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Monday, October 08, 2007

Culture of Perfectionism

Yes, it's been awhile. A crazy summer and crazier fall. And it isn't over yet.

I'm up at 5:30 in the morning because I just got back from a week in Austria. It was good. I attended my conference and got to spend time in the growing church in Graz that I worshiped with a year ago.

I don't have the time to do this; I have to have a different paper ready for a conference in Toronto in a week and a half, but I'll give up some sleep and procrastinate the preparations of this week's classes a bit to join in this conversation.

The Lord has been assailing me from all sides with reminders of the failure of perfectionism. It is the bane of my family. Two perfectionist parents, the children of perfectionists, raised three perfectionist kids. It has an upside to society -- my daughter has a successful career in the theater in New York, and my older son is tearing graduate school up at Berkeley, my younger son just finished a degree in music performance (in case you don't know, perfectionism is the price of entry for music performance). We went 2 for 3 on Phi Beta Kappa. I could go on.

Bragging? No, not really, because I tell you it's no way to live. Each of us has some pretty big dents because of our perfectionism.

Perfectionism assumes there is a right way to do things and a right way to live and if we could just get the right answer, we'd have it made. After all the Bible says: "Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48)

Oh how, we misread that verse!

Remember when your children were born. Just after each one entered the world, the doctor said, "She's perfect." And you ate it up. Well, in obstetrician talk the word perfect is used the same way as in King James English. It simply means what ordinary folks would use the word complete to mean. Your baby had all her parts: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes. The doctor did not mean this new human is flawless, which is what we, the parents, heard.

My wife is reading a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection. It's about coping with not being able to control our lives. I know I'll get a lot of flak because it isn't a Christian book. But even if you factored out all the non-Christian parts, the point would still be the same. It's the journey (for which read "our relationship with Jesus") that's the point of life, not the things we accomplish.

Why do I bring this up in the middle of a conversation about ambiguity?

Because everyone participating is thinking in terms of right and wrong. If we only spoke Greek or Hebrew even the ambiguities would be exact. (And God wants us to understand the ambiguities perfectly.)

Nonsense.

Language is always vague. It's just precise enough to solve the speaker's communicative problem. In everyday life this is mostly below notice. We spend so much time surrounded by people who are on the same wavelength that we don't notice how much verbal shorthand there is.

"Could you move the wash along, dear?"

"Turn left at the corner."

"That'll be five-fifty."

The problem comes when we're so far removed from the writer of a text that we can't be sure we're on the same wavelength. This is the essential problem with reading the Bible, in whatever translation.

And I'm sorry but literal translations are no guarantee of accuracy in this regard. In fact, this whole blog is about showing that literal translations effectively lie to us. They make us think we're on the same wavelength as the authors, when they lead us away.

C. S. Lewis addresses this issue in the one book of his that every Christian should read, but few have, The Discarded Image. Don't be fooled by the fact that it appears to be about Renaissance Italian. It's about how to read a text from a time we are no longer in touch with.

Suzanne is right about being humble in the face of the text. But the whole discussion is taking place in the context of assuming that there is a "right" answer, a "right" translation, even a "right" reading of ambiguity.

No, there is only a right relationship with God. If you think that you get there by getting all those other things "right", you're getting waylaid.

That kind of perfectionism is the essential problem of evangelical Christianity today.

8 Comments:

At Mon Oct 08, 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Rich,

You have stated very well the direction a literal translation would take IMO. It would reveal the strangeness and the foreignness of the original.

I most emphatically do not believe that there is a "right" literal translation. I want to open things up through this, not close things in.

A literal translation would also have to make explicit its biases, choices do have to be made. But it would at least show how non-literal the most literal translation is that we do have.

This is a good post and I heartily agree with you.

See you in Toronto.

 
At Mon Oct 08, 12:08:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Out of procrastinations of your preparations, Richard, comes a perfect post!

I can't wait now to read The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. If not "Christian," then Ernest Kurtz's and Katherine Ketcham's book is based in AA recovery, which is based in the Bible (at least in Jesus's sermon on the hillside).

and Suzanne's on to something about perfectionism in literal translation.

here's an imperfect PostScript:

For any Christian wanting another Christian's endorsement of the 12 steps, here's one. Academic Philosopher (and Baptist pastor) Dallas Willard says (in The Divine Conspiracy:

AA is a "wondrously life-saving program [which works towards] a general arrangement of the human personality that, really, is totally obvious to any thoughtful person. . . Indeed the call of Jesus to 'repent' is nothing but a call to think about how we have been thinking." (p. 325).

And: "Habits can be changed. And God will help us to change them--though he will not do it for us--because he has a vital interest in who we become. . . This is exactly the general arrangement that is used in the Twelve Step program . . . It is a 'law,' if you wish, of human personality." (p. 345).

And:

"Compared to this [i.e., the 12 Steps], one sees how utterly superficial the consumer Christianity of our day is. Imagine, by contrast, being a member of a Church or local assembly of Christians where these 12 steps were applied without specific reference to alcohol." (pp. 415-16).

And Christian writer Philip Yancey writes these: PERFECT "Lessons from Rock Bottom" on "natural theology" for "the church" from "recovering" people.

And from Christian author J. Keith Miller is an incredibly perfect book that must be practiced if it is really read (offering what the church of Christians or the science of atheists won't): A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth.

 
At Mon Oct 08, 02:36:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At Mon Oct 08, 02:40:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Richard says:
The problem comes when we're so far removed from the writer of a text that we can't be sure we're on the same wavelength. This is the essential problem with reading the Bible, in whatever translation. . . . And I'm sorry but literal translations are no guarantee of accuracy in this regard. In fact, this whole blog is about showing that literal translations effectively lie to us. They make us think we're on the same wavelength as the authors, when they lead us away.

Then Doug in his Metacatholic post, "Communication: the slip and slide of Scripture," adds:
I think that dynamic equivalence translations are even more deceptive, because they so often render the Scriptures in such idiomatic English that we can be tempted into forgetting the huge gulf – the invisible cultural text – between the modern translation and the original text. But the main point remains well taken: we don’t notice how much is unsaid in our communication.

So (not noticing how much is unsaid) I say:
it's remarkable how both so called "literal" and so called "dynamic equivalent" Bible translators miss the a-lliterative dynamic un-equivalencies in the opener of the "book of James."

Take a look (or, better yet, have a listen):

2
πᾶσαν χαρὰν ἡγήσασθε ἀδελφοί μου ὅταν
πειρασμοῖς
περιπέσητε
ποικίλοις 3 γινώσκοντες ὅτι τὸ δοκίμιον ὑμῶν τῆς
πίστεως κατεργάζεται ὑπομονήν

plenty of
pretty
perfect
problems
pointed out by James
present for
perfection.

Of course, "perfection" is laid out not even a little latter in the letter:

4 ἡ δὲ ὑπομονὴ ἔργον
τέλειον ἐχέτω ἵνα ἦτε
τέλειοι

Now if reading that Greek (or hearing it) doesn't tire you out, then you've missed James's wavelength. All English translations I've read do. (But then again, James spells out the wave-r-ing problems just a bit later in the letter). Is there some alternative to literal and dynamic equivalent that lets the words play, that lets the waves form and crash perfectly? (Sorry for all the ambiguity; some of the wave stuff is a bragging nod to my surfing son, who's also now a college student).

 
At Mon Oct 08, 04:53:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Suzanne says:
A literal translation would also have to make explicit its biases, choices do have to be made. But it would at least show how non-literal the most literal translation is that we do have.

I actually posted on this very point about a year and a half ago, talking about the presumed literalness of translating ιουδαιοι as 'the Jews'. Sins of Omission.

(Suzanne, you may have noticed they put me at 8:30 am on the first day. That's 5:30 am to us Left Coast folks. I'm going a whole day early just because of that.)

 
At Mon Oct 08, 08:40:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Suzanne, you may have noticed they put me at 8:30 am on the first day. That's 5:30 am to us Left Coast folks. I'm going a whole day early just because of that.)

Torontonians are so cruel. I am at five pm when everyone is back asleep again. But I look foraward to meeting my copresenters. I imagine they at least will remain awake.

 
At Mon Oct 08, 10:14:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Rich, it's nice to hear your voice after being given the silent treatment for all this time!

 
At Wed Oct 10, 05:10:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

"The command 'Be ye perfect' is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey."

--C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


"Having illustrated concretely, in situations of grimy realism (Matt. 5:20-44), what it is like to be a really good person -- Jesus then proceeds, in the immediately following verses, to give his overall picture of moral fulfillment and beauty in the kingdom of the heavens. It is one of heartfelt love toward all, including those who would be happy if we dropped dead. This love does not consist of acts and projects but is a pervasive condition of vision, joy, and love in which we habitually reside. It is a love of the same quality as God's love (Matt 5:45-48). We are to be 'perfect' or whole as our Father, the one in the heavens, is perfect and whole."

--Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

 

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