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Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

Subjectively Evaluating, Well, Stuff

J. K. Gayle links to me in a post regarding the notion of “canon.” There’s a good discussion going in the comments as well. Let me note in passing that the label “personal canon” grates on me a bit. Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m referring to my reaction to it. I observe that it is often quite descriptive.

In the same post, he refers also to a canon of essays, and to the biblical canon(s), besides my sort of personal canon of Bible translations. I have dabbled in both of those areas myself, though I’m much less qualified (by virtue of reading) to comment on a canon of essays for educational reading than I am on the canon of scripture.

In fact, I have made a bit of a personal journey regarding the biblical (and extra-biblical) canon. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the SDA church affirms 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as do most protestant organizations. But SDAs, in addition, grant authority to the writings of Ellen G. White.

Many SDAs will likely object to this characterization and make the claim that they base all their beliefs on the Bible, but in my own experience, I encountered many people who placed Ellen White’s writings above the Bible. If there was a dispute about the interpretation of a Bible passage, Ellen White’s interpretation settled it for them. In cases where Ellen White was clearly wrong, they would insist that what Ellen White said was, in fact, what the Bible meant.

In addition, in areas on which the Bible is silent, they would accept Ellen White’s word as final in many areas, just as much as if they had read it in the Bible. So in practice, Ellen White’s writings became part of the canon of scripture.

So why don’t Seventh-day Adventists want to admit just how they use the writings of Ellen White? It’s this matter of canon. People in other organizations who make lists don’t include Ellen White, and if you want to be included by those people, you can’t violate the list. Other groups depart from Christian orthodoxy more than do SDAs, but they also claim to adhere to the lists.

When I returned to a Christian denomination some years after I left Adventism, it was  United Methodist congregation. Now Methodists affirm the same 66 books that SDAs affirm, but in general their theology is much more friendly to the extra-canonical books, and I personally tend to use a canon that includes the apocrypha. For what it’s worth, this is much easier to do if you are not too much of a literalist.

So whether I like the sound of “personal canon” all that much, it applies to me in some ways.

Similarly, while not dealing with essays, I have previously argued (here and here) that lists of great literature may not be as great as their advocates suggest. So I’m on this subjectivity bandwagon in all three of those areas. All of which leads people to trot out phrases like “post-modern morass of subjectivity.” So do I see any standards at all?

Let me go back to Bible translations. I maintain that different translation approaches convey different information from the source to the receptor language, or my help to communicate different things between the author of the source and the reader of the receptor. So there are aspects of the source texts of the Bible I can get from a formal translation such as the NRSV, but at the same time there are things that this misses. There are other things I can get from the CEV or even from The Message.

Enter the term “paraphrase.” Now to translation theorists, “paraphrase” has a rather precise meaning, but in common discussions it has become a pejorative for translations that are considered too loose to even be considered real translations. Thus someone might say: “The Message is not a translation, it’s a paraphrase.” I’ve heard this sentence or its equivalent regarding any of the dynamic or functional equivalence translations, in which case the speaker defines “translation” as something like a formal equivalence translation.

In practice, again, what takes a translation across the line, or puts it beyond the pale, may be quite variable. For example, is converting measures to modern units translation, paraphrase, or commentary? If you think that’s an easy issue, consider the measurements for Ezekiel’s temple (start in Ezekiel 40) and consider how that passage would read with precisely converted measurements. In that case one would substitute conveying an accurate idea of the distances involved for potentially conveying the symbolic meaning of the numbers (if any), or the fact that the numbers are round numbers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that there is a range of different translation options, and while we might what to define what is and what is not translation, there is a range of activities that may be called translation, and what we’re doing is setting boundaries. There are things we can definitely say are not translation. For example, I am not now translating any text. I’ve seen efforts by Greek students that could not be regarded as translations.

It’s not that just anything is a translation. Rather, there are many different methods that fall into the loose category “translation” and many different needs that might be fulfilled by those various approaches.

I think we have way to great a tendency to make the claim, inadequately supported, that a certain translation is wrong and should be something else. I hear it from the pulpit quite often, and generally my opinion is that the claim is incorrect. Sometimes the translation is disputed, and there is good evidence, and good names, on both sides. In many cases, the preacher is just plain wrong. (If I might say what I have said many times before: If you don’t actually know Greek or Hebrew don’t base your sermon on making claims about how verses should be translated.)

But having used the phrase “just plain wrong” regarding a translation, you now know that I think a translation can be wrong. Frequently, however, the just plain wrong translation is actually an alternative with substantial support.

Being subjective about that which is subjective, such as people’s preferences or how people understand something, is just realistic. Trying to pretend objectivity when the topic is subjective just results in silliness. Or it could result in domination of others, as in the claim that everyone “ought” to use a particular Bible version, be that the KJV, ESV, or any other personal choice.

Literature is even more subjective. I loathe lists of books that I really must read in order to be truly literate or truly educated. In general, I’ve read quite a lot of the names on them, but that doesn’t make me like them any better. The most interesting thing about those lists is the good books that aren’t on them. That’s sort of like the things that aren’t conveyed by the favorite translation of the folks who like to advocate just one style.

Want my subjective advice? Read stuff from different lists. Use different lists. Read Bible books that aren’t in your personal or your church’s canon. Use the literature lists to find more stuff that interests you. And if you’re like me, and can’t stand certain pieces of “great” literature read something else.

It’s fun.


The Bible, Christianity, and Me (Briefly)

The Bible, Christianity, and Me (Briefly)

I have seen a few comments lately from both sides of the spectrum about just where the Bible should stand in relation to Christianity and to a person’s personal beliefs. It seems that not only are Christians willing to define the role of the Bible for other Christians, but non-Christians try to explain to Christians, especially those who are not conservative, just how they should view the Bible.

Basically, if I don’t take a very literal and direct view of scripture, these folks believe that I am not sincerely and really a Christian.

Now the first answer to that, of course, is that it’s really not their decision to make. I don’t have to prove to anyone else that I’m a Christian. To the extent that I do so, I do so to the congregation of which I’m a member, and none of them are in any doubt on the matter. But ultimately, the only person to whom I must give account for my spiritual state is God.

But there are a couple of simple facts involved as well. First, there is no Bible without a community. The Bible doesn’t define and create the community. The community defines the Bible. Inspired by God, in fact, the community creates the Bible. There are really no Biblical Christians, just a Christian Bible.

There is no external way to determine just how one should take the Bible. One has to look into the Bible, as well as at the communities that have formed and interpreted it to discover that. Modern fundamentalism has tried to pretend that they are somehow historical Christianity, but they are not. They’re just another community using the Bible in their own way.

Nobody does everything the Bible says. Nobody can. It is a document that reflects and in some cases records a history of belief, not a systematic belief system. Nobody can make good use of it without intelligently applying experience and their own reason. Unreasonable people with a Bible will tend to become more unreasonable. It really helps much more with the process of asking questions than in finding final answers.

Some will suggest that only the extreme literalist approach is valid. I hear this even from those who have left the Christian faith entirely after rejecting that approach. I understand how they could reject that approach, I do not think such an approach has any hope of making sense out of scripture at all. I fail to see where they imagine that they get a mandate to take that approach. Normally, they present me with texts interpreted their way to prove that I should interpret the Bible their way. Having rejected their way, however, I am unimpressed. My preference is to discover from scripture just what it is and how it has come to be, and to learn from both the experience it records, and the experience it reflects in the history of its text.

It’s what makes sense to me, and that is all it really has to do.