Monday, December 15, 2014

Digging Deeper and the Confusicating Nature of Language

My daughters sometimes think it’s cute, and sometimes they think it’s irritational.  Other times, they are simply confusicated, and thrown for a loop by my tendency to invent words.  But, then I have to remind them that new words are added to the dictionary every year.  My words are just baby words waiting to grow up and become mature enough to be published in Webster’s big black book.  In fact, if you take that big black book and flip through the hundreds of pages that detail and define the thousands upon thousands of words in the English language, you will in fact be simply seeing all of the other words that someone else “made up.”  All of them.  Every word we use was made up by someone.  So, if my strange word leaves you confusicated…well, just get over it and wait for my word to grow up.

Language is a funny thing.  Always changing.  Sixty years ago, if you said a man was “gay,” it just meant that he was light-hearted and happy.  Now, if you use the word, you’re likely referring to his sexual orientation.  When I was a teenager in the 1970’s, we used to say the word “bad” all of the time, but we weren’t describing the negative qualities of any given thing or situation.  Nope.  We were telling you how awesome it was!  So, bad meant good…at least in those twisted years.  It was the language of my culture.

If I told you that I put some drinks in the fridge (not refrigerator) to chill, you would know that by “chill” I meant to cool, get cold, remove the heat.  But when a few minutes later I tell you that the Colts are far better than your Patriots and you get all frustrated and angry, and I tell you to “chill out,” you don’t even imagine that I’m telling you to go put yourself in the fridge.  Why?  Because you understand that in our culture the word “chill” can have more than one meaning, and I’m telling you to calm down and relax, not jump in the icebox.

So, the fact is that language is in a constant state of flux.  Always shifting.  Always changing.  Affected by culture.

Imagine that you were suddenly time-warped back to England in 1611.  No problem, right?  Assuming you speak English, you should be good to go.  Really?  You really think so?  I mean, there were a lot of “ith’s” and “eth’s” used in those days.  The word “your” was “thy.”  “You” was “thee.”  I betcha thee’d have a harder time understanding thy King’s English than thee might think.

And, translating languages can get even trickier.  Have you ever watched one of those really old Godzilla movies?  I mean one of the ones that were filmed in Japan?  Or, maybe one of the Chinese Bruce Lee flicks?  Those old movies where the original actors were speaking Japanese or Chinese, but they did English voice-overs for those us who are linguistically-challenged?  Isn’t is funny how sometimes the faces on the screen look like they spoke a dozen words, but we only heard four or five in English?  Or, maybe it was the opposite?  There would be faces that seemed to only say one or two words, but a dozen English ones were used in their place.  I used to think that was really weird.  After all, if they simply translated it word for word, the number of words spoken should be the same.  Right?


Words and phrases and their cultural meanings don’t always translate directly.  Sometimes you have to elaborate to get the full meaning to come through.  Sometimes, the full meaning is simply lost in translation.  There just is no easy way to get the full meaning to come through.

So, now let’s combine the two issues:  The shifting meaning of language over time, and the problem of translating one culture-ridden language into our own culture-ridden language.  Let’s go back about 2000 years.  (Remember, that the 1611 example, which is the year that the King James Bible was published was only about 400 years ago, and technically the same language.)  So, let’s make it tougher.  Let’s go back 2000 years and convert the ancient Greek used in the Mediterranean region by a people completely imbedded in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century into modern English for the use of those of us completely imbedded in the American culture of the 21st century.  I wonder how hard it might be to completely understand the full depth of meaning in every turn of phrase?

Of course, I’m talking about the New Testament of the Bible.

First of all, the vast majority of us cannot read ancient Greek, so we have to rely on translators.  Other human beings who are also imbedded in modern culture, but who are educated and able to understand and cross-communicate the ancient meanings of texts into our modern lingo.  And secondly, we have to sort of trust them to properly interpret the old Greek, and then further trust them to accurately communicate it to us.  And, then finally, we have to work to understand what they were trying to communicate.

Are you confusicated yet?

Am I being irritational?

And, sometimes things are lost in translation.  Oh, I don’t mean the basics of the Gospel message.  Those come through quite clearly.  Jesus was the Son of God.  He did die on the Cross.  He did rise from the dead.  We are saved by grace through faith.  We do need to repent…be baptized…and live our lives in reflection of our Lord.  But, still there are deeper things…and subtle things…and cultural things that are lost to us.  Lost unless.  Unless we dig deeper.  Unless we go behind our favorite English translation and look at the history…the ancient culture…and the conceptual meanings of the original words.

The tools are there for us.  Lexicons.  Dictionaries of Bible words.  Commentaries.  Studies by a multitude of scholars.

 Cross check.  Research.  DIG!  The world of meaning hidden in the ancient language is amazing.

And, I say all of this not as a Greek scholar.  I am not.  I’m just like you.  All of that old language stuff is Greek to me.  But, I sometimes get a bug to dig into something, and I use the tools.  I read the articles.  And, I find interesting and inspiring stuff.

For example, a whole new meaning of the interaction of Peter with Jesus in John 21 opens up when you know the words used by Jesus in the passage where Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?”  It used to bother me that it took three times with the same question before Peter was suddenly hurt.  But, then I learned that it wasn’t the same question the third time.  In English it is.  In English, it is still “Do you love me?”  But, in the Greek, that third question was different…more personal…more emotional, and it hurt Peter.  However, we completely lose that key nuance in English.
It is still there, though.  If you are willing to dig for it.  And, there are others.  Many others.

Why, you might ask, are you being so confusicating and irritational with this whole article?  Well, I am doing this because we all have a tendency.  A tendency to either forget or ignore the fact that the Bible was not originally written in English, and it was also not specifically written to those of us in the United States of America.
I do it.  You do it.
We start looking at a subject or an issue, and then we dig into our favorite English translation in order to make our argument.  And, that is all well and good.  However, before we get too stiff-necked on our particular position, we had better dig a bit deeper.  We need to consider the shifting of language.  The differences in culture.  The context of the passage.  Who wrote it?  Who was it written to?  Where was it written?  What were the circumstances surrounding the people who wrote it or it was written to?  All of these factors are important in the proper understanding of any passage.

That was Bible Study 101 back during my days in Bible College.

So, if you are content with the basics of the message of the cross, you can keep to your favorite English translation.  However, if you are going to get all worked up on an issue, please do your homework.  Or, if you are intrigued by deeper understandings of your favorite passages, break open the books.  Study more deeply.  And, open up a whole new wondrous world of understanding.

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