Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Translating the Bible (or, Why smart people say stupid things)

Mars Hill Church is a large church in the Seattle area, a church that would fit solidly in modern mainstream evangelical Christianity. The pastor, Mark Driscoll, is a smart man, a good communicator (he's written a few books and regularly contributes editorials that get published in local newspapers), and a significant voice in the evangelical community (in the wake of the Ted Haggard scandal, for example, Driscoll's response on his blog was widely discussed).

All that I have known for some time. I was therefore very surprised yesterday to read the most recent statement from Driscoll and his church, regarding a change they are making in what Bible translation they will use. It surprised me not because they are changing Bible translations (I could really care less). It surprised me because the reasons given for the change were so transparently stupid. Pardon my frankness, but the statements presented were laughable, and I can't fathom how an intelligent person such as Driscoll could have possibly signed off on them (or written them).

As a good sample of the silliness presented by Driscoll and his church, consider this statement:

"One of the more popular arguments for thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that people do not understand the theological nomenclature that Scripture uses to express doctrinal concepts. The reasoning follows that words like “justification” and “propitiation,” which the original text of Scripture used, should be replaced with more modern vernacular that people can understand." (emphasis mine)
I'd love to see the "original text of Scripture" that used English words! (Though somehow I think I'd doubt it's authenticity, much like the coin stamped with the date "100 B.C." :) )

I was going to craft a response today, possibly sending it to Driscoll... but I was saved the bother by another blogger, Henry Neufeld, who wrote an excellent critique. I will simply quote a few key points from Henry's analysis.

"If God inspired the very words and details, he did not do so in English. He did so in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek."

"This is simply so naive that I have difficulty believing it was written by someone with Mark Driscoll’s training and writing skills. The word 'justification' is not in the 'words and details' of scripture as inspired by God. There is a Greek word in that verse."

"If they truly believe in 'verbal plenary inspiration' and believe that one must not alter the words and details of scripture in any way, then they must logically begin to use only the texts in the source languages."

Now, this seems obvious to me, so basic that it's self-evident... but if it doesn't seem so obvious to you, please let me know, and I'll back up and we can discuss the nature of language and translation. That's a topic that has interested me for a very long time, and that has a great deal of complexity.

But, I'm also interested in this from a psychological angle. If we conclude that Driscoll is making arguments here that are rationally indefensible... then what is motivating him (and the rest of his church leadership) to make the claims? I don't doubt his sincerity, either, though I have no idea how he will respond rationally to the objections raised. How does someone intelligent and informed end up with a sincere belief in something irrational?

This question interests me because it happens so often. Rational and well-informed people make claims that are only supported by obviously specious rational arguments (such as "the original text of Scripture used" words such as "justification" and "propitiation"). Yet, they are sincere, and often unmoveable. What is it, psychologically, that gives us irrational blind spots? And what can we do, as people that desire to be rational and open to critique, to prevent that psychological infirmity from inflicting us as well?


Monday, January 08, 2007

More Troops?

I've been digesting a good bit of opinion about "the way forward" in Iraq, as most of us have. I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the dialog on both sides, and the clarity with which they have been able to present both their agreements and their differences.

From what I can tell, there are two predominant views at the moment; I will call them the McCain view and the Biden view, as convenient shortcuts. I will also try to summarize them very briefly. Feel free to correct and clarify in the comments.

The McCain view: A political solution in Iraq is necessary, but politics can only happen in a situation of security. We must send extra troops to Iraq to create a secure environment, in order for the Iraqi politicians to be able to move forward with political solutions to the underlying problems.

The Biden view: A military solution in Iraq is necessary, but if we keep waiting for the security situation to resolve itself (and keep committing more and more resources to try to make it happen), the Iraqi politicians will use that as an excuse to keep delaying. We must demand political advances before we consider any further military expenditures.

I find both of those arguments compelling. Frankly, I can only imagine deciding between them based on an intimate knowledge of the Iraqi political situation, the major political players in that process, and how those Iraqi politicians could be expected to react to various American actions. We certainly have to do something... and I just don't know enough to decide which of the above two options is the better.

My only hope is that the dialog about our options continues to be civil and productive, and doesn't dissolve into a sectarian political civil war within our own government. What an example for the Iraqis that would be.


Hooray for Amniotic Fluid!

A few months ago, I posted about a potential method of extracting embryonic stem cells without causing the embryo long-term harm. I was (and remain) unconvinced that the method would actually work. I also expressed the thought that such a procedure achieved nothing more than splitting an ethical hair... it still required an embryo as part of an IVF procedure, which in all likelihood would be destroyed anyway.

Now, there is a new report that I feel much better about on both counts. Researchers have found that a few stem cells, basically as powerful as embryonic stem cells, exist in the amniotic fluid, and can be extracted from there without causing any harm to the baby.

I am more confident that these results are reliable because they come from research universities, not a for-profit corporation. Maybe the difference is negligible in reality, but I think that universities probably have more long-term credibility at stake in making an announcement such as this, and therefore more motivation to make sure that it's accurate.

I am more pleased with the ethical advancement because the process is separated from IVF altogether. Why does this matter to me? Because I see IVF as, at best, a necessary evil. Maybe someday it will no longer be necessary. If so, there may just be debate about making it unavailable. In such a debate, IVF being a primary source of embryonic stem cells would be a very strong argument for its continuance. I am all for the use of stem cells... and I'd like our primary source of such cells (for both research and clinical usage) to be from a procedure that is not frought with ethical complications, as IVF is (in my opinion).

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Always a Child

Interesting News Item of the Day:

A young girl with a mental disability has had multiple operations to ensure that she will, throughout her life, stay the size and general physiology of a young girl. She was given hormone treatments to keep her around 4 feet tall. Her ovaries and breasts were removed to ensure the absence of periods, lactation, etc. Her parents and the doctors involved believe that this was a humanitarian step to take, since her mind would never develop beyond the age of a very young girl. This will allow her, throughout her life, to be cared for physically in accordance with her mental developmental level.

This has brought about strong responses. On the one hand, many people are up in arms about the ethical issues raised. On the other hand, other parents of mentally disabled children are asking to have similar procedures performed for their children.

If I had a daughter that was seriously mentally disabled, and such procedures were available to me, I would seriously consider having them done. I don't think the parents of this girl have acted unethically. But, if you disagree with me on that, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts.


What's Important About Church?

A few days ago I posted some thoughts about church services, why they matter and how they might be focused better on what matters, on my personal Xanga site. In case anyone here is interested in that topic, here's a link. Feel free to post comments there or here. I'd love to hear what you think.