Tuesday, July 20, 2010

they tell me God hates puppies

If you had asked me as a little kid for the most well-known verse in the Bible, I would have quoted John 11:35, which states, simply, that “Jesus wept.” It’s the shortest verse in the Bible and therefore the easiest to remember. I had to memorize verses in Sunday School and I can remember thinking that if they were all like John 11:35, perhaps I would have a few more gold stars by my name. The Bible + Me = Laziness.

It is tempting, therefore, when I come across a really whacked-out interpretation of a Bible verse, to think that it has been translated that way because of laziness. For example, I was thumbing through a couple of “paraphrased” Bible references at the front of a Bible storybook someone had been reading to my son and I came across this little gem: “Jesus said, ‘God loved the people of the world so much that he gave his only son’” [emphasis mine].

Correct me if I am an idiot, but that seems an odd way to interpret what is, in fact, the best known Bible verse in the world—John 3:16. Odd, but not unsurprising in an evangelical church culture that puts a premium on their proprietary formula for “how to get into heaven.” In his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Wendell Berry points out that “people who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting into heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world – not God’s love for heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is.”

This interpretation is directly at odds with that of Sally Lloyd-Jones, writer of “The Jesus Storybook Bible” that annoyed me into writing this piece. They cannot both be right, and while Berry’s version jives more closely with my own way of thinking, it is certainly at odds with what my childhood church subculture taught me to believe is the implicit meaning of that verse—that it is about getting into heaven and nothing else.

I decided to do some more digging and found that Lloyd-Jones is not alone in making explicit this message that is usually conveyed only implicitly. Her paraphrase is actually nearly a word-for-word transcription of that verse in the Contemporary English Version of the Bible, which is published by The American Bible Society (go figure).

So who is right: Wendell Berry—who is by his own admission not a Bible scholar, or the seething masses of American evangelicals? When John 3:16 says “world,” does it only mean “people of the world”? To answer that question, I turned to Facebook and asked former Oxford scholar and current friend Micah Snell, who informed me that the word “world” in that verse comes from the Greek, “kosmon,” which can be directly translated “cosmos.”

“Cosmos,” as the Oxford Dictionary tells us, is either an ornamental plant of the daisy family or “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole.” So unless we are willing to argue that God is really, really into a very specific sort of flower, the evidence would seem to point towards siding with Berry and the British against the Americans and their quaint little paraphrases.

While it would be conceivable to argue that “cosmos” includes “people of the world” and therefore the Americans weren't exactly completely wrong, to downgrade it in that way without any real justification diminishes the power of the verse and spits in the face of the wonderful mystery of the Bible by totally ignoring what Berry has called “the great difficulty” of the text.

This takes me back to the start, where I mused that mis-interpretations like this seem to happen because of laziness. Why, you might ask, does a little laziness matter—it’s just one verse, right? Well… yes, but it is the best-known verse in the world and, as Berry goes on to point out in his essay, our “Christian” subculture’s narrow reading of that verse has had widespread, ugly consequences.

For example, if God only loves the people of the world (or, as is more widely believed, only their souls-whatever those are) then it stands to reason that God does not give a rat’s left earlobe about, say, a rat’s left earlobe. Or a rat, for that matter… or the river that the rat is living on… or the ocean towards which that river glides. If God does not care about the earth (the thinking goes), then why should we? We are free to abuse that rat and river and ocean in any way we please. In essence, these people are messing with what the Bible actually says in order to justify abuse and destruction of the very thing God loves.

This irks me. You may now color me irked, for I am irked beyond measure. Not only are these malevolent marmosets making up despicable stuff and sticking it into the Bible, but they are also trying to teach this garbage to my kid. Here I am walking around telling my boy that Jesus is way cool and the Source of Love, and all the while there are these weasels twisting Jesus’ words—no, lying about them—to justify hatred and destruction. It’s embarrassing, depressing and infuriating; and, given the amount of money our ostensibly “Christian” country has made by trashing this planet, I find it impossible to attribute their misinterpretation of the best known verse in the entire world to mere laziness.

That’s right… I call foul. While it is understandable that a great deal of our culture will be transposed onto any text as we translate it into our own language, this goes far beyond a little cultural re-imagining. This is an ugly, ugly lie.

I can think of only one thing to do to correct this (beyond never, ever buying a Contemporary English Version).

Let’s stop reading the Bible as though it’s some sort of step-by-step mechanical engineering manual—the whole "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" thingy—and start reading it as it was written: a beautiful work of art, full of wisdom and truth, created in love to teach us important principles and help us draw closer to God. If we can approach the Bible with the sort of humble wonder we adopt (or at least, should adopt) when we experience art, perhaps we’ll stop reading into it so many of the ugly preconceptions of our culture and instead start experiencing the love that it can show us how to make. 

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