Identity Founded on Recrimination

As we come to the end of 2011, the year that marks a decade since the events of September 11th, a decade of war, polarization, and obsessive vengeance that still has no clear end in sight, this sombre reflection from Oliver O’Donovan which I came across this morning seems very appropriate:

(from a sermon given on September 15, 2002, after the first annual commemoration of 9/11)

“The practice of public commemoration which our Christian forebears left us was, in its way, a spiritually disciplined one.  Commemorations were built around mercies received from God, occasions of thanksgiving for deliverance.  So the two world wars were remembered on the exact anniversary of the signing of the armistice in 1918, a day of deliverance from war.  I can think of no precedent for solemn ceremonies to mark the very moment when an abomination was committed.  For times of grave affliction, when there was nothing concrete to be thankful for, the older practice prescribed public fasting, which ensured that the first response to crisis would be critical self-examination.  Our Christian forebears knew well enough that public acts fashioned identity.  They also knew, I think, that identities founded on recrimination were always in want of an emeny, and that to be in want of an enemy was to be sure of finding one.

Last week we did that unprecedented thing.  We seized on an abomination and made it a symbol of our posture in the world.  We committed ourselves to an alliance of power built on resentment of one isolated and — for all the horror of that moment — ineffective blow. . . an alliance [that] presented itself to the world in the guise of an injured victim demanding vengeance.  I find it hard to imagine where this illusory self-understanding will ever lead us, other than to deeds of great wickedness.”

Come, Desire of Nations Come . . .

I won’t try to offer some profound or uplifting Christmas reflection, since I don’t have one, I’m afraid.  Instead, these stunning lyrics, among the richest of any Christmas hymn (unfortunately, all five verses are very rarely sung) are well worth meditating on and rejoicing in:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

“A Child Has Been Born Unto Us”—The Miracle of Natality

While reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition today, I came across the following remarkable passage at the end of the chapter on “Action.”  Despite her deep antipathy toward Christianity, her reflections here seemed remarkably apropos and thought-provoking for Christmas Eve: 

“If left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most certain and only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death.  It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law because it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life, which in its turn, as we saw, interrupted and interfered with the cycle of the biological life process.  The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction were it not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though thye must die, are not born in order to die but in order t begin.  Yet just as, from the standpoint of nature, the rectilinear movement of man’s life-span between birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the common natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle.  In the language of natural science, it is the ‘infinite improbability which occurs regularly.’  Action is, in fact the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth, whose insights into this faculty can be compared in their originality and unprecedentedness with Socrates’ insights in to the possibilities of thought, must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.  

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted  It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born.  Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box.  It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A child has been born unto us.'”

From Darkness to Light? The Trouble with Contemporary Translations

Advocates of new, contemporary “translations,” or rather, more often, paraphrases of the Bible insist that Scripture must speak with a fresh and authentic voice to each generation, in plain language readily understandable to its readers. After all, they point out, when the Bible was originally written, it was written in a contemporary idiom, in the way that normal people would’ve written and spoken in its time.  It wasn’t written, we are told, in a deliberately grand, archaic, dignified style that would make it feel more “holy” and Word-of-God-ish, which, frankly, is part of the appeal of the widespread enduring appeal of the KJV.  Indeed, such stilted language blunts the force of Scripture, lolling us into a sort of false comfort with the familiar rhythms and lofty-sounding thoughts, instead of allowing ourselves be jolted awake by its uncomfortable, real-world message.  

Now the fact is that these arguments, at least when applied to many parts of Scripture, have real force.  When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he spoke using normal vocabulary and idioms, the normal patterns of everyday speech.  He didn’t adopt a style that was four centuries old, or intone as if he was dictating a theological tome.  But many of us, I think, have trouble taking these arguments seriously, and tend to harbor a deep bias against any translation that adopts more contemporary language or a more paraphrasing approach–at any rate, I generally have.  The following passage, I think, encapsulates why many serious Bible-readers recoil from the very thought of a “contemporary translation”:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

For those who lived in a land of deep shadows— light! sunbursts of light!

You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy.

Oh, they’re so glad in your presence!  Festival joy!

The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.

The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—all their whips and cudgels and curses—

Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian.

The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,

Will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days!

For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us!

He’ll take over the running of the world.

His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.

His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.

He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom.

He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going

With fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.

The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies will do all this.

This is surely a travesty if there ever was one.  At the beginning, it’s almost tolerable, though “sunbursts of light!” certainly strikes a bad note.  But once you get to “He’ll take over the running of the world” in place of “and the government shall be upon his shoulder” and “He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living” in place of “to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness,” it’s hard not to be writhing in aesthetic agony.  


The problem here of course is that it’s not true that the whole Bible is written at the level of plain speech–far from it.  Much is written at the level of high poetry, and Isaiah is among some of the richest and highest of all.  I suppose that someone determined to translate Scripture into contemporary idiom, so that it would strike us the way it struck the Hebrews, might attempt to render Isaiah in the form of really excellent contemporary poetic style, but I guarantee you that whatever that style might look like, this is not it.  The form as well as the content of Scripture matters, and indeed, this is the strongest argument in favor of a more contemporary translation–the argument that the “form” of overly formal, archaic speech betrays those parts of Scripture that are written in pedestrian, almost conversational prose.  But here, the form of high poetry is utterly dissolved into the anti-rhythms of casual speech.  

In the process, words that are to our cultural consciousness pregnant with meaning (indeed, meaning in many cases largely given to them by centuries of being steeped in their Scriptural usage), are chucked out the window in favor of vapid and banal pseudo-equivalents.  E.g. “fair dealing” in place of “justice”; “right living” in place of “righteousness” and “keep it going” in place of “uphold.”  In one case, Peterson has attempted to actually capture richer shades of meaning in his word choice, attempting to be more faithful to the Hebrew original—in his translation of shalom as “wholeness.”  But how is this an improvement on “peace”?  Even in contemporary usage, “peace” has not quite become a flat term; it is still imbued with great depths of longing and hope, a term onto which we project all kinds of ideals.  In its canonical context, the resonances are profound.  “Wholeness” might possibly, in terms of pure denotation, capture more, but it certainly cannot in terms of connotation.


While The Message might be enough to turn off even an advocate of contemporary translations, N.T. Wright’s recent The New Testament for Everyone (or, in North America, The Kingdom New Testament), is enough to win over its staunchest opponents.  For Wright is committed to working with the grain of the text—that is to say, adopting casual and pedestrian speech when the original Greek would’ve been casual and pedestrian to its original hearers—not forcing lofty language down to the lowest common denominator.  The result is that the words of Jesus spring to life in delightfully fresh new ways—suddenly we hear the voice of a man, of one of us, and are struck as his original hearers would’ve been with the incongruity between his appearance and the authority and profundity of what he had to say.  Wright is also committed of course to capturing the full theological nuance of the text, in a way that most contemporary translations rarely seem to be.  The following passage (chosen almost at random), Luke 12:22-32, highlights the virtues of Wright’s method: 

“So let me tell you this,” he said to the disciples.  “Don’t be anxious about your life—what you should eat; or about your body—what you should wear.  Life is more than food!  The body is more than clothing!  Think about the ravens: they don’t sow seed, they don’t gather harvests, they don’t have storehouses or barns; and God feeds them.  How much more will he feed you!  Think of the difference between yourselves and the birds! 

Which of you by being anxious can add a day to your lifetime?  So if you can’t even do a little thing like that, why worry about anything else?  Think about the lilies and the way they grow.  They don’t work hard, they don’t weave cloth; but, let me tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed up like one of them.  So if that’s how God clothes the grass in the field—here today, into the fire tomorrow—how much more will he clothe you, you little-faith lot!

So don’t you go hunting about for what to eat or what to drink, and don’t be anxious.  The nations of the world go searching for all that stuff, and your father knows you need it.  This is what you should search for: God’s kingdom!  Then all the rest will be given you as well.  Don’t be afraid, little flock.  Your father is delighted to give you the kingdom.”

It’s hard to see, really, what more an advocate of contemporary translations could ask for.  This is eminently clear and accessible, it’s fresh and authentic.  Jesus really comes to life in this version, but he still seems like Jesus, like a teacher who spoke as one having authority, and not like some dude off the streets.  And all of the theological content of his words is completely preserved, even amplified.  Contrast this again to The Message, which feels the need to go much further in its search for authenticity and accessibility, to the detriment of both in my opinion: 

“He continued this subject with his disciples. “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.”

Freedom from Oppression or Freedom that Oppresses?

The great apostasy of modernity, argues David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions, lies in its concept of freedom, its abandonment of the Christian (but indeed, not merely the Christian; Aristotle understood this quite well too) understanding that freedom was about being true to one’s nature and proper end, not simply about the removal of every external impediment to one’s actions.  Modernity, indeed, says Hart, has gone to the extreme of regarding every consideration, every objective value outside of the abstract individual will as an “external impediment,” and hence is committed to a kind of nihilism:

“Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.  We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands  higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.” (21)

In the classical understanding, says Hart,

“true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper ‘essence’ and so flourish as the kind of being one was . . . true human freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; and among the things that constrain us are our own untutored passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices.” (24)  

The highest freedom, then, argued Augustine, was not posse non peccare — “to be able not to sin” — but non posse peccare — “not to be able to sin.”  What this meant, then, was that too much of purely external freedom, certainly in its extreme modern form, undermines true freedom, for it is a guarantee that one will go far astray from one’s proper end, that one will lose the freedom that comes from within, the self-control of a virtuous character.  However, for the ancients, inward freedom does not thereby dispense entirely with outward freedom, for it was necessary to have a genuine agency in order to develop virtue; a certain external scope to exercise free choice was thereby essential to allow internal freedom room to grow and to practice itself in action.  The slave was therefore incapable of virtue and genuine freedom.    

Christianity, however, radicalized the disjunction between outward and inward freedom.  The classical model of freedom still emphasised the autonomous subject, since freedom was the result of self-possession, the ability to be fully in control of oneself.  Christianity, however, would insist that even this freedom was bondage, because it was inevitably tainted by sin.  Only when we relinquished this striving for self-mastery, and instead acknowledged that we are not our own but Christ’s could we be truly free.  Perfect freedom then is to be a bondservant of Christ, as St. Paul will put it.  There is thus a radical interiority in the freedom of a Christian that, it would seem, remains wholly blind to the external embodiment of this freedom.  This is particularly so in the Protestant doctrine of Christian freedom, in which the freedom of the Christian coram Deo can coexist with complete external bondage, and in which any claim to have achieved freedom in the earthly realm is illusory, since it is always tainted with the bondage of sin.  


Understandably, this line of thinking has seemed unacceptable to many modern theologians.  It appears to be a stance of complete political quietism, encouraging a dangerous complacency about injustice, inasmuch as it suggests that all that matters is the liberation of the soul from the bondage of sin, no matter how many physical chains remain.  This is the doctrine, they will rant, that would preach the gospel to African slaves, while happily continuing the slave trade.  This is the doctrine that upheld apartheid.  They are no more happy when they read it in Paul.  Paul may have said that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and yet he betrayed his message (or perhaps, some other pseudo-Paul later on inserted a different message) by calling for slaves to obey their masters, calling for wives to submit to their husbands.  The freedom of the Gospel, on this reading, is empty and indeed oppressive if it does not involve a change in external relations, a real empowerment of individuals.  The shrewder critics may even venture that this radical interiorization of freedom contributes in some way to the development of the modern autonomous subject, the concept of the naked unconditioned will that Hart identifies as the great modern heresy — that Luther, Kant, and modernity are all part of the same voluntarist line of development.


How can we then bridge these two dimensions of freedom?  Does inner freedom in Christ flow outward into an external freedom, does it break the bonds of oppression?  Does Paul’s gospel have any of the political import that so many today want to find there?  Richard Bauckham has some extraordinarily helpful things to say on the subject in The Bible in Politics, insisting both that the inward liberation of a Christian does not need an external corollary to make a meaningful difference, but that nonetheless, animated by charity, it does not rest content with oppression, which it will overthrow in due time, and often in mysterious ways:

“The interrelation between the dimensions of freedom is most frequently posed in terms of the relation between inner and outer freedom, or ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ freedom, or existential and structural freedom.  These pairs are not stable or easily delimited, but it is possible to distinguish broadly between, on the one hand, the economic, political, and social structures of freedom, and, on the other hand, the kind of personal freedom which is possible even despite oppressive structures.  That the latter kind of freedom is real and important can be seen, for example, in such extreme cases as Soviet dissidents in the Gulag, remaining free, in their thinking, of the system which oppresses them unbearably, or in the Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire, who could be regarded as the most truly free people of their time, in their refusal to let even the threat of death cow them into submission.  Such freedom in and despite oppressive structures is not only real but essential to the cause of liberation from essential structures.  It is only out of their inner liberation from the system that Russian dissidents can publicly protest against and hope to change the system.  It needed a Moses liberated by God from resignation to the irresistible power of Pharaoh to lead the people out of Egypt, and it needed the gradual psychological liberation of the people themselves to free them from Egypt even after their escape from Pharaoh’s army.  

The point is that real freedom cannot be confined to one dimension.  Inner freedom cannot rest content with outer unfreedom, though it may have to suffer the contradiction in circumstances where outer freedom is unattainable.  Where the experience of existential freedom happily coexists with structura oppression, merely compensating for it rather than reacting against it, it is to that extent inauthentic.  Admittedly, one should not press the point where, for example, the churches of the oppressed make life bearable in otherwise unbearable circumstances.  African Independent churches in South Africa, for example, provide liberation from the psychological and physical ills of life under apartheid, even if they do remain notoriously apolitical [this was written in the 1980s].  They are not to be blamed in the way that oppressors who promote purely ‘spiritual’ versions of Christian freedom for those they oppress must be condemned for abusing the gospel.  But the most impressive example is that of American black slaves, who while experiencing the liberation of the gospel, which gave them inner freedom from the dehumanizing effects of enslavement, were certainly not reconciled to their chains.  On the contrary, their experience of the liberating God sustained a longing for outward freedom which was both eschatological and realistic.  

The contribution of the New Testament’s insghts into the nature of real freedom as liberation from enslavement to self-interest and freedom to give oneself for others is also important in this context.  The oppressed who long for freedom are not truly liberated from the system which oppresses them so long as the freedom they desire is only the freedom their oppressors have: freedom for themselves, no matter what this entails for others.  In such circumstances the struggle for liberation is simply a mirror image of the system it opposes: it becomes ruthless in its own interest, creates as many victims as it liberates, and produces a new kind of tyranny in place of the old.  Outward liberation worthy of the name requires people who have been freed to live for others, and for all others, even for their oppressors.” (116-17)