Bryan Bibb

The Bible in Church and Academy

Can a Genre Be Errant?

Carlos Bovell has written a very nice guest post on the blog of Peter Enns, titled “Does an inerrantist culture ‘do good or do harm?’” His argument is that evangelicals need to reframe and decenter the notion of inerrancy in their conception of biblical authority:

One concern I have is that, for various reasons, a number of inerrantist scholars are failing to grasp just how debilitating it is to spiritual formation to foreground inerrancy as a central and permanent fixture for American evangelical identity. They fail to see how, culturally and institutionally, this mindset can keep evangelical teachers from doing good, from providing healing for searching Christians both in evangelical churches and in classrooms.

It’s a great article. Go read it.

What caught my eye was his statement that although inerrantists have become more sophisticated in their hermeneutics—recognizing the existence of different genres in scripture—they reject the existence of “errant genres” like myth and legend.

Defining inerrancy according to genre, for example, does not go far enough because inerrantists still feel the same pressure, just delayed for a moment: only genre designations that are not “errant” are allowed, which helps explain why myth and legend in Genesis, for example, are not typically admitted as legitimate genre designations by inerrantist writers.

But such designations are routinely—even universally—accepted outside of inerrantist scholarship. Guarding against “errant” genres in scripture looks like special pleading and a needless spiritual distraction.

You can see this dynamic in the 1978 Chicao Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, which affirms “genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study” in Article XIII, but still rejects mythic readings of Genesis in Article XXII.

Here is my question: how can a genre be errant? Each genre is a tool of the biblical writers, like all of the other tools that they use. The literalist argument is that Genesis 1–11, for instance, presents itself as factual, and so must be read as historical narrative rather than myth. I disagree with that argument based on analysis of the text itself, in its context, but that is a much better claim than that myth cannot be true or authoritative, a legitimate genre within scripture.

These hermeneutical maneuvers are not a good strategy in the long term. I would prefer that we engage scripture on its own terms and let go of our tight grip long enough to let it speak to us however it wants, in whatever genre.

Nyasha Junior Is Headed to Temple

My friend and colleague (and fellow PTS grad), Nyasha Junior has accepted a position in the Religious Studies department at Temple University. She will be teaching Hebrew Bible alongside Jeremy Schipper and Mark Leuchter.

Temple’s program was already strong, and it is now certainly one of the best places in the country to study Hebrew Bible. I will definitely make sure that my students have the Temple program on their radar.

Congratulations to Temple and to Dr. Junior! Also, can I just add that Nyasha has the best website in the profession?

Damrosch, Alter, Boom

The folks at Nida just sent an email with a video link for the two lectures (and responses) at the 2014 Nida Research Symposium in September. I enjoyed the event tremendously, most of all for the chance to share conversation with good friends from Misano [s/o to James, Deborah, Michael, Roy, Jason, Brian, Phil, and Simon!]. It was also wonderful to visit NYC again with Jen and to take Joseph for some historical sight-seeing.

I can’t give you access to all of that goodness, but the talks were quite interesting and the responses trenchant. You can watch them on the FUSP site:

  • David Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, “World Literature, National Markets”

  • Lydia Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Response

  • Robert Alter, Professor in the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkley, “Translating Biblical Poetry: Ancient Hebrew Verse and the Constraints of English”

  • Adriane Leveen, Senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York Campus, Response

Real Moms and the Power of Language

This is a guest post from Jennifer Bibb, a wonderful writer who also happens to be the mother of our two sons.

Dear boys,

My facebook newsfeed has been buzzing with posts about Adoption Awareness Month. It seems like a good time to share with you again about your “real mom”.

The first thing I want you to know is that the words “real mom” have no true power. They are just words.

The second thing I want you to know is that the words “real mom” have profound power and are much, much more than just words.

Here’s what I mean when I say that the words “real mom” have no true power. As I write this, you and I are finishing up Book Four of the Harry Potter series. Remember all the people in Harry Potter who refuse to say the word Voldermort? Harry’s best friends, his teachers, the Ministers of Magic—they all refuse to utter the word. But Harry always says Voldermort’s name. He doesn’t say it to rebel or to appear brave in the eyes of others. On the contrary, Harry seems to be starting from a place of humility, innocence, and quiet confidence. It seems that something deep inside him understands that Voldermort is powerful and dangerous, and yet at the same time knows that his name—the mere word Voldermort—does not have power. More importantly, Harry senses that treating the word like it’s dangerous creates and exacerbates fear, which only serves to give Voldermort more power.

So when someone suggests to you that I’m not your “real mom,” or when you yourselves wonder—as you have in the past—if I’m your “real mom,” my hope and prayer is that you and I will not be afraid of the words. Because if we refuse to be afraid of the words, we free ourselves to discover what those words can teach us. Don’t be afraid, my precious boys. Open up your hearts and your minds. Go with the words “real mom” and see where they take you. They can take you to a deep place where I pray you will find the freedom and courage to explore what and who your “real mom” is and why those words are so powerful.

To this day, a surge of pride and satisfaction fills me up when someone asks me my occupation, and I get to reply “mom”. This, boys, is where the words “real mom” start to pick up steam and take on power.

For me, being your “real mom” means that I get to snuggle with you in bed each night. It means I get to be the one to read Harry Potter to you for the very first time. It means I have the significant responsibility of teaching you about things like faith, respect, responsibility, and the difference between right and wrong. It means I get to witness your tears and offer you comfort. It means I’m the one who nearly passes out from excitement when you score goals at your games. It means I’m the one who cleans up your throw up, who operates the vehicle while you are fighting in the back seat, who tries not to scream when you take turns calling out every potty word you know through peals of laughter over the breakfast table at 6:30 in the morning before I’ve had my coffee. Being your “real mom” means I’m the one who knows you better than anyone else. It means I’m your safe place, your as-close-to-unconditional-love-as-you’re-going-to-get-on-this-earth place. It means feeling protective of you, even when you’re being a punk. It means coming down too hard on you, and then telling you I’m sorry when I realize I’ve made a mistake. Being your “real mom” means loving you so fiercely that I break out into a sweat when I reflect on what a miracle it is that you are even in my life.

But what about those other “real moms”? What about Ms N. and Ms K.? What about those “real moms” who conceived you and carried you inside their bodies for nine long months? What about those “real moms” who gave birth to you and with whom you share blood and genes? How can you know what and who is real when it comes to your mom?

One day when you are old enough, I hope you will watch a movie called A Beautiful Mind. It’s the story of a brilliant man who was very sick. He heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. His mind was full of thoughts and pictures and ideas and bad dreams—sometimes so full that he couldn’t think straight. He would get confused and scared. At one point in the movie, he confesses to his wife that he is scared because he doesn’t know what’s real anymore. His wife crouches close in front of him and lovingly takes his hand and presses it to her face and says, “This is real.” Then she presses his hand to her heart and says “And this is real.”

So, my beloved sons, when you hear the words “real mom,” don’t be afraid. Be humble. Be patient. Be quietly confident. Be thoughtful. Be free. Go deep. Know that being a “real mom” means choosing to commit to giving a child the best you have to offer. It often means choosing self-sacrifice. It means loving someone so much that you frequently choose to put their needs and wants ahead of your own. This is what my love for you is like. And this is the way I will always love you.

But I want you to hear me say that Ms. N. and Ms. K. loved you this way too. You were conceived, carried, and birthed in love by a “real mom.” Your future was planned for by a “real mom.” You were given to, entrusted to, and have been raised in love by a “real mom”.

This, my boys, is what I want you to know about your “real mom.” This is love, in all its glory, messiness, complexity, and beauty. It’s real. It’s powerful. It is your story, and it is mine.

I love you both with all my heart.

Mom.

Sexual Language and Roasting a Translator

My student Laura recently sent me a link to this podcast from Radio Lab with 8 different stories related in some way to translation. I highly recommend it.

In the “Deaf Comedy Jam” segment, they tell the story of a sign language interpreter at a “roast” hosted by the king of insults, Jeffrey Ross. Ross noticed the ASL interpreter on the edge of the stage and began saying sexually explicit things so that she would have to “sign” them to the audience. I know, high-larious, right?

The reporter noticed that the interpreter left at intermission, so she located her in order to hear her side of the story. Was she offended or did she feel harassed or “used” by Ross?

The ensuing conversation is fascinating from a translation theory perspective. Go listen to the 10-minute segment, but be warned there is some course language. And, to quote the co-host, “I’m troubled by how funny this is.”

Which “register” should an ASL interpreter use in conveying an explicit source text? As in spoken language, the choices include a range of “formal,” “casual,” or “intimate” signs. The interpreter has to choose which register to use, and that choice is determined by her role in the event: to convey the meaning and tone of the source text to her audience.

However, skopostheorie (here’s a paper explaining it from my friend Nathan Esala) raises the question of whether translators should shape the translation to match the expectations and assumptions of the audience. The temptation in this case is to “dial it down,” but this interpreter says that she chose a casual and explicit register because her job was “to match the tone of the person.” As the co-host says, using a polite tone to “protect” the audience “betrays” the audience because it does not communicate the full experience.

The (sole) deaf client felt uncomfortable with this experience and left at intermission, and so the interpreter was free to go. Was this a failure of the translation to match the skopos? No, I would say it is a failure of the deaf person to consider what a Jeff Ross roast was going to be like. It was a failure of expectations.

This relates directly to the challenge of biblical translators who must convey sexually or violently explicit scenes in biblical texts (see my forthcoming paper on Ezekiel). To what extent should a translator tone down this material to match the “polite” decorum of the scriptural audience? I argue that they should not do so in any way. To withhold information and shape the text so that it does not confuse, offend, or challenge is to “betray” the Bible’s audience. However, the very real limits placed on translators by their religious audiences is a failure of expectations. Readers place artificial and unrealistic expectations on what the Bible is, and these expectations lead to a breakdown in the translation process itself.

Spotting a Fake

My friend Sam is a professional conductor with a doctoral degree and a faculty position in a music department. He shared this video recently of the Danish National Orchestra trying to play while eating hot chili peppers.

His comment was “Funny, but oy the fake conducting.” The quick cuts of the conductor look a bit casual, but it is not obvious to me that his conducting is “fake.” I wouldn’t know how to identify it for certain. One clue is that he is the “chili pepper guy,” and so probably is not a professional conductor. The point is that he knows enough about how to look like a conductor to fool a novice like me, especially when his efforts are presented in a slick manner and I’m not really looking out for fakery.

Sam has a common problem for those who have a specific area of expertise with a public-facing component. His discomfort with “fake conducting” is akin to programmers who roll their eyes at computer scenes in movies, or biblical scholars who observe bad biblical interpretation in the media. Fake conductors and fake programmers and fake biblical scholars know enough about the form of their activity to put on a convincing show for those who don’t know any better. However, experts in that field can spot it instantly.

The problem we have is how to respond. Within the group of experts, there are a lot of “oys” and eye-rolling. Of course, biblical interpretation is not—and should not be—the private domain of the educated and elite. People interpret the Bible all the time, and they don’t need our permission or approval. But if there are “fake conductors” out there who put on a show of knowing how to do this job, and are in positions of directing and teaching others, we have a responsibility to point out their fakery. We have to engage the public in a way that is informative and constructive.

This is not an easy job. Oy.

Is a Translation Ever ‘Merely’ Cultural?

An article about Bart Ehrman by Louis Markos, titled “Erhman Errant,” made the rounds in academic social media last week, leading finally to a response from the man himself. I didn’t read it because I generally don’t care what people think about Bart Ehrman one way or the other.

However, this morning T. Michael Law posted a quote from the article that piqued my interest. Markos makes a strange argument for masculine language in Bible translation for “man” and “mankind.” He says that since God refers to everyone (male and female) as “Adam” in Genesis, we should continue using masculine language for people-as-a-group:

Blomberg, along with the translators of the NRSV, NLT, CEV, and NIV 2011, take it for granted that the convention of using “man” or “mankind” to designate the human race is merely cultural. It is not. It is God himself who originally made the designation: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2; ESV). The Hebrew word translated “Man” at the end of the passage is “Adam.” God not only refers to our race by the name of the first man that he created, but views all of mankind as being included in Adam. Those who defend traditional, non-neutered translations of the Bible are not blinding themselves to new research, but preserving the Bible from new agendas that would co-opt it.

This is not convincing. I would argue that God’s use of “adam” does not apply a masculine label to humanity, but instead radically broadens the meaning of ‘adam so that the term transcends gender particularities. This is important when we turn to other texts that use a single, masculine term to mean any person, male or female. Examples include legal texts, and references to “the new man” in Paul. Since these terms apply to both men and women, we should use language that does the same.

What I’m really amazed by, however, is this idea that any use of language is “merely cultural.” There is nothing “mere” about culture and language; it is like the air we breathe. Every idea that we have ever thought—whether about God or about the world—is expressed in language. And language is a cultural medium. The process of translation is a cultural engagement that may be more or less radical, but there is nothing about this process that transcends culture. It is culture. When Markos argues for the terms “man” and “mankind,” he asserts the ongoing relevance of the ancient culture’s understanding of gendered language. But he doesn’t—and we don’t—live in that ancient culture. In our culture, the words “man” and “mankind” mean what they mean; there’s no way out.

What is evident reading this paragraph is how fundamentalists reject the process of translation itself. By approaching the Hebrew and Greek text as the literal words of God, dictated in full, they believe that we can express a “timeless” and “universal” truth through English translation, something beyond “mere culture.”

The problem is that those Hebrew and Greek texts were already rooted in time and place, already particular. We create our own rooted and particular English texts through cultural engagement and translation. There’s nothing at all “mere” about this complex and contingent process. Without it, there is no thought.

The Voice Bible: Words of God and Man

Michael Bird posted his positive review of The Voice Bible translation from Thomas Nelson. This project is a “dynamic equivalence” based translation, that is, one that is not constrained by a requirement to render the text literally, “word for word.” I have posted before about the impossibility of word-for-word translation, and I support Nelson’s effort to create innovative new wordings and formats for the biblical text.

I haven’t spent much time with The Voice Bible, so I am not ready to offer a critical analysis of their interpretive choices. However, I was intrigued by one decision that seems to be misguided: their distinction between Roman and Italic type. As Michael says, they use “italics to indicate words not strictly derived from translations, but [that] bring out the nuance of the text.”

I wrote here about how advocates of the King James Bible claim that typefaces can open a window into the “words of God” vs. “the words of man” [as they would put it] in the biblical text. The idea is that translators use a regular typeface for English words that correspond to the Hebrew and Greek source text, and italics for any words that are necessary in English but not “found” in the original.

Look at the examples provided by Michael, and notice which parts are put into italics. These italics reflect an unfortunate accommodation to those who demand literal translation. If the translators really could have translated the text without these italic phrases, why wouldn’t they just do that? By marking these words and phrases as secondary additions, they imply that “dynamic” translation is really just commentary or amplification, textual categories that have less authority than translation in the world of Bible versions.

For example, here is Genesis 1:1:

“In the beginning, God created everything: the heavens above and the earth below. Here’s what happened:”

I really like this translation. The idiom “heavens and earth” is a merism, that is, a figure of speech in which two things are supposed to stand in for a fuller reality. To create “the heavens and the earth” means to create everything, not just two specific things. Their translation does a nice job of conveying that idea, but they undermine their own translation by suggesting that the word “everything” isn’t really part of the translation.

This is a missed opportunity. The publishers have been too timid in the face of market realities. It seems that they use these italics to make certain kinds of Christian readers feel better about this new version. However, they end up reaffirming problematic assumptions about the nature of biblical translation, and undercutting their own project.

Identity and Vocation

I turned 42 today, which is my favorite number, since it’s the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It was a good day full of contradictions. I taught an OLLI class (“life-long learning”) on Wisdom and was treated like a treasure by appreciative students. Later I went to a meeting in which I was treated like crap by a colleague. And I had a phone conversation with someone important about a really big—like amazingly big—future project that may happen, and I really hope it does.

This day has led me to reflect on my conversation with a visiting speaker who came to campus last year, a senior scholar with an impressive CV who teaches at a small college. I asked him what it was like spending his whole career at one school, and whether he ever thought about moving (he could have at any point, I imagine). He said that he had family reasons for staying in the area, and that he had maintained his mental health by refusing to let his identity become tied to the micro-politics and limited perspective of the school itself.

What I took from our conversation was a reminder to maintain a broad horizon. This horizon will take the form of strong collegial relationships outside the confines of a particular department or school. It will mean having a healthy and balanced home life so that one is always something more than just an Associate Professor or a Committee Chair—a parent, a friend, a volunteer. This broader perspective will also contribute to a more effective career within that specific location.

And all of this requires sustained reflection about one’s vocation. Who are you called to be? As a professor, my calling is primarily to be a teacher and, springing from that, to be a writer. I have many weaknesses as a teacher and I don’t write nearly as much or as well as I would like. My success in these callings, however, does not depend on institutional support or external validation, but on the human relationships that I build in the process.

I am entering the middle part of my career, having taught 14 years already. I have paid close attention to senior colleague nearing retirement: some are happy and content, and look back on their Furman years with fondness; and some seem totally burned out, just done. What’s the difference, I wonder? Everyone’s situation is different, but I suspect that a major factor is whether their identity has become too closely tied to their job rather than their vocation.

I offer now two great unspoken truths that middle-career Associate Professors like me need to remember: 1) institutions change inexorably over time, and eventually they will change in ways that you do not like; 2) when you are gone, it’s amazing how gone you are. Every now and then we get an email telling us that a retired professor has passed away, and I wonder, who was that person? Does anyone here remember what they did? How they poured themselves into that report or committee assignment? How many 8 o’clock sections they taught? As Qohelet reminds us, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”

So what’s the point? To borrow again from the Teacher, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” Identify those things that matter most in life, that most closely embody your vocation, and do them. Don’t let the business of everyday struggle cloud your horizon or claim your identity.

[Image via http://tysonadams.com/2012/08/30/the-answer/]

Nida Symposium With Robert Alter and David Damrosch

While I’m at it, please take note of this amazing one-day symposium in New York on September 19th. It’s free for grad students, with lunch included. If you’re in striking distance of NYC, it would be silly not to attend this.

  • “Translating Biblical Poetry: Ancient Hebrew Verse and the Constraints of English,” presented by Robert Alter, with a response by Adriane Leveen
  • “World Literature, National Markets,” presented by David Damrosch, with a response by Lydia Liu

Date and Time: Friday, September 19, 2014 (10:00am – 3:00pm, lunch included)

Venue: ABS Board/Community Room (1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New York, NY)

Registration Fee: $25.00 USD (Registration is free for graduate students.)