Sunday, September 13, 2009

Do Words Matter?

If you are Serena Williams they do.

Today's sermon at ECOOS was based on James 3:1-12. It was an opportunity for our rector to apologize for upsetting people from time to time over the years with his words. All in all, he did a good job although he missed at least one good stopping point.

A couple of words in the reading from James struck me as a little odd, and caused me to break out my tattered old King James Version of the Bible.

First the "New Revised Standard Version,"

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters (Greek brothers), for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

The use of "brothers and sisters" came through clearly as a modern, politically correct translation.

I was also struck by the words "species" and "human species" as "species" is part of the modern scientific classification of life, and this just didn't sound like anything James would have written. I had to look back through my tattered KJV to recall how it used to read.

James 3:1-12 (King James Version)

My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

Do these words matter? They are just small examples of how the subtleties of translation can change our religious experience. Are these attempts to nudge us into the modern age? I wonder if the use of "human species" in the same passage as "species of beast" is used to reduce man's status to the same level as the beasts, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures by introducing this modern term, "species."

Maybe I am just whistling Greek for there are bigger fish to fry out there.
I am aware that there are other tennis balls of change that are being, to paraphrase Serena Williams, shoved down our throats.


  1. Maybe I am just whistling Greek for there are bigger fish to fry out there.

    I used to think the same thing, i.e. choosing which battles to fight and not sweating the small stuff. I've come to the conclusion, however, that these little "nudges," as you put it, must be resisted, as well. If for no other reason, than if we succumb to them, we allow all manner of falsehood to overcome the inertia of tradition and scriptural integrity.

    Stated differently, once we get the rock started rolling downhill, it's darn hard to stop.


  2. Prof. Katherine Grieb, no "conservative," led a clergy conference when I was still in L.A. and made numerous comments about really bad translation choices in the NRSV. It seems, in places, to be an ideological paraphrase rather than a sincere effort at translation from the original languages.

    You are correct to raise these issues. They do matter, as R. Sherman says above.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys. For a minute there I thought that I was going to have to start attending the Greek Orthodox church which would involve a 54 mile round trip.

  4. Ditto R. Sherman.

    "Let us take the little foxes that spoil the vine" (SOS 2:15). Yes, the little things matter. Every jot and tittle.

  5. Didn't our mutual friend write a book about the necessity of defending each and every little stone bridge?

  6. tjmcmahon8:25 AM

    One of the issues I've raised even within ACNA groups I know is their continued use of NRSV, a holdover from their days in TEC. The translation is driven by a theological/political viewpoint, not the plain meaning of the Greek. The words do matter.

    On occasions when I have led Morning Prayer (in a small ACNA congregation), I've taken to insisting on the use of readings from the RSV or American Standard Version, if not using the KJV.

    The local TEC diocese (N Michigan) has discarded even the NSRV as "too conservative" and adopted the "Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures" and "Inclusive New Testament" and send out the propers every week including a collect penned by the Rev. Thew Forrester. Many of the parishes have resisted and retain the "traditional" NSRV.

  7. Anonymous8:46 AM

    Because you are an intelligent man, I'm sure you realized that Charlie was speaking to you, as well, during his sermon. I believe you realize this because you chose instead to shift the focus from the actual content of the scriptures to a few words - thus totally ignoring the importance of what these scriptures tell us. Had you focused on the lesson, you might have it taken to heart. In this modern age, your "tongue" is your keyboard, and it is "an unruly evil, full of deadly poison". "Therewith bless (you) God, even the Father; and therewith curse (you) men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth(or keyboard)proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be."

  8. Anonymous9:05 PM

    RE: "Because you are an intelligent man, I'm sure you realized that Charlie was speaking to you, as well, during his sermon."

    Yes indeed . . . The Pewster pointing out the many and varied heresies from the pulpit is Clearly Sinful -- it's perfectly understandable why the rector would thus be "speaking to the Pewster."

    Oh Pewster . . . to think that your rector is preaching sermons at your Wicked Blogging. ; )