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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Christmas Nostalgia

The Christmas holidays, maybe more than any other time of the year, bring out nostalgia.

Every day for the last month I’ve walked past a poem posted by the management on the bulletin board in the apartment building where I’m living in Austria. It’s decorated at the top with real evergreen branches, some ribbon, and a few reasonably tasteful Christmas ornaments. The poem starts:
Ich wünsche mir in diesem Jahr
mal Weihnacht’ wie es früher war ….

This year I’d like Christmas
The way it used to be….
It went up at the beginning of Advent and I didn’t even read it for a week. When I did, I rolled my eyes. I saw it simply as oversentimenal doggrel — a verbal version of the kitsch so pervasive in decorative art in Austria. (It’s no accident, by the way, that the word kitsch is borrowed from German.) I had been delighted at the end of November when charming little Christmas markets sprung up all over the city in a single day. But by the time I actually stopped and read the poem, my wife and I had discovered to our chagrin that finding a few small Christmas gifts in quiet good taste would not be an easy task in those markets. The poem became symbolic to me.

Then, seeing it hanging there day in and day out got me thinking about how our identities are rooted in things from our past. Rehearsing, remembering, and reliving them helps us affirm who we are. No wonder the words of the KJV sound so right to us.
Luke 2 - 1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Twice I’ve taught a Sunday school class about learning to let the Greek speak for itself — once to an English speaking audience and once to a German speaking audience. I can whole-heartedly affirm that this nostalgia factor is exceedingly strong. I can talk and talk about how the Greek of the NT was completely normal eastern Mediterranean Greek for the Roman era, as the papyri have shown us, but the tug of Bible-speak, whether in English or in German is deep-rooted.

Wayne can ask if we can hear what’s odd about
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away
and most of us scratch our heads, precisely because it sounds like it “ought to sound”.

Of course, if, one day while you were out, the Goodwill folks came to collect the clothes you promised them and your husband couldn’t find them, you would think it very odd indeed if the ensuing conversation went like this:
He: Goodwill came while you were gone.
She: Did you give them the clothes?
He: I couldn’t find where you left the bag. I had to send them empty away.
You see it isn’t just that away and empty are in the wrong order, the whole phrasing is wrong. What we say is something more like:
I had to send them away with nothing.
So for my money Luke 1:53 should read:
He fills the hungry with good things,
but he sends the rich away with nothing.
That may help us fix one verse, but the problem remains. How do we get the nostalgia out of our ears, so it doesn’t hinder us from hearing what God is really saying?

Wait, you say. If the wording of our translations is tied up with an affirmation of our Christian identity, shouldn’t we want to hear those old translations?

Not for our Bible study. And I’ll give you three good reasons why not.
  1. We misunderstand what it says.
    There a many, many places in Scripture where we do not hear what the author meant. Occasionally it’s just wrong, like the mistake of thinking that οἰ ιουδαῖοι means ‘the Jews’ instead of ‘the Jewish authorities’. But mostly it just gives us the wrong idea.
    Mark 4:11

    misleading: And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God (KJV)

    accurate: “You have been given the secret of the Kingdom of God,” Jesus answered. (TEV)

    Mysteries are hard to understand, but secrets are just, well, secret. Tell me and then I’ll know, too
  2. It makes us think that Scripture is about the mind and not the heart.
    If we have to study diligently just to figure out what the words mean and listen to lengthly sermons given by preachers with years of seminary training to understand what that passage means, we get the idea that you have to be smart to really understand the Bible. No, to understand what God is saying to you, you only have to be human — and have a good translation. (Didn’t we deal with this issue in the Reformation?) The Bible is not hard to understand; it’s hard to accept once you realize what it really means — even for Christians.
  3. It makes the Scripture be more about us and less about God.
    This is a real sticking point to me. If the Bible just affirms me, I’m missing the point. God is constantly stretching us, making us grow. Yes, he comforts us, too, but coming close to the living God is most dangerous. If you never experience some of that danger when you read the Scripture, you don’t have a translation that is accurate. If the words aren’t intimate, how can I experience the intimacy God wants to have with me?
So, is there a way to take what we’ve got and get to hear the Scripture speak to us in that intimate and dangerous way?

Yes.

Something I found that really works is to put oneself into the Scripture. You know the stories. Put the Bible down and imagine you are there.
  • Be in the crowd as Jesus passes and Bartimeus calls out to him. What does Bartimeus say? How does the crowd try to shush him? What does Jesus say? And then what happens?
  • (It’s OK. You can peek if you’ve forgotten the details.)

  • Be a guard in the Sanhedrin as Jesus stands trial for his life.

  • Be in the crowd listening to Peter explain what the meaning of Pentacost is.
  • Be Paul’s scribe as he writes to Timothy.
Assume they are speaking fully naturally (because they were). What does it sound like? (Hint: it’s not like The Message. That’s much to slangy. Peterson reaches for slang where the Greek is more ordinary, neither literary — outside of quotes and allusions — nor slang. Half of the NT writers were second language speakers, just the group that doesn’t use much slang and doesn’t write the prettiest prose.) Most of those heady sounding insights I’ve gotten into details of the semantics of Greek words and shared in earlier posts started in this kind of meditation. (Ps. 1:2)

Try it. You’ll like it.

Oh, and as for that German Christmas poem, it is very popular, indeed. It’s posted (in multiple versions) about 300 times on the web. (For those who keep track of such things, it’s author is unknown and the version posted downstairs and quoted below has the lectio difficilior.) Here it is with a dynamic equivalent translation/interpretation. (For poetry you need to cut the translator more slack.)
Ich wünsche mir in diesem Jahr
mal Weihnacht’ wie es früher war.
Kein Hetzen zur Bescherung hin,
kein Schenken ohne Herz und Sinn.

Ich wünsch’ mir eine stille Nacht,
frostklirrend und mit weißer Pracht.
Ich wünsche mir ein kleines Stück
von warmer Menschlichkeit zurück.

Ich wünsche mir in diesem Jahr
’ne Weihnacht, wie als Kind sie war.
Es war einmal, schon lang ist’s her,
da war so wenig so viel mehr.

This year I’d like a Christmas
The way it used to be.
No racing ’round for presents
Given of necessity.

I’d like a quiet frosty night
with glorious crunching snow,
But with a bit of human warmth
Like oh so long ago.

I’d like a Christmas like the ones
We had when I was small.
With little, once upon a time,
It seemed we had it all.

9 Comments:

At Tue Jan 02, 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

How rich!

Sometimes the empty can be sent away rich, eh, Rich?!

 
At Tue Jan 02, 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne can ask if we can hear what’s odd about

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away

and most of us scratch our heads, precisely because it sounds like it “ought to sound”.


Perhaps Wayne and I think differently about such things because we don't know how it "ought to sound", because we were not brought up in churches where we were made to read and learn a lot of KJV.

For poetry you need to cut the translator more slack.

Indeed. But you missed something by ignoring the obvious allusion to the Austrian carol "Stille Nacht" and not translating it with the familiar "Silent Night", although "I'd like a frosty silent night" would have fitted your metre well.

 
At Tue Jan 02, 02:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Perhaps Wayne and I think differently about such things because we don't know how it "ought to sound", because we were not brought up in churches where we were made to read and learn a lot of KJV.

Actually, Peter, I did grow up in a KJV church. The church continues to use the KJV today. I memorized large amounts of the KJV as I was growing up. In my late teens I was exposed to Bibles written in contemporary English and I've never been the same since. The Bible makes so much more sense to me when it is worded as my family, friends, coworkers, and others normally speak and write. I realize that the idea that the Bible can, and perhaps even should, be written in current language is not an idea that everyone accepts. But it is one which has made a lot of difference in my own spiritual growth. And I've seen it make a difference in other people's lives also.

 
At Tue Jan 02, 04:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter, I intended to include the fact that because I grew up on the KJV, I have special feelings for it. I remember its wordings. They have a warm, familiar, nostalgic feeling for me. But, as I mentioned in my preceding comment, I have come to realize that Bibles which are translated into my own dialect of contemporary English speak to me better. I am impacted more deeply mentally and spiritually by them.

 
At Wed Jan 03, 01:26:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Peter,

But you missed something by ignoring the obvious allusion to the Austrian carol "Stille Nacht" and not translating it with the familiar "Silent Night", although "I'd like a frosty silent night" would have fitted your metre well.

Good point. Somehow the fact that it said "eine stille Nacht" undid the allusion for me (but then I'm not a native speaker). And I was looking for sense. It means 'quiet' here, not necessarily 'silent'. (Come to think of it, 'Silent Night' isn't such a great translation. In German it feels more like 'quiet, calm' than 'silent'.)

The process was this. I realized when I started the post with the brief quote, I'd need to give the whole thing eventually, which meant I was going to have to translate it. So I sketched a translation -- not exactly hard in this case, and I quickly realized that I could readily put it in verse of about the same quality as the original. The first allusion fell out of the translation: ich wünsche mir X, lit. 'I wish for X', is the normal way one talks about wanting Christmas presents.

The second allusion I put in post hoc.

es war einmal, lit. 'it was once'/'there was once' is the way fairy tales start. = 'once upon a time'

Maybe this is a lesson in the process of translation. You don't always notice all the allusions when you're focused on other things.

 
At Wed Jan 03, 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, perhaps I should have put it more like this. Both you and I have some familiarity with KJV English from our earlier years. But it never meant much to us, and when we came to value the Bible as teaching for our spiritual growth, rather than a traditional part of Christmas etc, it was through modern translations. So while we associate KJV with tradition, we do not consider it to be very meaningful or helpful for our growth. In short, we don't expect to understand KJV. As such we differ from those who received detailed Christian teaching based on KJV. Would you agree with that?

 
At Thu Jan 04, 07:26:00 AM, Blogger John Radcliffe said...

Richard,

Thanks for the poem and your translation.

* * * * * * *

You said

Mark 4:11
misleading: And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God (KJV)

accurate: "You have been given the secret of the Kingdom of God," Jesus answered. (TEV)


Now I agree that here TEV is clearer, but even with "mystery" replaced by "secret" they still don't say the same thing. I wondered if TEV had oversimplified, but when I compared a few other versions they all said much the same as TEV. So I finally checked out the underlying Greek and, as suspected, there's a variant reading. So perhaps not the best example you could have chosen!

 
At Thu Jan 04, 09:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

John, thank you for pointing this out. The textual variant in the Byzantine text, and so presumably in the Textus Receptus, is addition of the word gnonai "to know", and some reordering. Oddly enough it is not mentioned in the apparatus of the scholarly Nestle-Aland text, presumably because it lacks early manuscript support and is a rather obvious harmonisation with the parallel in Matthew 13:11, where "secret" is plural and TEV has "The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them."

 
At Thu Jan 04, 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Thanks, John. You're right, of course. Luke 8:10 might have been better. But there, and especially in Mat. 13:11 the TEV is otherwise awkwardly phrased. "The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them." (As Peter just pointed out.) The TEV translators seemed to go for that approach. (They did it again, for example, in Col. 4:3.)

They can't even let well enough alone in:

Rom. 11:25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (KJV)

There is a secret truth, my friends, which I want you to know, for it will keep you from thinking how wise you are. It is that the stubbornness of the people of Israel is not permanent, but will last only until the complete number of Gentiles comes to God. (GNB)

Aargh! It's not a secret truth; it's just a secret. It's truthfulness is not at issue. It may have come as a surprise to the Gentile Christians who were ready to write the Jews off. But I don't think Paul expected a challenge. And it's certainly not a mystery, at all.

BTW, Mat. 13:11 should read: "You get to know the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven, they don't."

But that's my point. Even with the variant reading, the King James doesn't make sense in English with the word mystery. Most of the time that μυστεριον is used in the NT (27 or 28 times depending on variants), it only makes sense if it means 'secret'. My claim is basically that mystery is a false friend, but we read right past it. And worse it taints our theology, as we can see in the TEV translators who can't quite bring themselves just to say "secret".

 

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