On January 23, 2014

Translation: Holier Than Thou

Leadership with education

One of the more interesting bits about Church history is how many people are killed by the Church and later made into saints. There are lots of people who the church made martyrs one day and heroes the next. But the really fascinating part is why they were killed by the Church. 

The Patron Saint of Translation

When Wiliam Tyndale was 34 years old, he was working on translating the first English translation of the Bible. He was a British preacher, and this probably sounds like exactly the kind of work you’d expect a British preacher to do. But it made him an outlaw.

Up until this time in history, the only Scripture were copies that were made in the original languages, or from St. Jerome’s Latin translation. But now William was working to make the Bible accessible to every man, woman and child, in the language that they spoke.

This sounds like a reasonable life’s goal, but it was going to be the death of him. Because we should never underestimate how revolutionary the idea of translating the Bible, really translating into the common language of the day, actually is.

When the Catholic Church found out about what Tyndale was trying to do, they immediately made him a wanted man. One of his Catholic friends tried to warn him off this foolish mission, and Tyndale said:

“If God will spare for many more years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to  know more of the Scripture than you do.”

Not a good way to keep you head attached to you body.

Eventually the Church began hunting William vigorously, If the FBI had been around, William Tyndale would have been at the top of the Most Wanted List, If there had been Post Offices back in his day, his picture would have been in every one. When William finally finished his translation, he couldn’t find a printer in all of Britian who would publish it. So eventually he had to take a ship to cross the Chanel, where he found someone to print it…almost.

When the printer found out the implications about what he was about to do, he turned William in, and Tyndale barely got out with his manuscript.  The Church was furious. They posted officers at every port, and police were searching from town to town. If William had cared about staying alive, this should have been the time he took a lesson out of Osama Bin Laden’s playbook.

But he cared more about printing this story than he did for his own life.

And ultimately it got him killed.

After only a few thousand copies were made, William Tyndale was arrested, and publicly beheaded, then his body was set on fire, just to show the world what happens to people who try to make God too accessible.

But…

william tyndale

William Tyndale

Today, William Tyndale is hailed as a saint. Dozens of schools and societies have risen up that bear his name. In the words of William Manchester, “You can’t kill a book, and that includes the Good Book.”

All Too Common

But why would people kill someone for this? Did you know that the very translation that Tyndale made, later was the basis for the King James Version? And in it’s day, the King James Version was just what the world needed. It was the story of God in the language of the people.

Before that, the translation that most people knew was Jerome’s Vulgate. But it was criticized in it’s day for being too common. That’s what Vulgar means, the language of the common folk.

Now here’s where things start getting relevant to our lives.  How many people do you know who insist that the King James Version is the “authorized and true” word of God, who won’t have anything to do with any version that was translated after people stopped being beheaded for not paying their taxes?

Now I respect the impulses here.

There is a certain reverence that we should try to approach God with, and the poetry of a more archaic language can sometimes help that. But tread carefully with this line of thinking, because Christianity is not a static faith.  This is one of the primary gifts the Protestants gave to the Church universal, one the Catholic Church began to catch up with in Vatican II.

In the Jesus story, there is an awareness that God is not too Holy to be involved in the everyday, commonness of human existence. In fact, that’s exactly what God enters into. This is why, over and against, other ways of relating to God, Christianity really is different.

It insists that the Jesus story must be translated into the common human experience.

This is why translations matter so much. Because the Gospel insists that we carry it deeper into the world. Holiness doesn’t dissipate when the story of God touches the vulgar, instead the vulgar is sanctified.

And if this sounds strange, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound a bit like the life of Jesus?

The Son of God was always hanging out with the wrong people, saying the wrong kinds of things in ways that everyone could understand. When God came in the flesh, he told stories about the everyday, because everyday matters.

There will always be religious people who grew up in a time and language that they are most adept at connecting to God through, and if we are not careful we can try to baptize how we say something, not just what we say. But the Jesus story invites us to take this message into every part of our mundane world and find words for it there.

There will always be people who push back on this. But beware of anyone who tries to make you holier than Jesus.

The Jesus story translates well, because it is a story of a God who translates.

In this story, Holiness isn’t just clean and stagnant.

In other words…Christianity is Holier than Thou.

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  • bpneeley

    I once heard a man ask a very good question, (a man who would only use the King James mind you) “If the King James is the only authorized English Version, What’s the only authorized Spanish Version?” Hidden in our translation preferences is an ethnocentric world view which causes one to misunderstand the word “translation.”
    Your post is super helpful to those wrestling with just this issue.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Ben, that’s a great question! And a great observation, this is an argument that only an English world could even conceive. Hope you’re doing well man!

  • http://www.ehendrick.org/pastoralcare/index.htm Kevin W. Bridges

    Great post.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Kevin!

  • TerryC

    “There is a certain reverence that we should try to approach God with, and the poetry of a more archaic language can sometimes help that. But tread carefully with this line of thinking, because Christianity is not a static faith.”
    I see this and it makes me think of all the prayers I’ve heard the refer to God with pronouns like “Thee” and “Thou.” I get the point that it’s a way to approach in reverence, but I often wonder why people think God only understands King James English. He understands much more than that, and our reverence need not be confined to an archaic language just as much as it should not be confined by set practices. We revere God when we strive to be as dynamic as He is.

  • Andrew Hill

    The funny and sad thing I’ve come across as a missionary… some English speakers believe the world needs to read the King James Version only. They don’t want another translation for the other languages.