Monday, May 27, 2013

Jesus and Definition of Family

There are two passages in the gospel describing one event that is often used to show that Christian relationships must take priority over physical family relationships.

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50, ESV)

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:19-21, ESV)

In the Western, individualistic, modernist culture, where we tend to think in either-or terms, we read Jesus seeming to say that a Christian must choose to prioritize either physical familial relationships or the spiritual relationship that s/he enters into upon acceptance of Christ as Lord.

But is there an alternative interpretation that may be more faithful to the culture and intent when the words were spoken? What might an ancient Middle Eastern, collectivist culture have heard in Jesus’ words? What if we took a both-and stance instead of either-or? E. Randolph Richards (M.Div. and Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Brandon J. O’Brien (M.A., Wheaton College Graduate School), in Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes writes,

The non-Western concept of family is broader than the Western. But Jesus expanded it even more. For Jesus, family not only designated one’s immediate, biological relatives but included all who are knit together in faith. Once while Jesus was teaching in someone’s home, a messenger told him his mother and brothers wanted to speak with him. Jesus pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:49-50). This is a radical statement in a culture in which birth determines your family.[1]

What Richards and O’Brien are telling us is that Jesus didn’t say that a spiritual family takes precedence over the biological, or that the more genuine family is a spiritual one; but rather, the definition of family now includes both biological and those who join in through a spiritual, faith relationship.

[1] Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understanding the Bible. Kindle edition, location 1114.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

What would Romans read like today?

I came across a blog-omentary by James F. McGrath on the epistle to the Romans. How might the letter read if Paul was writing it today? The posts have just begun (May 2013) and still has some ways to go, but you might find the modernized interpretative reading fascinating and educational.

Find the blog-omentary entries here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Words and ideas between cultures

Huffington Post now has a Japanese feed, and I’ve subscribed to its Twitter feed. As a result I get a daily stream of new articles in Japanese. One headline that caught my eye contained the phrase「生きづらさ」 (ikizurasa).

In our Bible studies, on a number of occasions, we’ve discussed the idea that words can be translated directly into another language but lose their meanings across cultures. What I found above is an example.

Ikizurasa is literally translated (by Google) as “Difficulty in living.” That is a literally precise translation and it make sense. The phrase really is about a general sense in which people find it difficult to live their lives.

Now when I first saw that phrase I “knew” what it meant. As I struggled to find the right English word or phrase, what came to my mind was not the literal translation but the thought equivalents of “depression” and “hopelessness.” The fact is that there are other literal Japanese translations for these words.

In the article that I first saw ikizurasa, the causes for this state of being included things such as bullying, corporal punishment, abuse, experiences of significant loss, romantic heartbreak, and “hired” romance. The article described self-injury and suicide as possible results of this state. I searched for the use of this term and additional causes include un- under-employment, the sense that one has no ability to change his/her circumstances, and the inability to find meaning and purpose in life. In the American culture, we would call someone experiencing these thoughts and feelings, depressed.

Yet “depression” fails to adequately account for the entire state of being that is connoted by ikizurasa. Hence the automatic translation does not see the two as equivalent.

I thought of another word that helps translate ikizurasa. This is the French term ennui which has found its way into English and other languages (including Japanese, as a direct phonetic of the French). But that too, describes only a subset of what I conjure up in my mind when I hear ikizurasa.

I think this is a real-life, contemporary reminder of how we misread, misinterpret, misunderstand, and misapply the Bible because we assume that a word we read in English means what is means in English, today, to us. In reality, the word may mean much more or less, and something quite different from what we assume. The translator may have had no better words and found the closest approximation. Or the translator may have precisely and literally translated to English, but the meaning is something altogether different.

For me this is a warning against stating any definitive conclusions based solely upon the biblical text, particularly from a translated text. And even if one uses the “original” text, it is impossible to truly identify and immerse into the culture where and when it was written, thus disallowing any sort of definitive interpretation. All interpretations are approximations with a strong component of opinion. We need to see them in that light.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the BibleMisreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best way to get a feel for this book is to look at my individual chapter notes.

This book discusses nine ways in which Western (esp. American) Christians misread the Bible. It is arranged using an iceberg metaphor: the obviously visible tip to the much larger ice beneath the surface, but which more profoundly affects the reading.

I've read a number of works in this field, particularly that of Kenneth E. Bailey. I found that I learned quite a bit that was new in this present book that was immediately useful and practical in my bible studies.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 03, 2013

AMHS 50th Celebration, Part 2: Fireworks

As the M/V Malaspina left dock to sail on her way north, Petersburg celebrated with fireworks. Residents lined up (many inside waterfront houses) along North Nordic to watch the ferry sail under the fireworks.

Happy 50th, Alaska Marine Highway!

The ferry M/V Malaspina came to port as part of the celebration of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s 50th birthday. This ferry was the one that brought us to Petersburg in September 2006, so it holds special memories for us. Not too long after that the Malaspina was reassigned to a different part of the state, so it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen her in our waters.

On this occasion we got to board the boat and wander around the decks as well as take a tour of the bridge. The ship certainly has new equipment and electronics, but it still has quite a bit of original 1963 equipment that is maintained and used as backup in case primary systems fail.