12 January 2010

Doing something to the text

by Frank Turk

Dan is off today, and I'm loaded for broke at work, but I had an old post from my blog worth sharing today; I hope you find it useful as you were hoping for the poly-glotinal brilliance of DJP but youinstead have to settle for my poor sister of a post.

Here's what I'm thinking about: the degree most reputable universities and colleges give out to English majors is "B.A. (or M.A.) for Literature in English" – because one doesn’t really study grammar or the alphabet for 4 or 6 years in college: one reads way too many books. One reads poems until one either "gets" it or throws up. One reads plays, which is its own special punishment for majoring in literature.

And there's something interesting that happens there which is applicable to the art of preaching: not once in 6 years of studying literature did we do a "word study" for an hour to plunge the depths of meaning in one word over the larger portrait of meaning the author was communicating in his book or play or poem or whatever.

Now, the disjunction between what one does in reading Literature in English and what one does when reading literature in translation (cf. the Bible) is that in the latter case, the reader has to grasp what the translator was doing while at the same time to seek out what the original author was doing when the text in question was written. That is: was the translator seeking to be as transparent as possible, or was the translator seeking to do something independent of the original work as well as remain faithful to the work?

For those of you who are really into this geekish analysis, think about Samuel Butler's translation of Homer's Odyssey, which is a prose translation of a poem. Butler's intent was to translate the words as best he could, but in doing that he sacrificed the matters of diction, form, and genre – so we get the story from classical literature well enough, but it's not hardly poetry: it's prose; it lacks the magic of poetic form even if all the words of the original are in tact. On the other hand, about 50 years earlier, Chapman translated Homer as a poem, and as such he took liberty with the words of the original poem in order to convey, in one poetic form/style in order to convey the art and power of the original in a second language. No real story changes were made by Chapman, but you can't line up his poem to Homer's and go line by line and learn the Greek – it would be impossible.

The translator does something to the text when he brings it from the source language to the receiving language, and understanding what he did is important for those who are only reading the receiving language. In that, word studies have a place in preaching. But my contention is that it is a subordinate place to preaching, as they say, "the whole counsel of God".

John MacArthur's excellent book on Bible study, Unleashing God's Word in you Life, makes this point clearly, as does any really good book on Bible study: you have to get the big picture before you try to sort out the details. For example, the book of Jonah is not about a big fish. There is a big fish in Jonah (or, well, Jonah does wind up in a big fish, right?), but this book is about the hardness of Jonah vs. the love of God toward the unrighteous. And if we read Jonah to try to justify the presence of the big fish, or to make the big fish into an allegory of this or that, we miss the actual point that God is willing and able to do things even for the enemies of Israel which we, as men, are not.

You have to read Jonah the first time to see how it comes together; then, you have to read Jonah to see what the parts are in order to better understand how they come together. And it's the same for any book of the Bible.

Listen: preach the word, in season and out of season – but don’t just preach on one word from the word. Preach the Word: preach Christ. Get the whole thing out there. Don't get so engrossed in one word that you miss all the others: that's called missing the forest for the trees.

Now back to your day.


DJP said...

Amen! Preach it!

Nash Equilibrium said...

Totally agree!

Amazing how some preachers can delve into the greek meaning of a single word and make the text say something that's not even there. And it's an excellent trump card against anyone in the audience who might disagree, unless they happen to be a greek scholar.

Brad Williams said...

I was an English Lit. major in college. I had to do word studies in reading Shakespeare because I couldn't understand his English sometimes.

I would also say that Greek and Hebrew are normally used by myself to detect silliness in authors. About 99% of the time, I cringe when someone prefaces something by saying, "Here in the Greek this really means..." Yeah, that's like watching a kid fall out of his high chair in slowmotion. Bad things, man. Bad things.

Colin Maxwell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nash Equilibrium said...

You mean like Rob Bell does? "Lemme tell you what God really meant..."

Brad Williams said...

No, I really wasn't thinking so much along those lines. I was thinking more along the lines of a faithful pastor who, in an otherwise splendid sermon, feels that he has to wield the knowledge of Greek to make the sermon seem more authentic/researched/authoritative. And what he winds up doing instead is committing an exegetical fallacy that makes the mini-D.A. Carson in my head start crying.

In the end, my people trust me that I'm doing my homework. And frankly, 99.9% of the time the English translators did a bang up job in the text, or at least included the alternative in the footnotes. So just reference that footnote if you are in the minority report.

Also, if the grammatical structure of the Greek emphasizes a certain aspect of the verse that isn't clearly emphasized by the English translation, just emphasize was the original emphasizes yourself. You don't have to go all greeky on everyone all the time. If you do, it will make the lay-person feel more detatched from the Scripture than he should. He should be aware that he must study, but not that the "true meaning" of the text is inaccessible to a non-Greek understander.

Sometimes, it is inevitable. I actually did a tiny bit this week because Matthew 28:19 emphasizes making disciples over going. The verse assumes that you go, its what you do when you get there that matters.

Alas, I am upon my soapbox again. I must needs get out of here before I start trouble.

David Rudd said...

well said, Brad.

and you too, Frank.

Jugulum said...

"And what he winds up doing instead is committing an exegetical fallacy that makes the mini-D.A. Carson in my head start crying."

Oh my... The mental image of a mini-D.A. Carson in our heads... Pointing out exegetical fallacies, elucidating puzzling use of the NT in the OT, critiquing the influence of hard post-modernism in the diverse areas of our lives...

It makes me clap my hands with glee.

DJP said...

Kronk: My shoulder-Carson!

Jugulum said...

So who's on the other shoulder?

Piper? Mohler?

Or an antagonist? McClaren? Peter Ruckman? Wright or Sanders or Dunn?

No... I vote for Kronk himself. The back-and-forth would be awesome.

James Scott Bell said...

And the context is always the Good News.

Rhesa said...

Studying and synthesizing secular literature is a great mental exercise for studying Scripture. I know the real understanding comes from the Holy Spirit, praise God. Nevertheless, we do need to practice thinking. A pro football player lifts weights, runs, trains, does ballet, but he is not a weightlifter, a runner, or dancer. He just uses those exercises to give himself an advantage on the gridiron.

mike said...

Be the fact that people will begin to question the forest because of a tree they dug up and cut into little pieces to study, and now it looks like a rose bush in a blender.
And if that person has a big brain reputation, and a decent ability to turn a phrase, many will read and rush to follow down the bizarre rabbit trails that ensue.
Then because this thing makes so much sense to them, they are now willing and wanting to dig up all the trees to see what else was missed.
The examples are too numerous to mention, but they do keep the bookstores humming.

mike said...

and if you insert

"but the most damaging thing may"

in front of my last entry, it could possibly make more sense.

Kay said...

helpful thoughts as I prepare a women's bible study, thankyou.

mike said...

like this?

DJP said...

That's great, Mike. Wonder how many had to rebound after reading it.

JG said...

Good word :)

Jim Pemberton said...

To be sure there are a few things to learn from doing word studies, like an understanding that "so" in John 3:16 is qualitative rather than quantitative. But I've noticed often that too many miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Using John 3:16 again, many debate the scope of the word "world" without realizing that the best contextual meaning has nothing to do with scope, but rather to quality. That is to say that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that true authority comes from the Kingdom of God, not the fallen world. And eternal life comes from our association with the kingdom of heaven and not from our own false sense of personal power and authority.

I'm planning a trip to a school for pastors in India in a few months where we are providing them with some study materials and hosting a conference for them. Many of them have little to no theological training. So my brief teaching for them will focus on how they might continue to grow spiritually through their study. I don't know the particular quality of their translations or the way that the differences in their English and the many English translations available will cause misunderstandings of particular passages if they focus on individual words or terms. This is one of the big reasons why part of my message to them will be to keep an eye on the larger meaning, and what it means for their spiritual walk, and not to get hung up on particular words or passages.

SandMan said...

What do you mean by the words "forest" and "trees?"

Kidding, of course.

Had a prof in college that introduced me to the now, probably overused K.I.S.S. principle. (In case there is still one person who does not know: Keep It Simple, Stupid!) I think that is still valid, even though it has become cliche'. He pointed out that our attempts to wow the congregation with our superior Bible/Greek, etc. knowledge is really just pride and should be repented of before entering the pulpit (or lectern in my case).

Sir Brass said...

Short, sweet, simple, to the point, and clear.

Frank, you could never be a technical writer: the engineers would actually understand the technical data if you were =p.

greglong said...

Brad, I think "greeky" ranks right up there with "Bibley."

[While Kuzco is in a bag, about to go over a very large waterfall]
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: You're not just gonna let him die, are you?
Kronk: A Shoulder Angel...?
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: Don't listen to that guy. He's trying to lead you down the "path of righteousness". I'm gonna lead you down the path that rocks!
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: Ah, come off it!
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: You come off it!
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: You!
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: You!
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: You!
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: "You" infinity.
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: [growls in frustration]
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: [to Kronk] Listen up, big guy. I got three good reasons why you should just walk away. Number one: [points to Kronk's Shoulder Angel] Look at that guy! He's got that sissy, stringy, music thing.
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: We've been through this - it's a harp, and you know it.
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: All right. So, that's a harp... and that's a dress!
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: Robe!
Kronk's Shoulder Devil: Reason number two: [as he does a one-handed handstand] Look what I can do!
Kronk: But, uh, what does that have to do with this--?
Kronk's Shoulder Angel: No, no, he's got a point.
Kronk: Listen, you guys. You're starting to confuse me, so, uh.... "be gone", or, uh, you know, however I get rid of you guys.
Kronk's Shoulder Angel and Devil: That'll work. [they poof out of existence]

greglong said...

Mike, my favorite part of that article was the last sentence:

Instead he plans to offer real-time English translations of his sermons on the church's overhead projectors "for those not sophisticated enough to understand what the Bible is saying in its original language."

*Overheard projectors*...nice.

greglong said...

Sorry for getting distracted...

Frank, this is a great point. Unless I believe I am smarter than the men who gave us the translation we are using, or unless I have an overwhelming reason to point out an alternative translation, I should use the English text as the basis for my explanation. (NOTE: This is NOT to deny the importance of much study in the original language.)

The preacher should lead people to examine the text so that they say to themselves, "You know, with some effort (and, of course, the help of the Holy Spirit), I can understand exactly what God wants to tell me from my own Bible!"

Bobby Grow said...

A nice book on reading the Bible as story is, esp. the narrative/poetic parts, is: Narrative Art In The Bible: Understanding the Bible and Its World by Shimon Bar-Efrat

He is a Jewish biblical scholar, but gives a nice intro, and more, to how to read narrative in the Bible (which Jonah, one of the only minor prophets, fits into). We used this book as a supplement to a Bible Study Methods class I taught on Jonah (a whole semester ;-). In other words, how the parts relate to the whole (how we should understand plot line, setting, character development, authors, editors, etc.).

In short, good post, Frank!

Solameanie said...

I was enjoying Frank's post and the comment meta until we got to the point of shoulder buddies and Kronks.

Now I'm going to go to bed and probably dream of Kazoo on the Flintstones or something similarly outlandish.

philness said...

Funny thing the forest for the tree's. For that's what I was thinking of the MD.

Mike Westfall said...

I just can't imagine how I've gotten along the past few years not knowing about the Lark News website! Tominthebox has competition!

Sam Chevre said...

I frequently refer to bizarrely unenlightening references to Greek as greekery.

Sam Steinmann

Working Texas Writer said...

I was educated as a translator (German>English) with a specialty in science and technology. "Real" translators do not normally translate anything using a dictionary or going word-by-word. You always have to get the big picture. Only once you have all the major points wrapped up would you ever go back to fret over a word to the point that you'd study it in isolation.
You can't translate words in isolation. For instance, when one kid says to another how smart he is and the reply is, "Yeah, right" you cannot translate that as the individual words Yeah and right.
When offered something to drink, even the word "Thank you" can pose a dilemma if you look at the words alone. In English, "Thank you" in this context implies "Yes, thank you,I would like some." But if you are offered something to drink in Germany and reply, "Danke" you won't get anything. That's because to a German person, the message in that one word is "No, thank you, I don't care for any."
Most professional translators (who work with contemporary business or technical texts)are far more concerned with "big picture" and "context" and even cultural framework than looking up words in a dictionary.