So, [O Muhammad], We have only made Qur’an easy in the Arabic language that you may give good tidings thereby to the righteous and warn thereby a hostile people.-the Qur’an
“Next to the blessed Sacrament (Communion) itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If they are your Christian neighbor, they are holy in almost the same way, for in them Christ, glorified Himself, is truly hidden.” -C.S. Lewis
When Leslie and I were in college, we got a chance to spend a few weeks in countries that were predominately Muslim like Turkey and Egypt. At one part of the trip, I had to go to the bathroom and I took my Bible with me. That’s all I’ll say about that, other than the fact that this shocked the people around me.
The bathroom attendant was especially surprised and asked something like, “Isn’t this a sacred book to you?”
For the last several months, I (along with a few others) have been studying the Gospel of Mark with some young Muslim men from West Africa. It’s been fascinating to read the Gospels with people who grew up in a culture much closer to Jesus’ world than the one I did.
But one of the interesting things about studying with them is trying to explain all the different Bible translations. Each week, it seems like everyone brings a different version of the Bible, we’ve got some NKJV, NIV, TNIV, NRSV and every other kind of acronym.
Which is a peculiarly Christian problem.
The Gospel According To…
Because that’s the nature of the Gospel.
I like the way Andy Crouch makes this point in his book “Culture Making”
Consider the four gospels of the Bible each one a cultural product designed to introduce the good news in a culturally relevant way. Matthew begins his Gospel this way: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…Mark, while just as aware of Jesus’ Jewish heritage, seems much more engaged with the cultural heritage of Rome. He begins with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – the Greek word euangelion, here translated “good news “but commonly galled “Gospel” (making Mark the only Gospel writer to actually call his work a “gospel”) Luke meanwhile takes on the mantel of a Greek historian, beginning his stately and rhythmic account with the epistolary preface that Greek readers expected….John takes up the Jewish philosophical tradition of a thinker like Philo.
In other words, the original story tellers for Jesus told the story in the same way that Jesus lived His life.
They translated it.
Did you know you can’t buy an English Qur’an? You can only buy an English translation of the Qur’an. According to Muslim tradition, no matter how literal the translation is, it is not the same thing. Because the word of Allah came to Mohammed in Arabic, so in order to understand it fully, you must learn Arabic.
Now I’ve studied the original languages that the Bible was written in. There’s been lots of times that I’ve discovered something that I would have missed if I wouldn’t have known the original Greek , but just as often as not, I’ve learned as much from how the Gospel translates into other cultures.
Tablets Made of Skin
Which brings me back to the Bible study we’ve got and my Bible in the Bathroom.
Did you know that the Protestant Reformation started on the potty? I kid you not.
Martin Luther was wrestling with profound feelings of condemnation and was in the bathroom reading and medicating on Romans (like you do) when it struck him that we really are saved by Grace through Faith. And he wrote about this experience as God’s salvation for Him.
Paul got saved on a road, Luther was on the commode.
One of the more intriguing things about most religions, is their great respect for the actual book. Not just the words that are in it, but the physical manuscript.
I once was at a Sikh worship service where their sacred text was resting on a pillow and being fanned while the community prayed and listened to a teaching….The Muslim tradition says that you should not touch an actual Qur’an (the one in the Arabic language) unless you’ve gone through a cleaning, and have put your faith in Allah as revealed by Mohammed. Jewish people used to insist on cleaning your hands and purifying your heart before reading Torah.
And all of these things are fine…but distinct from Christianity.
Because Christianity loves dirty Bibles.
It insists upon it.
The assumption the Gospel makes is that Holiness, because of Jesus, now works differently than any other religion. Translating the Gospel doesn’t pollute it, it enhances it. With every culture distinction and different perspective brought to bear on the Jesus story, we don’t dilute the story, we understand it even better.
There is a time in one of the parts of the Bible where Paul writes about the nature of the the message of the Bible. It’s not static and cut off from normal human existence, it actually sanctifies it.
Here’s what Paul tells his little church plant:
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
This is not to say the Bible shouldn’t be respected. It is a Sacred text, but it is to point out that the Bible wants to be a different kind of Sacred text. Not a book to be worshipped, but a story to be lived out.
This is what it means for the Word to become Flesh. The Bible enters into this world made of mud and dirt and blood and spit, in fact some of it’s best stories involve these things.
So by all means take your bible to the bathroom, Martin Luther did.
Because that’s sacred too.