“…the Bible is not literal…”

Now that I have your attention, this is from Lamin Sanneh’s new tour-de-force on the formation of Christianity within pluralistic societies, “Disciples of All Nations” (emphasis mine):

The characteristic pattern of Christianity’s engagement with the languages and cultures of the world has God at the center of the universe of cultures, implying equality among cultures and the necessarily relative status of cultures vis-á-vis the truth of God. No culture is so advanced and so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal and remote that it can be excluded. All have merit; none is indespensable. The ethical monotheism Christianity inherited from Judaism accords value to culture but rejects cultural idolatry, which makes Bible translation more than a simple exercise in literalism. In any language the Bible is not literal; its message affirms all languages to be worthy, though not exclusive, of divine communication. That implied Biblical view of culture goes beyond culture as a matter of mere mechanical manipulation, including its takeover in religious translation. Accordingly, the vernacular in translation was often invigorated rather than overthrown. The relationship of the Christian movement to culture was shaped by the fact that Christianity is a translated — and a translating — religion, and a translated Christianity is an interpreted Christianity, pure and simple. “Original” Christianity is nothing more than a construction.

The New Testament was not written or dictated by Jesus, and the Greek language in which the Gospels are written is not the language in which Jesus taught or prayed and worshipped. Christianity spread as a religion without the language of its founder — in striking contrast, for example, to Islam. In the ancient tussle between the two religions, Muslim scholars have argued that this language deficit discredits Christianity. As such, the church’s recourse to liturgical Latin concedes the Muslims’ point that Christians have abandoned Jesus’ own language, though it should be stressed that this is in obedience to Him.

Without a revealed language and without even the language of Jesus, Christianity invested in idioms and cultures that existed for purposes other than Christianity. As these idioms and cultures became the carriers of the religion, they anticipated and embodied Christianity. Being a translated religion, Christian teaching was received and framed in the terms of its host culture; by feeding off the diverse cultural streams it encountered, the religion became multicultural. The local idiom became a chosen vessel. … (pp. 25-26)

Christianity is a translated religion.  The Bible is not literal.  These concepts fly in the face of that fundie cliché many of us heard growing up, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”  What Sanneh is getting at, I think, is that determining what, in fact, the Bible says is a tricky and complex process, involving cultural translation and discernment.  It’s striking to think that in a religion so proned to fundamentalism, even the earthly language of the faith’s founder/Savior/CEO did not endure.  That should tell us something.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. it’s funny, this sentence actually makes sense “The ethical monotheism Christianity inherited from Judaism accords value to culture but rejects cultural idolatry, which makes Bible translation more than a simple exercise in literalism.

    but the one immediately following “In any language the Bible is not literal; its message affirms all languages to be worthy, though not exclusive, of divine communication.” really bothers me.

    i think it’s his use of the word literal. i want to take some of Jesus’ teaching literally. of course i don’t take the parables literally but i do take their interpretation literally.

    i define the word literal in this case as “Jesus meant what he said.” it sounds like Sanneh is saying that no one culture or language trumps another in the application of what Jesus said.

    i’m down with that.

    Reply

  2. I think you got it with the second part of your comment, Miller. I agree with your concern … I want to take Jesus seriously, and (many times) literally. But the truth is, cultures have always translated the truth of the Bible, and I think it’s OK to do so as long as the spirit or instruction therein is not sacrificed.

    For instance, a cultural translation of “Sell everything you own and give it to the poor” into “accumulate massive wealth and store up treasures on Earth” is an egregious mis-interpretation, because it alters the whole spirit of the teaching.

    Reply

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