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our satiric lord

[reading arts]I was reading Genesis’s account of creation through the eyes of Everett Fox this morning, and this verse got me wondering if some of the more humorless aspects of Protestant theology could be traced to the translations we Protestants have used for centuries:

At the time of YHWH, God’s making of earth and heaven,
no bush of the field was yet on earth,
no plant of the field had yet sprung up,
for YHWH, God, had not made it rain upon earth,
and there was no human/adam to till the soil/adama

If you’re used to Fox’s emphasis on both literality and expression, unique to biblical translations in English, you know from that last line that he wishes to get across in English the wordplay of adam / adama but can’t in a way that satisfies him. So you find the footnote, which says:

The sound connection, the first folk etymology in the Bible, establishes the intimacy of humankind with the ground (note the curses in 3:17 and 4:11). Human beings are created from the soil, just as animals are (v 19). Some have suggested “human . . . humus” to reflect the wordplay.

Fox’s approach to translation, as he says in his preface to The Five Books of Moses, is "to echo the style of the original," to present "the text in English dress but with a Hebraic voice."  The approach helps counter centuries of favoring meaning over expression as if they were ultimately separable. (I guess that’s all Gutenberg’s fault.) In theology, philosophy, and literary criticism, we tend to discard the stories after we’ve extracted a meaning or lesson from them.

Its hard to feel the fun in the above verse for the first time and not feel the ways the wordplay might shade the verse's "meaning."  Indeed, as accustomed as we are to ferreting out meaning from even the deepest biblical rabbit hole, our blind eye to the Bible's humor may deny us both sallies and sense.  I remember spending an hour in debate with a friend over whether Jesus is being sardonic as he opens his explication of the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13):

And I saye vnto you, make you friends of the vnrighteous Mammo, that when ye shall haue neede, they may receaue you into euerlastyng habitations. (Bishop’s)

To me, the parable is both simple and wickedly playful. One step ahead of his master’s reckoning, the unjust steward goes to his master’s debtors and liquidates his master’s loans for pennies on the dollar so he’ll have a job once he’s dismissed. The master, surprisingly, commends his steward’s cunning, and Jesus echoes the master’s commendation somewhat ominously as he transitions out of the parable proper.

My friend’s and my disagreement turned on whether the Lord was being facetious, a possibility my friend could not allow on principle. But the parable doesn’t work otherwise. My friend’s approach was to spiritualize the steward whom Jesus labels “unjust.” In my view, my friend sucked the sharp elbows right off of the parable.

Along with the irony, I like how Jesus’ commentary doesn’t explain the parable away as a Western sermon or literary critique might. Jesus’ explication, taken in full (I quote only its opening), adds more of the simple complexity I find in the parable itself.

The Bible often draws lessons from its stories, but it doesn’t discard the stories in the process. Genesis, Fox’s or otherwise, is almost devoid of commentary and doesn’t draw morals from its stories. The nearest thing I’ve found by way of commentary is the conclusion to the narrative of Esau’s exchange of his birthright for his brother’s meal: “thus Esau despised his birthright.” The line seems incongruous in that regard.

I don’t think Jesus’ facetiousness would be any more apparent in the Greek, but I wonder if our translations’ usual emphasis on the original’s literal meaning over its means of expression, whether that expression involves sound or humor or the stories themselves, has served to make our theology humorless and overly theoretical – and insufficiently poetic. In other words (and I know this connection may be a bit attenuated), do the literal translations predispose us to an unnecessarily grim theology, and do the translations and the theology then combine to keep us from discovering or enjoying the Bible’s humor and playful expression?

°°°

I'm beginning to see that this separation of sound and sense is a central preoccupation of my blog, uniting my screeds on hermeneutics (my "the martin sermons" section), political science ("church & state"), and criticism (my "books" section, mostly). One of my earliest posts quotes a favorite line from Robert J. Ray and Ann Ray’s The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing that attacks the separation of meaning and expression from a literary standpoint:

The best prose is that which is so thoroughly at one with what it expresses that one sentence generates another. The thoughts, so called, have their existence in the turn of a phrase and cannot be extricated from it.

I think that’s good biblical hermeneutics and maybe a good principle of statutory and constitutional construction, too.

Maybe the connection really exists.  The Western penchant for disembodied theology has lead to its penchant for disembodied political theory, I fear. I wonder how much of the destructive twentieth century ideologies came out of Protestantism’s approach to theology, which itself quickly mirrored and helped to popularize the logical (as opposed to reasonable) philosophical approaches of the times. (See Nancey Murphy’s Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism for a detailed description of how the liberal and fundamental strains of Protestantism fell into line with opposing responses to David Hume.)

Harry Jaffa has a point: modern philosophy is “unreasonably skeptical and unreasonably dogmatic.” (Crisis of the House Divided, preface at iv.) The same quote describes our religious lives, I think, if not our theology. I wonder if the skepticism and the dogma are related, the dogma serving to mask our unbelief – an unbelief in turn fostered by our failure to stay in the stories.

A return to the text, then, isn’t a call for humorless literalism or a strict constructionism that can’t distinguish between heart and mind. It’s a final return to a text that can’t be squeezed for, and then discarded in favor of, some essence. It’s an emphasis on story and language that might have us, like the Lord, speaking not in theories but in parables, and grounding ourselves in the serious play of prosody.

 

Posted January 19, 2011.

 

 
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