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Thursday, May 12, 2005

What does it mean to be people of the Book?

Here is an essay I wrote in 2001:
From the time I was a small child I have wanted to be a missionary. I grew up with Bible stories and teaching in Sunday School and expository Bible preaching in church sermons. I memorized hundreds of verses from the Bible and can still remember many of them. My church culture has centered around the Bible. The Bible school I attended has its motto carved on its entrance wall, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15), and "word of truth" is interpreted only to mean the Bible. I have heard many challenges that we should be "people of the Word." We have often been told, "Get into the Word," and "Stay in the Word." Today I am a missionary Bible translator. I have been translating for a Native American tribe since 1975, and continue to feel this is where God wants me to work for him. It is good work. And my desire to help others hear and understand God's written Word is just as strong as ever.

Yet, sometimes I wonder if those of us from such strong "Bible backgrounds" have our highest priorities wrong. Sometimes I wonder if it is more important for us to know the written Word than it is for us to know the Living Word, of whom the written Word speaks.

I honestly wonder if sometimes it is more important for us to spend time with the book (perhaps even worship the Book) more than we do its Maker. I hear so much argumentation about the words of the Bible, which version is the right one to read, and similar things which focus on the form in which written revelation came, that I wonder if we miss the Message while trying so hard to get its words right. Mind you, I'm just as concerned about the words, because I have to translate them, and I always want to translate them accurately. But, could it be that we sometimes become so focused upon the written words that we miss its overall message for our lives? Could it be that we fall into some of the same well-meaning traps into which the Pharisees of Jesus' time did? I think they sincerely wanted to please God? But they had lost the core of what it meant to be pleasing to God.

It seems to me that much of our desire to be "people of the Book" is good, but because we are human, and that means being fallible, we allow the good focus upon the written Word to become something, over time, that misses the priority focus of our lives, which should be to honor God and share the Good News with others that he has a free gift, a way for humans to be acceptable to him.

It seems to me that when we focus upon "the Word" we so often absorb it cognitively (with our minds) rather than volitionally (with our wills). "Learning the Word" becomes an end in itself. And what do we do when we "learn the Word"? We study its major and minor themes. We often locate proof texts to support "our side" in some theological or political argument. We memorize. We learn the meaning of important theological terms in the Bible. We learn how to explain the meaning of those words to those who don't understand them. Sometimes we are honest enough with ourselves to go all the way with the process of interpreting the Bible and get to the final step of personal application. But much of the time we stop before then and feel that we have been "in the Word" and that that exercise makes us better Christians. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus were speaking to us today as he did to people of his time he might tell us, "You have the Scriptures. You love them. You regularly search these Scriptures. They tell about me. They tell you how to believe in me, rather than in your own ways of earning God's acceptance" (John 5:39).

Could it be that our focus upon the "words" of the Bible is sometimes an unconscious effort on our part not to let those words convict us of needed changes in our behavior and attitudes? Could it be that some of us who prefer "literally accurate" versions of the Bible do so because we can continue studying, trying to figure out what those "literal" words mean in terms of words that we speak ordinarily? Can it be that we are uncomfortable with translations of the Bible which use grammar and vocabulary closer to the language we speak everyday because those translations are so understandable to us? With them we no longer have to "study the Word" to determine what it means, but instead have to simply listen, to come under its spotlight aimed at us by the Holy Spirit who inspired that Word? We may smile at what some pastors have said when it was suggested that they preach from a more understandable version of the Bible, "But then what would I have to preach about?" But we need to ask ourselves if there is any of this same attitude toward the Bible in ourselves. The truth is that there is plenty to study and preach about from the Bible even from translations which speak clearly in the vernacular (including the English vernacular today).

Now, I'm not at all saying that the Bible is perfectly easy to understand, no matter what dialect of a language it is translated in. There are parts of the Bible which may always be difficult for us to understand because our current situation is so far removed from the original context to which a particular part of the Bible was addressed. We do not understand all the context-specific details of some parts of the Bible. But the majority of the Bible really is meant to be well understood, or at least understood well enough for us to respond and obey. For it was written in the vernacular, everyday language, meant to be understood by everyday people.

Early in our career of translating the Bible for Native Americans, one young man told us, "We already knew about God before the missionaries came. Our religion is a way of life. The missionaries came and told us we needed to change our religion. But the missionaries couldn't even remember everything about their religion. They had to keep looking in a book to remember." We listened graciously. I think there was something important for us to hear. We don't agree that the missionaries were using the Bible because they couldn't remember. But we did need to hear that we cannot simply be people of the Book, if it doesn't seem to others that our beliefs affect our entire lives. We must properly follow our missionary predecessors, trying to communicate God's written revelation to others, as Paul did at Athens (Acts 17:15-34), telling the Athenians about the One who can fulfill their deepest spiritual longings.

But I still wonder if we sometimes concentrate so much on the book that we miss translating its message into life for people who long to live life as God meant it, life in all its fullness (John 10:10).

And for those of us who translate the Bible, how are we people of the Book? Do we view translation of the Book as an end in itself? Does translating for Bibleless tribes equate with "giving them the Word"? This is a good question, one we should spend some time thinking about. It seems to me that translation is only part of giving others the Word. If we do not also help them have the tools needed to translate that Word into life, then it is not a complete translation process.

What are we doing with the Book? Are we trying to get others to be people of the Book, as we are, or are we trying to introduce them to the Living Word, first of all, that Living Word who then introduces us to his written word so that we not only have his presence in our lives, but also his words of life, and comfort, and conviction and change.

What does it really mean to be people of the Book?


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