20 May 2010

cultural translation

In his recent work, The Lost World of Genesis One, Old Testament scholar John Walton argues for an understanding and approach to the ancient biblical texts and cosmology which adequately and appropriately understands the particular period from within. To that effect he states, "So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time" (17).

The comment is most immediately connected to the origins debate, and it is a summons to understand the ancient biblical texts as they are, without placing the weights of modern debate over top of them. This is perhaps most evident in the seemingly endless debates regarding evolution and creationism which gives undue stress to what Genesis 1-2 is actually trying to say. Our modern inquiries must not be allowed to erase the ancient mind.

Translation not only involves texts, but also contexts - cultures, histories, perspectives, available knowledge - and that is something which we must value in our quest to understand Scripture. As Walton states, if God used our modern science to communicate with ancients it would have made no sense. The same is true if God used science yet-to-be-understood to communicate with us. Yet we, in so many ways, continue to think that the Bible is only for our culture and our generation.

This is also very true of studies on Revelation, for rather than understanding Second Temple Jewish Apocalyptic, we join the long line of believers who have mistakingly thought that these were descriptions of our period of time and nothing else. This ceases to be translation, looking more like hubris than anything genuine truth-seekers would engage.

The point is this: to enter into the biblical narrative we must momentarily leave ours. Only after we do this can we rightly understand the text and make the appropriate analogy to ourselves.

I have noticed that it is, by and large, only the Christian church which has fallen for the false promises of 'relevance,' with other religions and movements around the world unapologetic for the ancient tone of their faith. Muslims do not apologize for the Koran, Hindus are not worried about the age of their ancient texts being outdated, countless New Age movements actually push the so-called mystery of their old origins as a selling point. All while the Christian church has followed the path promising the most return for the least work.

Thus, it is important to become reacquainted with the ongoing and unending work of cultural translation when we read the biblical text, trusting in the timeless truth to be made known through our efforts. What makes this attainable is that the same Spirit which inspired the authors to write the text will be the same Spirit which enables us to read it.