Culture of Perfectionism
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.)
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.