Sunday, July 26, 2009

"No doubt to help with young Rocky's revival": Gideon's first century.

For a long time now, I have begun my classes each semester by stealing a joke from my old professor Walter Brueggemann. As I go over the syllabus and required texts for my courses, I tell students they will also need to bring a Bible to each class meeting. If they don't have a Bible, I go on to tell them, "check into a hotel and steal yourself a Gideon's between now and our next meeting."

Though it usually gets a polite laugh, the truth of the joke depends on the hard work of this scrappy little organization that finds its home just a short drive outside Nashville. They have been quite diligent in their endeavors.

Currently, the Gideon's International Bible Society gives away, on average, one copy of the Bible (or at least their New Testament/Psalms publication) every second of every day [1]. That's a pretty amazing statistic, but not surprising for those who know the history--and the zeal--of this organization.

The month of July marks the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the Gideon's ministry of placing Bibles in hotel and motel rooms across the country and around the world. The decision to start the ministry occurred during a Gideon's convention in 1908, held in Louisville, KY [2]. Working with the help of the American Bible Society, who provided copies of both the King James Version and the American Standard Version to the Gideon's ministry at a very reasonable cost.

The pilot for the program started late in 1908, with 25 Bibles placed in the Hotel Superior in Iron Mountain, Montana. "By July 1909, 5774 Bibles had been placed in 17 U.S.A. states. Texas beat out Indiana by one Bible, placing 1,389 versus 1,388" [3].

By 1951, then Executive Vice President of the American Hotel Association, Charles A. Horrworth, pledged that the Gideon's Bible would not only be available in every American hotel room, but "displayed prominently" in plain view [4].

To say that they were successful would be a tremendous understatement. I have traveled the world, and have found Bibles (in various languages) placed by the Gideons in rooms I have stayed in from central Mexico, to Paris, and Tuebingen, Germany.

In the hundred years of the Gideon hotel ministry, many religious organizations have followed their lead, making a variety of religious texts available to travelers. The highest profile example of this, perhaps, is the Marriott hotel chain's inclusion of the Book of Mormon in each of its rooms (the Marriott family, who still have primary ownership of the corporation, are longtime Latter-Day Saints).

The Gideon's Bible is remarkable in that it is, at the same time, one of the most thoughtfully designed and least-obviously designed Bibles available. The Gideon's place their Bibles in locations where people are on the move and perhaps in times of transition or great crisis. Hence you will find a Gideon's not only in hotel rooms but hospitals and doctors offices throughout the land. They know who they want to reach, and the unassuming design of the cover invites inspection without denominational or faith credentials. Once the cover is opened, carefully-placed one-page guides throughout the book direct the reader to a "plan of salvation" designed to lead to succor, if not transformation.

Regardless of how you feel about the Gideon's or their ministry, it must be admitted that this simple idea--a Bible in every room--has been one of the most successful evangelical endeavors of recent memory. So happy 100th birthday, guys. Here's to the next century!

1. "The Battle of the Books: The Business of Marketing the Bible and the Koran says a lot about the state of modern Christianity and Islam," The Economist, December 22, 2007, p. 80.
2. Sowers of the Word: A 95 Year History of the Gideons International (Lebanon, TN: Gideons International, 1995), p. 100.
3. Ibid.
4. Sowers of the Word, p. 102.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Material Scripture and the traditions of Biblical Theology

Let me begin by recalling briefly a conversation Jimmy Barker and I had with James Barr, a couple of years before the distinguished professor's untimely death. We (Jimmy and I) had spent the summer reading through the classic texts of Old Testament Theology, and we wanted to know whether the discipline of Old Testament Theology, in Barr's opinion, should be considered a branch of theology or a branch of biblical studies.

Without hesitation, Barr answered that it was a sub-discipline of biblical studies.

I mention this to give context for the assertion I am about to make regarding the "proper" taxonomy for Material Scripture. If, as Barr avers, "Biblical Theology" is not a discipline of theology per se, but rather the practice of biblical scholars applying theological categories to the texts they study (a debatable claim, certainly, but reasonable enough to assume for the present discussion), we might, mutatis mutandis, consider that Material Scripture is what it looks like when theologians attempt a form of textual criticism of the Bible.

This is to say, as biblical scholars adopt and borrow from established theological categories in the practice of Old (and New) Testament Theology, so too can theologians delve into the methods of biblical studies with regard to the study of the sourcing, assembly, redaction and reception of scriptural texts.

In both cases the various methods, in the hands of the new practitioners (or, following Orson Welles, perhaps I should say practioners), will both resemble and depart from their settled and established origins. Hence Material Scripture's preoccupations in the practice of textual criticims may differ markedly from those of the established field within biblical studies. This, of course, is to be expected. Just as some biblical scholars (at times, proudly) flout the conventions of we systematicians, so too can the tactics of close reading and source analysis find new trajectories in the hands of the theologian. On both sides of the mirror, experts become novices, at least for a season, and interesting results follow.

Thus, in the first place, Material Scripture is a strategy. It is a means of (re)introducing the inescapably ethical dimension of the act of reading. To read (in the present age, and likely in all ages) is to participate in a number of simultaneous economies--some overt, many implied. The so-called "marketplace of ideas" exerts lines of force during the process of reading, as do the more tangible (and fungible) aspects of the "real" marketplace, through which both the book itself, and the funds with which to procure it, come into being. Material Scripture is a strategy against the reification and abstraction of such economies precisely to the extent that it is able to focus on concrete readers and specific imprints of texts in its praxis. If you will, Material Scripture attempts to maintain an ethical commitment to what might be termed the "breathing reader," the reader with flesh and bone.

Material Scripture is thus a close reading, though not necessarily of only the text itself (although this as well may certainly play a part), but also of the "marginal" aspects of the imprinted text, referred to by Gerard Genette as paratext and hypotext. That is, matters such as footnotes, introductions, graphic design, editing and editorializing, not to mention the effects of marketing and advertising, become available for theological analysis in a Material Scriptural reading. Everything that the given book "is" is open for discussion and reflection in this process.

Furthermore, because Material Scripture intends to focus on the reader and the physical book though their interactions during a "real time" of reading, it has a peculiar relationship to scholarly notions of "history" and "the past." While not denying that events have happened, and that such events can and are documented meaningfully, Material Scripture finds much more value in asking how such documentations and reconstructions of "the past" function in the rhetorical struggles and power dynamics of the "present moment." That is to say, in its methodological procedures, Material Scripture telescopes the questions regarding "the past" into its present analysis, probing how these reconstructions function as "expert narratives" and "commanding voices" during the process of reading and textual assembly (that is, the hypotextual process is always already caught up in the arguments about, and imaginings of, the reconstructed "past").

Consonant with this, Material Scripture maintains a methodological suspicion regarding the matters of "authorial intentions" and "original texts," choosing to treat both as manifestations in the "present" moment of a "breathing reader's" encounter with a physical imprint of Scripture, rather than as some fixed master narrative that exists, isolated but accessible, somewhere in "the past."

This stance of methodological suspicion is not a denial of the past or its importance. Rather, it is an attempt to keep the focus more on the matters of the "present" (a term, I realize, that is almost as fraught with ideological baggage as referring to the "past") to maintain the thickness of discourse around all the rhetoric, politics, and power relations that are constantly at work in each of the various biblical disciplines.

Material Scripture, therefore, remains aware that it is a constructed posture within a traditioned set of conversations that occur at the overlap of academic discourses. A material scriptural reading or analysis will resemble, in some respects, styles of reading and textual analysis that occur in more traditioned discourses. However, such readings will also interrupt assumptions and conventions of those discourses, much in the same way that a biblical theologian might, at times, interrupt the established assumptions and conventions of systematic theology.

That being said, I am not proposing that Material Scripture is in some manner to be construed as a "response" to biblical theology. Similar to what I write about Scriptural Reasoning last week, there is a level of complementarity at work between the practices. However, it should also be noted that certain practices of the biblical theologian may be challenged by the practices of Material Scripture, simply by grace of the interest the latter has in making explicit the unspoken conventions that have been "encoded" into the physical objects of Scripture.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jewish Daily Forward article on controversy over Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition

The following article is written by Michael Kaminer and appeared online at the Jewish Daily Forward. You can access the article in its original form by clicking here.

Furor Over Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition

Contested Homes: From the dusty caves of Qumran to the gleam-ing pyramids of Toronto, the Dead Sea Scrolls find their resting place in question.

By Michael Kaminer

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
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Crowds at the Royal Ontario Museum’s heavily hyped Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition — Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World, which runs until January 3, 2010 — have far exceeded the museum’s own expectations. In the show’s first nine days, more than 18,000 people flocked to the museum’s spectacular new Daniel Libeskind-designed Michael Lee-Chin Crystal pavilion — about 52% above the exhibitors’ own projections.

But hosannas for the showing, featuring four scroll fragments on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority and displayed in public for the first time, have not been universal. Last April, the Palestinian Authority appealed to Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, to cancel the show, citing international conventions that make it illegal for a government agency to take archaeological artifacts from a territory that its country occupies.

The P.A. and Muslim activists claimed that the scrolls were “stolen” from Palestinian territory and illegally obtained when Israel annexed East Jerusalem — where the scrolls were stored — in 1967. “The exhibition would entail exhibiting or displaying artifacts removed from the Palestinian territories” by Israel, wrote Hamdan Taha, head of the archaeological department in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities, in a widely publicized letter, calling the show a violation of international law.

Echoing those sentiments on the day of the press preview, Canadian Arab Federation executive director Mohamed Boudjenane called the scrolls “stolen property… seized from an occupied territory,” and repeated the call to close the show on a national newscast.

Their appeal obviously didn’t stop the exhibit. “Any claim that the Palestinian Authority might present to the Dead Sea Scrolls would face significant legal obstacles, particularly at this time,” said Patty Gerstenblith, president of the Virginia-based Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and director of the Center for Art, Museum, and Cultural Heritage Law Program of Chicago’s DePaul University. “The Palestinian Authority’s lack of status as a recognized state would undermine any potential claim based on national ownership or rights to cultural property under international legal instruments.”

Regardless, the activists’ complaints set off a media firestorm in Canada and the blogosphere. And they made ROM personnel work diligently to avoid any hint of controversy at a June press conference, at which Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty cut a ceremonial red ribbon.

“I can’t answer that question,” said Mark Engstrom, the museum’s vice president of collections and research, when pressed for details on the Palestinian complaints. “The museum’s not the right forum for a political debate,” opined Julian Siggers, vice president of programs at the ROM. “I’m an ancient historian. I can tell you about the past,” said Risa Levitt Kohn, the noted San Diego State University professor who guest-curated the show. “I’m an archaeologist. All we do is cultural activities,” said Hava Katz, the IAA curator of the exhibit.

A less modulated voice came from the margins of the exhibit — literally. Polish-born, New York-based artist Joshua Neustein was invited to create an installation to complement the scrolls in a gallery two levels up from the main exhibit. The result, Margins, embeds one of Neustein’s signature chandeliers in a gallery wall, accompanied by transparent sheets bearing typography and texts. “I wanted to take the scrolls away from archaeologists and make it part of a philosophical discussion,” he said.

Neustein continued: “I don’t know what the Palestinians really want. Where are the scrolls supposed to go? To a political organization? Do they want them not to be shown? They’re political activists, and they look for causes that will gather together a group of people around a slogan. They don’t know what they want.” Antiquities, Neustein said, “are being contested all over the world. The Greeks want the Elgin marbles back. We’ll end up in the Western Hemisphere with just tepees.”

Getty Images
Scroll Down: Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin at the Dead Sea excavation site in Wadi Qumran, circa 1953.

In fact, “the last thing the Palestinian Authority would say is that people shouldn’t see them,” said Thomas Woodley, the Montreal-based president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, which has been active in the protests. “But there are principles that need to be respected. UNESCO conventions and protocols are clear that it’s illegal for a country to take artifacts of a territory it is occupying. ”

The scrolls “are a treasure for all humanity. But we would like to see the Palestinians returned as caretakers, and we would like there to be a balanced narrative. The ROM is presenting the scrolls entirely from the Israeli perspective. There’s no discussion about what happened between their discovery and their exhibition today.”

Why protest now? “Your guess is as good as mine,” Woodley said. “It should have happened a long time ago. Maybe people are just realizing some of the implications. The rightful caretakers of these scrolls would be the Palestinian Authority.”

Gerstenblith also couldn’t speculate on the timing, “unless maybe they have been influenced by the large number of restitutions in the past two to three years from American and other institutions to Italy.”

Though the objections didn’t accomplish their stated goal, an undercurrent of conflict now colors the exhibit and its media coverage. The dustup, however, might have helped the museum; the ROM has been “thrilled with the response” since the show opened on June 27, according to spokeswoman Marilynne Friedman. And, political disputes aside, the ROM is winning accolades for a state-of-the-art presentation of the ancient texts.

The ROM also can claim a number of firsts — no small feat, considering how many times the scrolls have been exhibited since their accidental discovery by Bedouin goat-herder Muhammed edh-Dhib in 1947. It’s the first major museum exhibit to broaden focus from the Qumran caves where the scrolls were found to the wider ancient world that produced them, from Jerusalem to the Second Temple to the key Galilee town of Sephorris. It’s the first time the four previously unseen scroll fragments are being displayed in public, made possible because of the ROM’s long relationship with the IAA.

Words that Changed the World is the first blockbuster show in the ROM’s new wing and — this being multicultural Toronto — it’s probably the first scrolls display co-chaired by a “community advisory panel” comprising a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew, with massive outreach to clergy, community leaders, cultural influencers and educators.

“The ROM did a brilliant job, and I don’t use that word lightly. The exhibit provides a lovely formulation that allows us to see the scrolls in an ancient context. It transforms the way in which the scrolls have been received,” said Hindy Najman, director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto and a consultant on the show. “It’s an historic moment for Canada.”

Michael Kaminer is a frequent Forward contributor whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Scriptural Reasoning and Material Scripture: Some Initial Reflections

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that some years ago, soon after Walt Disney's death, two gentlemen from the Disney board of directors were standing on a bridge in the midst of the recently-completed Disneyland. Looking at the Magic Kingdom, one of them said, "Isn't it too bad Walt isn't alive to see this?"

The other, so the story goes, simply replied, "Oh, Walt saw all of this."

Proverbs 29:18 tells us that without a vision, the people perish. I think the vision referred to in that passage must necessarily be a grand vision, a vision inconceivable and invisible, perhaps, to those around the one seeing the vision. It is, I think, a vision that needs some explaining and convincing before others will come to see it and share it. Without overly secularizing the Proverb by the comparison, it seems Disney was an example of one who had precisely this sort of "strange vision." The majesty of such strange vision is such that great things arise from it; the tragedy of such vision, however, is that often the seer does not live to see its fruition.

You must trust me when I assure you Peter Ochs is a man of such grand vision, though his mind's eye is focused, not on the comfortable distractions of an amusement park, but on the tragic brokenness of our present world, and how it might be prayerfully and graciously repaired.

I have spent a week living in this vision, as a participant in a leadership training forum for the Society of Scriptural Reasoning, held at the University of Virginia. Over forty pastors, imams, laypersons, and scholars gathered in Charlottesville for the event, and I think it is safe to say none of us left at the end of the week having not been profoundly moved, both by the events themselves that transpired as well as the portent and possibilities the event held for the future of (inter)religious dialogue.

Here, in this post, I want both to outline briefly what is happening in Scriptural Reasoning (SR) itself, for readers unfamiliar with the practice, as well as delineate how I see the relationship of SR to Material Scripture unfolding in the future.

"The text is our only host"

SR is a pragmatic practice, which attempts to learn how to read the texts claimed by the various Abrahamic traditions as holy (e.g., the TaNaKH, the Qur'an, the New Testament, the Hadith and the Talmud) in non-ironic conversation with each other. SR is, in other words, the attempt to read together in the midst of the "thick differences" between the tradtitions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

These "thick differences" arise from the traditioned readings that result from formative and catechetic readings from within each tradition (referred to in SR as a "house of reading"). That is to say, Christians are taught by other Christians how to read "their" Scriptures, and though some of these Scriptures are shared with Jews and, in varying ways, Muslims, the traditions of reading and interpretation are not. Hence an essential aspect of the SR process is learning one's own identity as a traditioned reader--exploring the hermeneutic landscape of primary texts as well as commentaries of those texts within one's own tradition.

This is to say that, as a Catholic, the ethos of SR encourages me to read in the "thickness" of hermeneutic differences between my tradition and various Protestant interpretations of our common texts. Most of SR practice, in other words, is spent not participating in Scriptural Reasoning directly, but participating rather in what might be referred to as "Textual Reasoning" (in the case of Judaism), or "Biblical" or "Qur'anic" Reasoning, respectively. We learn to read closely and contentiously with those of our own tradition prior to the practice of Scriptural Reasoning.

Having done this preparatory work within our own Houses, however, we participate in SR through the metaphorical construction of a "Tent of Meeting." The image of the Tent is a shared theme of all three Abrahamic traditions, and was chosen both for its temporary nature and the tradition of hospitality that surrounds the image in all three traditions. Unlike the House, the Tent is a non-permanent structure erected on the way to somewhere else. The Tent is not where we live forever, but it is where we meet on the journey, and, in meeting, we welcome others who are also away from their permanent homes.

Charlottesville last week was such a Tent. In SR the phrase is sometimes used that "the text is our only host," and for this meeting we were hosted by Exodus 34, in addition to some passages from Hebrews 3 of the New Testament and Sura 28 of the Qur'an. In both plenary meetings and smaller groups, we read these texts slowly and closely, discovering in them and among them new movements of the Spirit in their interpretation and imaginings.

One of the key aspects of SR is to honor the traditions and demands of one's particular House of reading, while inviting, for the sake of hospitality, the suspension of the hermeneutic limitations normally in place as a result of one's commitments. This is a dangerous process, of course. SR welcomes readers to see these texts afresh, and apart from the normal guardrails that restrict the free-play of associations. At various moments each of the members of my group resisted some aspect of the readings offered around the table. Ultimately, however, this venturing from the safety of our tradtioned readings allowed each of us to return to those readings with a fresh set of eyes and new insights.

It is here that the vision of Peter Ochs, and the others who first began these hopeful and pragmatic explorations of reading together some fifteen years ago, finds its full flowering. SR neither demands nor invites participants to syncretistically abandon their identities in favor of some homogenized comportment. Far from desiring to reduce participants to some idealized "essence" behind each of the traditions, SR instead takes these irreconcilable differences as its starting point.

From there, SR attempts the practice of "reading together across differences." In a variety of reflections, Ochs has often referred to this practice in the language of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the "healing of the world." While I cannot speak to the breadth of its success, I can attest to our week long meeting as a confirmation of the ethos that funds this vision: Jews, Muslims and Christians were able to meet and read together, without trying to convert each other. We were heartfelt and honest in our different readings, while remaining hospitable and open to each other.

I know it will sound like the opening to a corny joke, but as a result of this past week, I feel it might be possible, someday, to say, "A Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim were standing peacably together on a bridge..."

...and, God willing, in that day to come, one might turn and say to the other two, and remark, "Oh, Peter saw all of this."

Without saying too much more about the process itself (interested readers are encouraged to explore the excellent introduction to SR by David Ford in the volume, The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning), I would like to turn now to an exploration of the interrelationship between SR and Material Scripture.

Scriptural Reasoning and Material Scripture

In many respects, Material Scripture can be viewed as an alternative form of textual criticism. Like textual criticism, Material Scripture asks questions about the origins of the physical object of Scripture under analysis, and seeks understanding of the construction and ideological context of the artifact of a given Bible.

In contrast, SR and Material Scripture should not be regarded as alternatives to each other. In fact, SR and Material Scripture occupy separate, though tangential, fields of inquiry. For example, in the SR training of this past week, a list of recommended guidelines for our practice during the week was offered on the first day. The second of these guidelines suggested that questions of translation and how we "got" the particular English text in front of us, should be suspended for the purposes of the SR reading.

There are good reasons for such a guideline. First, this guideline reduces the power dynamic that might arise from an "expert" reading of the text (i.e., someone adept in the "original" language imposing a masterful reading over all possible interpretations). Second, if the text is to be the host, then the agreement that the particular English version in front of the readers will serve this function allows for us to have, as it were, a "shared tent" for our reading. The suspension of text-critical questions during SR is, ultimately, a gesture of hospitality.

In this sense, Material Scripture and SR begin, respectively, where the other has chosen to remain silent. This is to say, if a participant in SR were to transgress the guideline mentioned above, they would essentially cease the practice of SR and begin a practice of Material Scripture. Material Scripture is fueled, moreover, by an ideological suspicion that is intentionally suppressed during the practice of SR. In agreeing to simply share a translation in a common tongue, SR evinces a trust of the text which is absent from the practice of Material Scripture.

In reflecting on this, however, it is also possible that one might regard Material Scripture as an extension of the "thick reading" of the text, as found in SR, to include the very physical structures of the material shape of the given Scripture itself. Hence the differing physical sctructures of various imprints of Scripture might be seen as material "encodings" of traditions, which can be read alongside each other in their irreducible particularities. In a similar manner to SR's refusal of syncretism, Material Scripture eschews the reduction of these physically differentiated imprints of Scripture to some purified or homogenized idea of "Scripture." Material Scripture, moreover, resists the notion that this reified "Scripture" in any way serves as the norm to the actual physical instantiations of Scripture we observe. In this sense, Material Scripture has a similar pragmatic basis to Scriptural Reasoning, in practice.

The development of the idea of Material Scripture arose, itself, out of a deep conversation with Scriptural Reasoning. The ethical preoccupation of SR is shared in the cultural materialist roots of Material Scripture, as practiced in this blog and my other writings. Cultural Materialism, as articulated in Scott Wilson's book of the same name, understands itself as a profoundly ethical practice, in that "before it has anything to do with the real, materialism is first an inherently moral, even theological concept... The mutual reinforcement of the moral and the material is implied by the double meaning available to the term 'good'" [37].

Later, Wilson ties this ethical preoccupation to the same sort of brokenness addressed by Ochs and the repair of tikkun olam, through a quotation from the cultural materialist par excellence, Walter Benjamin:
"For without exception the cultural treasures he [the historical materialist] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization [Scripture included] which is not the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another" [141].

In its hospitality to the other, SR is rightly criticized for being inhospitable to the traditions of barbarism that inhere deep in each of our traditions. In a similar fashion, Material Scripture desires to be inhospitable to the cultures of silence that surround the physical transmission and construction of our present imprints of Scripture, with regard to the suppression of "the other" in the physical structuring of the text.

In this manner, it is my hope that Material Scripture and SR can be regarded as complementary practices with a similar ethical core.

Final reflections, for now

I will admit I found it difficult, at certain moments during the week, to suspend my desire to push to Material Scriptural questions in the midst of SR practice. I found it hard, in other words, to suspend my questions about where this given English text came from, and why this particular translation was chosen in preference to other available options.

At the same time, I was able to recognize how the introduction of specifically Material Scriptural questions would derail the practice of SR in its moment of openness and hospitality. It would, in other words, abrogate the maintenance of trust essential to SR practice. As such, I see the deep value of agreeing, in a limited space and time of study, to suspend the suspicion of the origin of a given text before us, for the sake of reasoning together.

That being said, as SR continues to develop into its third decade and beyond, it may find some value in a turn to the deeper questions posed by practices like Material Scripture, as a means of engaging in an ethically-preoccupied textualist criticism. As SR continues to engage the increasingly "difficult" texts of our various traditions, it is my hope that Material Scripture may prove of increasing utility to the practice.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Material Language

"If no word in a language is exactly the same as any other word in a different language, and languages are reciprocally incommensurable, either translating is impossible or it consists in freely interpreting the text and recreating it. At this point what interests scholars is no longer the relationship between source and target but rather the effect of the translated text on the target culture. Such research is undoubtedly interesting for studies in comparative literature as well as for studies on the evolution of a given national culture." - Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 21.

I have commented elsewhere in this blog that I am deeply suspicious of appeals to "original language" as a means to settle interpretive questions regarding a text in dispute. My suspicion, as stated before, has to do with the notion that the "original text" (e.g., a Hebrew or Greek critical text) somehow gains us a privileged access to the past and not, as I argue is actually the case, a mediated reconstruction of the past in the present. It may seem a trifling point, if one trusts one's reconstructions. For me, however, such attempts at reconstruction will always and inevitably be marked by the interests and concerns of the present.

There is no correction for this bias, furthermore, because it is built into the very fabric of that with which we are dealing: language itself. Language comes with an insurmountable local bias.

Take, for example, this recent essay by neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky, entitled "How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?"

Boroditsky's research points out that "quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking," and she goes on to claim that, "Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun."

Which might mean that, contrary to the claims of proponents of so-called "Cartesian" or "generative" grammars (Noam Chomsky, John Searle, and others), there is no shared meaning "behind" the various languages spoken in our Biblical versions. When we translate into English what was a Greek translation of an Aramaic statement (as is the case with the Gospels), it is not a matter of hanging different signifiers upon the same "background" meanings. Rather, the very meanings expressed in each of these iterations - Aramaic, Greek, and English - are inextricably bound to the materiality of the structure of that particular language itself.

These differences in language are not minor. In Boroditsky's research, which she discusses here in an interview with NPR's Here and Now, she demonstrates how the linguistic connection of the cardinal directions to the life of the aboriginal Pormpuraaw affects the manner in which they conceive time itself. In another example, the interview discusses the relationship of direct and indirect language attribution with regard to events to the formation of memory and blame (a fact that would have stark implications for such Christian doctrines as sin and atonement).

Adopting such a position into one's hermeneutic methodology would, of course, make the notion of verbal plenary inspiration quite difficult to maintain. That is to say, even if God dictated, word for word, the contents of the "original" Bible (which some extreme versions of verbal plenary inspiration assert), this by no means indicates that we, as English speakers, can obtain to the weltanschauung at work in those "original" words. Put another way, it is not a matter of simply translating language, but an entire metaphysic surrounding and interpenetrating the language, that is required.

In pointing out this implicationof Boroditsky's claims, some might argue that I have now pulled the rug out from under any veracity to Scripture at all. I do not think this is the case, however. Scripture has managed, through the ages, to "mean" and "have meaning," despite this non-transparent mediation that does not actually access the thought-schemata of the past. In other words, the book still works, despite its not working in the simple manner we thought it did.

For me, this is fascinating. When Boroditsky describes the Pormpuraaw manner of dealing with time, social interaction, and indeed all facets of life through the medium of the four cardinal directions and the path of the Sun's travel, I attempt in my own mind to imagine what that sort of weltnaschauung would be like to have, instead of the very Western "left-to-right" schemata I am hardwired with. Inevitably I will fail at fully imagining this difference, of course. Our wiring is tenacious. The trick, as in all translation, is not to get it "right," but to get it wrong in a useful and compelling way.