On January 9, 2014

Translation: Drunk History

“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word became Flesh…” -John 1

“I’m not talking altogether right, right now.” Drunk Historian describing the Kellogg brothers

Leadership with education

I’d like to start a blog series today, that will run for the next few weeks about the uniqueness of the Christian story and about the dangers that come along with it.

No other religion allows it’s story to be as flexible as the Jesus movement does. No other religion would give up so many of it’s essentials to on some level assimilate to whatever culture it is in.

And along with this comes all kinds of risk, but also great opportunity.

And so to talk about this we should  start with the show “Drunk History”…obviously

How to Pique Interest

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told about Comedy Central’s show “Drunk History.” Not to recommend it. It’s often profane and obscene and funny. But I’ve told lots of people about it, people I respect, who I never want to watch the show, because I think it is, in its own way genius.

Here’s what they do. The show starts off with the heading:

“You should know that the events that are being described really did happen, and the details are accurate…It should be noted however that the storytellers are entirely drunk.”

And that’s the premise. They get a young P.H.D historian, they get them hammered, and then have them tell an interesting story from American history, like about how Ralph Nader was more than the guy who kept Gore from getting elected, or how Lincoln actually dealt with depression and faced multiple failures. They get a few well-known actors to lip-synch and act out exactly what they drunk historian is saying. And it is fascinating. Like watching a train wreck, but one where you learn about how the trains used to run on steam and coal.

And here’s the reason I’ve told so many people about this show.

I think it’s a great example of translation.

From the Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Drunk History, Comedy Central is raising up a whole generation of people to care about politics and history who would never have done so before. And they are doing it by asking this one simple question…how do we translate these ideas or stories in a way that will be interesting to the people who we are wanting to hear them?

The Message of Relevance

Let me quickly back up and say I’m not advocating for this in Churches. The last thing we need is “Drunk Theologians,” we probably have too much of that already. We don’t need to copy that format, as Christians we are called to be different than the culture around us, but we are also called to engage it. I’m not advocating we copy what Comedy Central is doing, but I do think we have to pay attention to why they are doing it.

Pastor Eugene was teaching his Sunday morning Bible class just the way he always did. They had been going through the book of Galatians for a couple of weeks, and Eugene was pouring on about how Paul was changing the entire course of history with this bold and saucy letter he was writing to the Churches of Galatia. He was so caught up in the risks that this brash apostle was taking as he shared the Jesus story with a world that didn’t believe in One True God. But when he looked up he noticed:

“It was just awful. They’d fill up their coffee cups and stir in sugar and cream and look at their cups and they weren’t getting it. It was just really bad. I went home after the third week and said to my wife that I was going to teach them Greek. If they could read it in Greek they would get it, they’d understand what a revolutionary text it is and couldn’t just keep living in their ruts. She agreed that would empty the class out fast.”

So Eugene Peterson decided if he couldn’t teach everyone Greek, he’d translate it in a way that they’d understand it.

And after millions of copies of the Message Bible have been sold, it turns out that Eugene Peterson was on to something.

He wrote the Message to be relevant, because he believed that part of the Message was to be relevant. 

I can’t tell you how often I think about this. I’m constantly wondering how to translate an ancient story for today. Can it be done? Does it water it down? Does it have to feel antique to still be ancient? Or can the stories and ideas and life of the Scriptures come alive right now in everyday language and in everyday ways? Can we meet people by answering the questions they are asking, in a language and style that they are familiar with?

Or is it all part and parcel? If you are a Christian do you have to speak Christianese, or does Christianity press itself into every one of the mundane part of our life and make it all holy?

So that’s what I’d like to talk about on Thursdays for the next few weeks. And to be clear these really are questions I’m asking, not absolute statements wearing the camouflage of a question mark. So I’m hoping you’ll weigh in with suggestions and ideas or stories about how this has worked in your life.

I’m really wondering how to translate the Gospel and Church and faith and hope in ways that are engaging without losing the heart of the Gospel.

Which is of course the Word that became Flesh…the best translation of all.

Up Next Week: What I learned from doing a Bible Study with a Muslim Friend

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  • Danny Gill

    I hadn’t heard the background of The Message. This should be interesting. You realize, I suspect, that parables do just this.

  • Brad Bullington

    I appreciate the effort it takes to make the ancient lessons of the Bible relevant. A lot of people resist that when it comes to scripture because “that’s not the way we do that” creeps in. Did Paul worry about finding a balance in that or did he just charge ahead with bold and saucy?

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Great question Brad! I think Paul did a lot of balance work. He’s trying to introduce Gentiles to a God of the whole world, who had revealed himself in a very Jewish context. So often Paul is really trying to emphasize the uniqueness of the LORD of Israel, but he’s doing so by quoting the prophets and poets of the Gentiles, and the prophets of Israel. Great question! This is exactly the kind of stuff that’s been rattling around in my head for the last several years.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Haha, don’t jump ahead Bro. Danny! :)