Just finished my paper for the Interdisciplinary Christianities Workshop. If you're around the U of Chicago and have any kind of serious academic interest in these things, we're discussing it Friday, January 7th, at 3:30 in Haskell 101.
The paper connects one of my strict professional areas, the structure and relationship of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew, with some of what you could call my hobbies: semiotics, political theology, and the sparks that fly from their alchemy with media forms. If that sounds too abstruse for you, ask why the Hebrew Bible is in Hebrew, or why the Passion might as well have been in Chinese: what are the properties of a revealed text? Is it written differently? In a specific language? Is it still revealed when it is translated or paraphrased? Does it have any inherent properties at all, or does it, or someone else, just say it was revealed?
I'll post one of the fun parts (from part 2, "The Hermeneutic Wars"):
But [The Passion of the Christ] and its response can also be placed in a more specifically American history of concern over Bible reading in the context of mass media. Peter Gutjahr’s An American Bible describes a decline in Biblical literacy that concerned Protestants during the 19th century, when,
“a number of authors, publishers and clergymen turned to transforming the Bible’s story into less sacred forms of print to turn American readers once again to the Bible. As narrative forms such as the novel became more popular with the American reading public, American Protestants decided to commingle scriptural truth and fictional fancy in order to attract their countrymen to the Bible's message. Perhaps the most popular manifestation of this mixture was the nineteenth-century genre of the lives of Christ, a genre that included titles such as The Book of Mormon, The Prince of the House of David and Ben-Hur. As Americans were introduced to increasingly fictionalized lives of Christ, they were given both a new way to imagine themselves as characters in the Bible's story, as well as a means to avoid the density and complexity of that story. Consequently, an attempt to emphasize the Bible's story resulted in de-emphasizing the Bible itself.”
David Lyle Jeffrey, Provost of the Baptist university Baylor, describes the further, equally market-driven fragmentation of the Biblical text in the late 20th century. Citing the statistic that there are now 450 different translations or paraphrases of the Bible available, Jeffery explored the implications for Church communities no longer having a unitary text:
“It makes collective Bible study a very difficult task: ‘That’s not what my translation says.’ The authority of the Bible is being complicated if not compromised for readers—whose Bible? Which version? How do I know mine is accurate? It raises a series of questions that the church is not well disposed to solve because of our monolingual culture, resulting in a diminishment of authority of text.
One used to say that American Christians ‘knew the Bible by heart.’ The memorization of the text is now made more difficult by the variety of translations used, sometimes within the same sermon. What it does is diffuse in some fundamental way the power of the text to shape culture”.
One of the most popular, and problematic, solutions to the decline in textual knowledge among American Protestants, many of whom can no longer understand the King James Version, is to produce paraphrases.
“You get Bibles for teenagers that are paraphrases rather than translations, they may highlight certain passages by paraphrasing them in such a way to make them seem ‘cool,’” the result being “a Bible adequated so much in the direction of the reader that it may actually not resemble under any kind of linguistic scrutiny…the text that is being translated.”
Thus, even as some express concern, and others enthusiasm, about a culture war, the stakes are changing: evangelicals worry about a way to gain direct contact with the original Word of God, as the text that conveys it is fragmented by the marketing that promotes it.
The conversation between Jeffery and Gutjahr, which I heard on Chicago's WBEZ, was excellent, and anyone interested in how the Bible is read in America today would enjoy listening to it here .