and languages which had never had it before. As the Gospel shifted to new environments, it picked up aspects of the thought and language of those cultural environments. One example he gives of this struck me as particularly humorous. This comes from "a creed composed for the Masai people of Africa in the 1960s.":
We believe that God made good his promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion in love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave.
That some of the expressions here seem so, frankly, funny to us, should help us see how funny the Gospel must look when it is first translated into a new language for a new culture. The image of Jesus being "always on safari" may seem strange to us, but how much more strange is the Gospel in our own culture, which turns a wandering first century Palestian rabbi into a model for the CEO of a multi-national corporate conglomeration? But, of course, that CEO is no less in need of the grace of God than a member of the Masai tribe who is comforted by the knowledge that as Jesus lay dead in the grave his body was unmolested by the hyenas which must have been so prevalent in the Roman Empire.
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