Tag Archives: bible translation

Unleashing the Word: Freeing the Church from Biblical Studies

THE BIBLE AND LIBERATION IN AND THROUGH WORSHIP

UN study bible

When I was in undergrad, one of the first courses I took in religious studies was Introduction to the Bible 101. It was taught by a Hebrew Bible scholar who also identified as a second-wave feminist. Throughout the semester, we learned how to examine the Old Testament using the scientific method. While many of my white, more conservative evangelical classmates left the class in unspoken rage because of the questions the professor raised, I began to learn how to read the Bible critically, and even began to question the professors approach at times.

Honestly, in our conversations looking back, I was ill-equipped to interpret Scripture because I did not even know what hermeneutics meant or the differences between genres were. These memories of growth are not what I want to talk about however. I really want to point out a rather perplexing episode that happened in this class. It was around the holiday season when the religious studies faculty made a request. That instead of returning our Oxford Study Bibles (NRSV) to the bookstore for $2 or whatever, to donate them to an organization that was providing Bibles to churches in China. Even back then I had a lot of questions about this project. Why would a faculty so critical of a text turn around and want to send ENGLISH translations of Scripture to a foreign land? Just never made sense to me until………….

I read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. The question that I asked of myself nearly now almost a decade ago had found its answer. Hauerwas begins this controversial work with this truth bomb:

“No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. […] North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead, they assume they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about.”

page 15

Now, Hauerwas goes on to denounce this approach as a product of liberal democracy and egalitarian values. Yet, that would be a tremendously sloppy description of the United States of America and its perpetuation of racial hierarchies. Even in Hauerwas’ own work, he recognizes that a lot of white Americans have not confronted the reality that they live in a country built on settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery. It is this denial of the truth that keeps white North American Christians from being able to do the real work of Christian peacemaking.  The triplet colonial projects of U.S. American Bible Societies, Biblical studies, and the Bible translation industry are the reigning institutions that have petrified problematic, racist interpretations of scripture in USian Christianity.

A couple of examples include recent blog posts that recycle and pay  homage to the white supremacist doctrine of the Curse of Ham.  Rather than seek to liberate and completely annihilate this oppressive reading of Scripture, emergent Christians and liberals would rather seek to somehow redeem this understanding of the Bible.  These otherwise “enlightened” folks would prefer to save something that is already familiar to them rather than encounter the Stranger at the Margins, the actual people harmed by the traditional reading of these passages.  To keep with the example of the Curse of Ham, this interpretation is seen as normative, so much so it is allowed to be taught in public schools.  This perverse racialized reading of Genesis  that evangelical leaders like John MacArthur promote is NOT worth serving, especially since I have expounded many times how the Curse of Ham (and this weird expansion of it “the Curse of Bable”) is  a product of white slave masters and racist pseudo-scientific catalogues.

The history of Bible Societies has been just as problematic. As my brother pointed out, Bible Societies purpose lied from the time of colonialism ’til now, to make Christianity a monolinguistic, monocultural spirituality that submitted to the British and American empires.  Our doctrines of Scriptures even inerrancy are often the very things we hide our agendas behind.  Now it would be for me to say, well, let’s just abolish all three institutions and get it over with. But really, what should these practices be replaced with. So, I offer the following few practices that churches can start to subvert the Powers of Bible Societies, Translations, and Biblical studies.

1. In worship settings, at academic and church planter conferences, practice a preferential option for the margins.  Invite the homeless and the widows and orphans, and allow them to sit anywhere they want, even if it is at the very front.  Read Scriptures with and do small group studies at prisons, at-risk youth’s homes, and shelters for domestic violence.  I know I had the privilege of working at a Vacation Bible School at one of those shelters, and it makes a difference in de-centering our experiences while simultaneously being present where Christ is, among the least of these.  Some of the best commentaries on the Bible come from persons who have been held in chains.  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are just two examples.  It’s a shame that Bonhoeffer’s Letters From Prison is just merely used to provide one quote about God being a Suffering God, and not much else.  I think there lies a biblical  Hermeneutic of Gentile Responsibility that also need s to be examined (and I plan on blogging on that too).

2. Make an attempt to teach every congregant the original languages of Scripture and the Early Church.  When I was a children’s minister, I worked to introduce the kids to some of the Greek alphabet.  That was before I moved on to purchasing and teaching from published, Book-store approved curriculums.  Maybe I did fail by a certain view of success, but just the trying is all that mattered.   W.E.B. DuBois advocated educating black Americans suffering during Jim Crow by teaching them all the classics, and Greek, Latin, and other languages.  Susannah Wesley raised and taught her children like John and Charles to read and interpret in these languages.  Bringing back this mode of education is crucial to de-centering the notion that English as God’s preferred language.

3. Lastly, boycott Christian bookstores, especially Mardel. No, I’m serious.  Churches need to stop relying on their neighborhood Lifeways and Cokesbury’s (are they still even around?) and look to their congregants, where there are people who’ve graduated seminary, teachers, and former professors who are more than able to provide a lifetime of knowledge. Chad even proposed at one time to make his own Bible translation after failing in his search where he compared all English translations. Christian education is about discipleship, spiritual formation in a local congregation. The Bible as a text, needs to be mediated by the Holy Spirit, our encounters with the poor, and an interpretative community that confesses the Lordship of Christ Jesus.

This is my contribution to the Living Liberation blogging event with MennoNerds and The Wild Goose Festival. The Wild Goose Festival is a gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. Happening June 26-29 outside of Asheville in Hot Springs, NC. You can get more information and tickets here: wildgoosefestival.org

India, English Bibles, British Empire, And the Foreign Bible Society: A Joint Post

 

This is a joint post by Rod and one of his siblings, Richard, who recently just finished a course taught by R.S. Sugitharajah entitled, “The Bible and Empire,” and you can also find Richard sometimes at Africana Molinist.

 

English: Public domain image more than 100 yea...

English: Public domain image more than 100 years since creation, therefore further sourcing not required. Arab Slave Traders. A 19th-century engraving depicting an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara. The trans-Saharan slave trade developed in the 7th and 8th centuries as Muslim Arabs conquered most of North Africa. The trade grew significantly from the 10th to the 15th century and peaked in the mid-19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard:

“The effects of imperial powers extend far beyond the immediate period of colonization.  This truth is most evident when exploring the relationship between colonization and biblical hermeneutics. The British and Foreign Bible Society diffusion of scriptural imperialism in India mirrored the efforts of the slaveholders in America to appropriate the bible for slaves. To reclaim the biblical text both Indians and African American can reinterpret the biblical text using liberation theologies. Liberation theologies interpret the bible so that it is life affirming for groups who are impoverished through colonial hermeneutics.  One of the pivotal moments that marked the formation of the British scriptural imperial efforts in the India was the formation of the British and Foreign Bible society.[1]   The stated purpose of the society was to disseminate the bible all across the world.  According to John Owen, the society’s first general secretary it purpose was:

 

The sole object shall be to encourage a wider dispersion of the Holy Scriptures. This society shall add its endeavors to those employed by other societies for circulation Scripture through the British dominions, and shall also according to its ability, extend its influence to other countries, whether Christian Mahomedan, or Pagan.”[2]

However, through their efforts to spread the gospel they engaged in the practice of scriptural imperialism. Their use of biblical scripture served as a tool to impose their worldview on a population they believe to be pagan. It is also allowed them to devalue, dehumanize, and marginalize Hindus living in India.[3] The British and Foreign Bible Society questioned the ability of the Hindu people to even receive divine revelation.

The British and Foreign Bible Society monopolized the translation of the biblical text for the Hindu people. They used their English language as the basis for all translation. The imperialist message that the Society imposed on India was rooted in its millennialist beliefs.[4] They believed themselves to be God’s chosen agents to transmit the Holy Word of God to the pagans. God first chose the Jews, followed by Romans, and finally the British to deliver the word of truth. The Society otherized the Hindu people, believing them to be incapable of comprehending the lofty truths held within the biblical text in their native language without prior preparation from the missionaries. Translators used the fact that they could not find the vocabulary in the language of the indigenous population as proof of the inadequacy of Hindus to express the Christian message.[5]  One translator noted the lack of Christian vocabulary present in indigenous cultures by stating: “Not only the heathen, but the speech of the heathen must be Christianized. Their language itself needs to be born again.” [6]

 

The Society also created a colonial hermeneutic through what is known as textualization. They privileged the written biblical text as the best way to tell the stories in the bible over oral tradition. The missionaries believed that no religious teaching had any value if it was not written. This meant that the Word of God could only be transmitted to those who could read and translate it.[7] The printed word was the only avenue by which the natives could discern or experience God’s revelation.  The missionaries’ privileging of the written Word of God was based on their assumption that the oral culture of the native people was empty and need to be filled with riches of the written text.[8] Those who could not read or interpret the bible in were considered the illiterate of the society.  Thus the missionaries’ ability to teach the native people to read the biblical text allowed them to serve as the primary transmitters of divine revelation.  This tactic countered the tradition found in India which depended on orality as the major form to transmit a text. Hermeneutics in India were a public activity performed by story-tellers.[9] Through the use of textualization the missionaries from the Society were able to privilege their culture while serving as the sole transmitter of religious truth to the native Indians.

 MEANWHILE, IN THE UNITED STATES

Slavery by the middle of the 18th century had been solidified as an economic staple the Southern culture of the United States.  It became a social, economic, moral and ethical imperative to continue the African slave trade.  It was from these concerns that the debate over the humanity of slavery ensued.  Slaveholders used the biblical text to justify the subjugation of African slaves on the premise of civilizing and Christianizing them. The enslaved Africans were seen a people from a primitive culture with a heathen religion.[10] African culture was demeaned as tribal and the Africans were believed to be cannibals who followed polytheistic pagan religions. The Southern slaveholders believed that slavery in the United States combined with the gentle teachings of Christianity would be enough to civilize the Africans. The slaveholders desired to destroy all connections the African slaves had with their former home. The Africans were given names that the English speaking slaveholder thought were more appropriate to designate them as property. The slaves were also severely punished for practicing any religious traditions from their home culture. The slaveholders believed that by inculcating Christian teachings to the slaves it would make them more docile. They would slowly but steadily inculcate the African slaves with Christian doctrines. They intentionally taught the African slaves only portions of biblical passages. Many of those passages dealt with the subordination of the slaves to their master.[11] Slaveholders would justify this form of inculcation to both the slaves and others using passages such as John 16:12 that states:

“I have yet many things to say to you, but ye cannot bear them now” (KJV).

The American slaveholders were firm in their belief of the African slave’s inability to comprehend the entire message of the biblical revelation. This stance mirrored the British and Foreign Bible Society’s view of the native people in India. Inculcating Christian doctrines upon the African slaves was reinforced through the use of textualization.

Perhaps the most effective way the slaveholders monopolized use of the biblical text was through textualization. Textualization allowed the slaveholders to be the primary transmitter of divine revelation for the African slaves.  To solidify the grasp the slaveholders had on interpreting the biblical text they banned the slaves from educating themselves. Albert Raboteau notes that one of the penalties for learning was that the slave master would cut off one of the slaves’ finger every time they were caught trying to read.[12] The slaveholders tried to annihilate all threats to the authority of their interpretation of biblical text by taking conscious measure to insure that there were no other interpretations available for the African slaves to use. The slave masters used biblical verses such as Ephesians 6:5 as a way to assert their authority and the authority of the written biblical text over the African slaves. Ephesians 6:5 states:

Slaves, obey your Earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.”(KJV)

This verse was continuously read to the slaves to make them docile and less likely to revolt. The verse gave a biblical imperative for slaves to be obedient to their masters. Privileging this written text reinforced the importance of the written Word of God spoken by the slave masters as well as the importance of the slaves to earnestly submit to their masters.  The reliance on the written text was counter to the oral culture that African slaves were used to in their homeland.[13] Thus by denying the African slaves a way to interpret the written text the slaveholders inadvertently allowed the slaves to develop another way to interpret the bible through the oral tradition. African slaves would begin to rely on their own experience to understand the text and rearticulate it in the form of Spirituals.[14]

Slavery

Slavery (Photo credit: quadelirus)

Rod:

“We can see the shadows of Christopher Columbus and his legacy in the history of empire and the translation/reception of English-language bibles.  Columbus introduced racial hierarchy and subjugation into the world (and a new kind of rape culture based on race to go along with it).  Columbus as I have argued is representative of replacement, supersessionist theologies, where Gentile Christians overtake God’s election of Israel as servants of YHWH’s light.  Gentile replacement theology begets the Enlightenment, Enlightenment begets white supremacy, and white supremacy, postmodernity.  The history of English Bible’s translations’ dirty little secret, because it is a child of the Enlightenment, is that it has always been from the beginning, a Euro-centric endeavor,  with a pawn of colonialism.

This history continues to manifest itself when arrogant bible scholars close the canon on which cultures and languages (SPOILER ALERT: ONLY EUROPEAN LANGUAGES OF FRENCH AND GERMAN!!!!!) can be taught at English-speaking Biblical Studies programs at the PhD level. When marginalized persons begin to point out the anti-Roman empire message of the Gospel, and privileged scholars from the majority rejoinder, “it’s all about politics!,” and deny such a history, it’s nothing but another example of hiding biblical studies’ dirty laundry: a holy book written and recorded by Jewish exiles, studied by European colonizers.  A disturbing fact is realized :  it, English bible translations, do in fact,  begin on the backs of the colonized, and continues to be done so. Whenever you hear or read of a bible translation for/by women or People of Color as being “contextual” or “special interest,” the colonizing gaze of biblical studies rears its head.   European colonialism is a special interest. White supremacy is a special interest. Male domination is a special interest. English-onlyism is a special interest. Bourgeois values, with the politics of respectability and white hegemonic liberalism,  are special interests.  Many USian Christians act like in order for Jesus to return, “unreached people groups” need to each have a Bible, translated from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic to English; that way, these people can be saved into the US American church and be baptized by the values of the “free” market.

Richard was correct to point to the sorrow songs as a method of resistance. The enslaved African Christians (not all enslaved blacks were Christians, mind you) did not even receive the whole bible, only catechisms, or short books with the central teachings that their enslavers wanted their property (the enslaved Africans) to have.  Even with this minimal exposure to the Good News, the enslaved Africans experienced the Resurrection power of the Triune God because of their faithfulness to Jesus.  It was the Word of God, Christ, and their recognition of him as Liberator and Reconciler that inspired the Harriet Tubman’s and Frederick Douglass’ of their time to struggle for  racial equality and human freedom.  Ultimately, it was not bibliolatry, or the exoneration of the written word that aided the early black Christians on these shore; it was faithfulness to the Wisdom and Logos, Christ Jesus, in his Resurrection and ministry that helped the enslaved African churchwomen and men to overcome.  It is Jesus himself, the Divinely commissioned BioText, that undoes textualization because he is the Torah in his very crucified and risen body.”

[1] R.S. Sugirtharaja, The Bible and the Third World, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2001) p. 45

 

[2] George Browne, The History of the British and Foreign Bible Society,  (London; Bagster and Sons, 1859) p.10

[3] Ibid., p.10

[4] R.S. Sugirtharaja, The Bible and the Third World, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2001) p. 56

[5] Ibid., p.46

[6] The Book Above Every Book, (London, The Bible House, 1910) p. 22

[7] Ibid., p. 68

[8] Ibid., p. 68

[9] Ibid., p. 69

[10] Richard Fuller; Francis Wayland, Domestic Slavery As A Scriptural Insitution, (New York; Harvard College, 1860) p. 71

[11] Ibid., p. 73

[12] Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: the Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, (New York; Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 207

[13] Ibid., p. 209

[14] Ibid., p. 210

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Look Ya'll, A Texas Bible!

Location of state of XY (see filename) in the ...

Location of state of XY (see filename) in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hey, I actually like where this is headed! The plural form of you is very difficult to understand, especially given our tendency to make Scripture all about the individual. I also like YHWH being the translation rather than “the Lord” we see in the English translation usually.

Texas Bible: Second Person Plural Chrome Extension: John Dyer

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