by Randall Frederick
I was recently involved in a cross-denominational discussion on interpreting the Kingdom of God in light of the Gospel of Mark. In these kind of conversations, there is typically a degree of one-upmanship, certain members seeking to claim authority with the text based on their fluency with key terms and mastery of the Biblical languages. “I think this is what (fill in the blank prophet or biblical author) meant…” generally prefaces a declarative statement, followed by “but that’s just how I read it” as punctuation, spoken with such a passive-aggressive tone so as to undercut further discussion.
These conversations are not unique to Christianity. In the last decade and a half working with religious communities, I have heard these words and this tone – this same circumstance – too many times to count. Active believers seek legitimacy and usually have not had it before so, rather than achieve the embodiment of sexy words like “interfaith dialogue” and “understanding”, we do the very thing we say we oppose by constructing walls of entitlement and privilege. In our meeting, there was a particularly tense moment that best frames this – one member questioned why we had spent roughly forty minutes exegeting whether a particular word should be translated one way or another. “What difference does it make?” she probed. “It doesn’t change what we think or believe.”
Perhaps this was a poor choice of words, given the makeup of the room, but I agreed with her in essence and said as much. Almost an entire hour of posing and posturing is a different exercise than scholars actually having a substantival, rigorous debate on how particular words can open and close our theologies. What was occurring, to be clear, was the former and not the latter. In response to the articulated question and my affirmation, another member began to explain to her the importance of being fluent in Greek. “You can never really understand scripture until you understand the Greek. That’s just a fact. It’s like you grow up, and you’re still stuck at a 3rd grade education.” When she said she was fluent in German, French, and Spanish and had tutored languages before, his only response was, “Oh. But you don’t know Greek? Hunh…”
What she failed to mention, but what I was privy to, was that she had been educated at Cambridge and knew Greek. Her question did not come from celebrated ignorance but a genuine question of how we stratify our faith communities into, as our colleague noted, those who have a “3rd grade education” and the implied other end of the spectrum – those of us who can parse passages, reconstruct what the Axial writers “really” meant, and speak with the tongues of men and angels. Do our congregations not know God because they are unable to read Greek? Are those who can read Greek fluently comparatively disadvantaged to our Jewish peers for knowing the aleph from the dalit but not sure which goes where? There are a bouquet of questions here and indeed I think those questions are asked for good purpose towards (I hope) good ends. Learning Greek and Hebrew changed not only how I saw scripture, but how I saw religion as a whole. Still, while I think learning the nuances of language is a fruitful use of time, I am painfully aware that as often as it can change the spectrum of understanding, sometimes a modern and “3rd grade” understanding is perfectly okay. Don’t steal, don’t murder, and do unto others as you would want them to do to you – these are perhaps ideas which are better left simple. It would, I suppose, concern me if I had a parishioner ask me just how far that injunction against murdering extended and whether, in Hebrew, there were specific instances in which adultery was not “actually” adultery. These are the kinds of questions put to Jesus it seems – what words meant and how far we could stretch the boundaries of meaning – and which he felt were not appropriate even as he routinely changed the meanings himself (see Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:18; 21; Mt. 5; Mk. 7:1-13). In one instance, Jesus flatly denounces such questions by saying “You are wrong because you neither know the scriptures nor the power of God” – a harsh indictment against those who were “scholars” in scriptural interpretation, practice, and polity (Matt. 22:29).
Theological understanding and embodied faith are about more than scholarship – a tough thing to say, as I consider myself a scholar. Languages are not the only issue we use to self-sanctify ourselves above our communities. For all of our delicious work around words, our voluptuous verbage, at times I question whether our prophetic imagination fails to enrapture others simply because we insist on what I can only refer to as “spiritual masturbation” – it’s good for us, but no one else seems to be getting off to it. We excel at deciphering whether Buddha was in India or Nepal, source criticism of our favorite texts, and noting the absence of seminal thought from L.Ron Hubbard, Deepak Chopra, and Oprah. But so what? A quick Google search of the right buzzwords can bring anyone up to speed. I propose that we are keeping key words cemented in ancient languages as the last evidence that our training actually meant something. That we’re not 3rd graders. More, we use our mastery of words and conceptual thinking to obfuscate our insecurities. We are, I fear, using our congregations and communities to build a sense of entitlement and support our inherent elitism. The arcane has become the measure of Holiness in a taunting exercise of Gnosticism – I know something you don’t know. Under such arcane conditions, is it any wonder that the common believers is unimpressed with our terrestrial presentation of the transcendent?