Monday, June 22, 2009

So You Think You're Not Religious? & From Literal to Literary

So You Think You're Not Religious?: A Thinking Person's Guide to Church
James R. Adams (1989, Cowley Publications)

From Literal to Literary: the Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors
James R. Adams (2005, Rising Star Press)

     James Adams is one smart man; he is deeply acquainted with Hebrew, Greek, and centuries of religious history. He wrote So You Think You're Not Religious? as a message of evangelism to other smart people, specifically people whose honest skepticism stands in the way of a relationship with religious matters. Skeptics, in his experience as in mine, can be too scrupulous about what they might have to believe if they want to express their longing for the divine in their life. They stumble over ideas like the Resurrection of the Dead and the Virgin Birth, as though by willpower they could accept those things as True, if only they could turn off their minds. Not being able to, they deprive themselves of what the church can offer in the way of community, ritual, and a meaningful life. But maybe there's a better way--

     In the first place, Adams says we could usefully recall that when, in reciting the Nicene Creed, we say "I believe", the Latin original is not "opinor", belief as one would believe that two plus two make four, but "credo", literally, to set one's heart on. It's the kind of faith one has in a spouse, or in the Constitution, compounded of longing, hope, and commitment. Within such faith, there's plenty of room for doubt, because finding out what's true by testing it against our experience can only bring us closer to what is trustworthy.

     In the second place, the form of religion often comes before the content. We submit to rituals that seem the best way to mark transitions, and gradually live our way into the realities these things represent. Perfect congruence between word and behavior is a rarity at the best of times, and sometimes the words come first. As for faith itself, maybe we're not naturally cut out for it. Adams cites First Corinthians thus: "If faith is a gift that not everybody receives, then nobody has a reason for feeling guilty about not having faith and nobody can be blamed for not having faith."

     And, in the third place, I was happy to learn, the idea of treating the Bible as a source of literal historical and scientific truth is a very recent development, little more than a century old. The strain of Christianity we know as Fundamentalism actually arose as a reaction to critical studies of the Bible, which in the eighteenth century began to unpack the linguistic and editorial history of ancient writings. We are inevitably working from imperfect translations, of works that originated in languages and cultures very different from our own.

     In his latest book, From Literal to Literary, Adams gives us some tools for delving back into the metaphors and images of biblical language; he also keeps an eye on the interests and prejudices of the recent translators whose work we actually have in our hands. Different occurrences of a single English word may conflate a handful of different ideas from the original language; it also happens that the translators get carried away with elegant variation, so that we lose the thread carried by a single original word. The evidence is compelling: Adams cites chapter and verse, and provides ample cross-referencing, and several useful indexes.

     Erudition aside, he is also still at his work of softening our tendency to get stuck in literalizing what were meant to be metaphors. "You can be a follower of Jesus without thinking that 'heaven' is a place, that a 'son' has to be a biological relative, or that 'dead' necessarily refers to the condition you're in when the undertaker comes for you." It is a happy paradox that introducing intellectual distance of this kind can bring us closer to the good news we can set our hearts on.

Voices, November 2006

No comments:

Post a Comment