Divine intervention, Satanic attack, or stuff just happens?

If our church is growing and successful, is that God’s blessing upon us. If the Jehovah’s witnesses down the road are growing and successful (as they are in Argentina), is that God’s blessing upon them? If our church is struggling, is that a Satanic attack, or God teaching us perseverance, or just that we’re doing it wrong?
The other day I was supposed to go to a meeting, but I didn’t get to the meeting because my bike broke on the way. It took almost exactly the length of the meeting to fix it because everything went wrong, until the moment when it was definitely too late to go to the meeting, when it all fell into place. Was it that God didn’t want me to go to that meeting? Or that Satan didn’t want me to get there? Or because bike parts are of low quality in Argentina, and therefore I should not have left home without enough money for a taxi? (Was that God teaching me that sensible people make a plan B, or was that Satan blinding me to the need to make a plan B, or do I just need to have my brain a bit more plugged in for next time the inevitable happens?)

Today I had things I was planning on doing, but then it really rained and the whole place was under water. Was that because my plan was the wrong plan and God didn’t want it to happen. Or because my timing was out, so God was postponing it to his time? Or because it was the right plan, and therefore Satan didn’t want it to happen? Or because it always rains in Cordoba at this time of year?

What does God really think about what happens? What is the relationship between the physical and the spiritual? Is everything ordained, or does stuff just happen? Tricky isn’t it.

When Martin survived his road accident a lot of people said “God is good”. When he came through his surgery without lasting disability, a lot of people said “God is good”. If he hadn’t survived, or had become permanently disabled, would God still be good? What about other people whose lives haven’t been spared, is God still good. Today 24,000 people will die of hunger-related causes. Yesterday 24,000 people died of hunger related causes, and tomorrow another 24,000 people will die of hunger related causes. Is God still good? Twenty years ago 50,000 people died every day of hunger related causes. Does that mean God is twice as good today as he was twenty years ago?

Now, right here I want to say loud and clear that I firmly and fundamentally believe that God is good. What I am taking issue with is taking “things going well from a human perspective” to evidence that “God is good”.

When chaos strikes we fear that God might not be good after all, and therefore we have to find the tiniest shred of evidence to ease our troubled minds. A couple of months ago, a friend came up with a heartwarming little story about some kid who rescued his family in New Orleans as evidence that God was good even in that disaster. Well yes. But lets not lose sight of the fact that 1,800 people died, quarter of a million people were made homeless, many of whom are still displaced, and $81 billion dollars worth of damage is still being repaired. While the little story is nice, if that’s the best evidence we can come up with for God being good, then we might be forgiven for thinking that he is also very small by comparison to the event.

If God is good, then it would make sense that he is also consistent. And therefore the Bible might be a useful starting point. The Pentateuch’s kind of handy and straightforward here, it shows us how God related to his people, and shaped their history. When the Israelites in the desert did as they were told, God defended them, and when they disobeyed, God punished them. As the religious and social life of the community develops, teachings are given which incorporate rewards for obeying, and punishments for disobeying. As they stand by the Jordan, Moses in Deuteronomy is clear that in the promised land, obedience equals being blessed, and disobedience equals being cursed e.g chapter 11, chapter 28. Which makes it nice and easy to preach. You want stuff to go OK? Obey God. Stuff going badly for you? Obey God and it will go well.

Which is just fine and dandy, until we get to the likes of Jeremiah who screw that theory up good and proper. There is a pretty direct correlation between Jeremiah doing exactly what God tells him to, and Jeremiah finding himself beaten up more than once, imprisoned, thrown into a cistern. Since God is consistent, what he says in the Pentateuch would still follow by the time that we get to Jeremiah, so where he says “obey me and things will go well for you”, we have to say that “things going well” from God’s perspective might include having your head flushed down the toilet, which probably isn’t that much fun if you’re the one wearing the head. Not exactly what we would understand as a “blessing”.

If God is consistent and good, then we would expect him to behave within his character. So when God tells Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife, then this is also within God’s character of being consistent and good. As a side issue, I would be interested in any church or Bible study group who would accept it as being “of God” for one of its members to have a relationship with a sexually promiscuous non-Christian. In fact I know of at least one person who is currently outside the church because of their reaction to his girlfriend. So we might therefore imagine the treatment that Hosea received from his contemporaries, as well as his humiliation from his wife. The most normal argument is that because Hosea´s marriage is used as a metaphor, God is good since he has the big picture. However, if God is consistent, then he must be as good in his relationship with Hosea as with the rest of Israel, otherwise he would be being inconsistent. So we have to say that when stuff happens that we think of as being bad, then not only might it be due to a direct intervention by God, but it might also fall within God´s definition of “things going well for you”.

So now I´m kind of back where I started. What is the relationship between God’s intervention, and stuff that happens? If things seem to be going well then that might be God’s intervention… or it might not. If things seem to be going badly then that might be God’s intervention… or it might not. I´m reminded of Richard Harvey at All Nations who used to say “Yes, but is that the right question”, and I have a sneaking suspicion that if I am finding myself playing some sort of divine hide and seek, then it might be because the question itself needs some work. I´m also reminded of a quote from Nancy Eisland in “The disabled God” (1994) who says:
“An ordinary life is filled with blessings and curses and it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the two.”

And I´m also reminded of a Martin Joseph song from the 1980´s called “Treasure the question”. As a new young Christian student in the late 1980´s the one thing that our teaching definitely did not encourage us to do was to “treasure the question”. As good modernist evangelicals, questions were to be used as launching pads into pre-prepared answers, and in spiritual whist, the pre-prepared answer was deemed to trump the question and end the game. Suggestions that the pre-prepared answer might not be entirely adequate in the face of real life, often resulted in the questioner being treated as an embarrassment, and subjected to “ministry”, or being isolated altogether for fear of contamination. I think that one of the most positive things that the postmodern era can bring is about being able to “treasure the question” and enjoy the adventure of not knowing, with honesty and authenticity.

Tramites “Tra-mi-tes”

Tramites is the word we use here to describe the process of “bureaucracy”, i.e. filling in forms, collecting rubber stamps, going to offices, lining up for hours, being sent across the city to other offices, being told you have the wrong forms, being sent back to the original offices… etc. The tramites in Argentina are special, not just those for immigrants, they permeate through many aspects of ordinary life as well. They are “affectionately” known as “los tramites del arbol” (the bureaucracy of the tree) after a famous comedy sketch, about a man who wanted to plant a tree in front of his house, and found that he needed to get permission, fill in papers, stand in queues, collect rubber stamps…
On Thursday, we went to the immigration office, and stood in a line with our paper work. This consisted of our birth certificates, which had been apostiled, translated, and seen by the Argentinian consulate in England, then re-translated here, and then certified by the college of translators; and a letter from the Baptist convention, which had taken eleven months to write, and had then gone to the ministry of exterior relations for certifying. What we didn´t have was our UK police records, because we had only just applied for them, and it takes about six weeks to get them. However, our Argentina visa runs out next week, so we went to plead for grace and mercy to let us proceed on a temporary basis until the police records arrive. (These of course will also need to be apostilled, stamped, translated, certified etc when they arrive).

Luckily the man in the immigration office was friendly, and he accepted our plea, and decided that we are allowed to proceed to the next part of the visa process. This involved going to the police headquarters on the other side of the city for fingerprinting. When we arrived, it was like an explosion at a jumble sale, long queues snaking their way around the offices, heading in different directions. So we thought we´d better ask which one we should join. “Come with me” said the man, and led us past all the queues into an underground office, where another man was busily inking the fingers of the person in front of us. We had three sets of finger prints taken each. They provide a washing-up scourer to get the ink off afterwards.

Then it was off to the justice department, on another side of the city. Here, we took a number in order to be called to a desk and given the paperwork to fill in, consisting of two forms; one long and one short. The catch was that the short form needed to be filled in eight times. Carbon paper hasn´t yet become fashionable in the justice department. We filled this all in, then we had to go to a bank, pay in some money and collect a receipt for same, then via a photocopying shop, where we had to have the completed forms photocopied twice, along with our passports, and then back to the justice department, where they took all the paperwork from us and sent us for…. more fingerprints. Next week, we have to go back to the justice department to collect our Argentinian police certificates on tuesday, and back to the immigration office with all our paperwork on Wednesday.

Reading this, it sounds like that was a bad day. By no means! We finished elated jubilant, victorious and triumphant. One, we had achieved everything that we were supposed to have achieved without becoming ensnared by any “catch 22´s”, and two, it only took a day. Which as any Argentinian knows, is almost a miracle. We´re really hoping that next week goes as well, in which case we would be several massive strides on our way to having proper visa status.

Transparency, translations, and TVs

Now I´m busily translating the stuff that I´ve already written on this blog from English into Spanish. One thing about missionary writings it seems to me is that there are very clear demarcations between who it´s “to” and who it´s “about”, and it was starting to bug me that our communications are becoming that way too. So we´re trying to blur the boundaries and put everything into two languages, starting with the blog. If I had thought about that in the first place, I might have used simpler English and made life easier for myself…. “Peter has a dog. The dog has a bone. The window is open, The door is yellow…”
I had a strange experience a few days ago, which I´ll probably get into trouble for writing about, so this is me writing about it… I was cycling home through a quietish neighbourhood and I passed two transvestites sitting on some steps. And that seemed like a really odd sight to me, and I couldn´t work out why it seemed so odd, until I realised that it´s because we always meet some of the transvestites when we go to the Hospital Rawson among the HIV or AIDS patients, so I had kind of associated them as being at the hospital in my head, and completely lost sight of the fact that they don´t all live in the hospital and most of them live in normal houses in normal neighbourhoods, and drink coke outside on the steps on a warm day.

So now I´ve written something else that I need to translate. Luckily I know the Spanish for transvestite. Actually it´s the phrases that we use without thinking that cause me the most grief, particularly the metaphors… I can already see myself deeply regretting “blur the boundaries” for example. Ho hum…

Disability Conference part 2

Some more ideas coming out of the disability conference that I was at last week. If this doesn’t make any sense, then you may want to read the other blog entry relating to this conference, or drop me an email.
Today I am writing about theology, disability and Bible translation. These thoughts are being developed out of an exposition of the encounter between Jesus and the disabled woman in Luke 13 which was probably the best session of the entire conference. It was given by a Brazilian woman, Iara, who is a pastor, a gifted speaker, an insightful theologian, and has a physical disability.

Iara brought a totally fresh perspective to the text, my inadequate summary goes like this: She started by painting the context from the perspective of the woman, who probably had a form of scoliosis, which generally starts at about age 12, i.e. also around the time that a Jewish girl would have been preparing for marriage. So this girl probably couldn’t have married. Marriage signified status, rights, land, descendants, inheritance; but instead she becomes an outcast, with no status; in the narrative she is not even given a name, identified only by her disability. Contrast this with the moment where Jesus calls her a “daughter of Abraham”, making her the only woman in the Bible who is given this title. To be a daughter of Abraham signifies belonging, rights, land, descendants, inheritance; a restoration of all that she has lost, and inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

Listening to Iara reminded me of a quote from Martin Goldsmith at All Nations College. He said “It’s not that our theology is insular in any way, it’s just that the only theologians we study are Westerners…” To which we might add white, middle class, middle aged, non-disabled, male… The Bible is so rich with different characters, voices, and perspectives, how much richer our experience of studying it becomes when we can hear from those voices and perspectives, rather than the familiar homogenous approaches of always.

Anyway, from here, we found ourselves dealing with technical issues. In the translations we were using, disability is conflated with sickness, both in the text, and in the title added by the editor. The conference therefore decided to write a letter to the Bible Society on this point, which I don’t agree with. The reason why I don’t agree is that this letter is a reaction to one passage with one editorial problem. They have not asked themselves whether there are related issues to be addressed throughout the Bible, and what really needs to be done about this. This means that over time, they are likely to find themselves re-sending this letter each time they find an unhelpful piece of editing, and over time they will probably see some similarity in the responses they receive… “Your comments have been noted”, code for “and we plan to take no action whatsoever”. I think in their rush to say something/anything, this conference has missed a real opportunity to have an impact, to become comprehensively involved in making disabled voices heard throughout the wider processes of translation and editorial of the Bible.

Bible translating and editorial are the subject of much scholarly debate, and I’m not about to add very much to that here, but I’m pulling out the issues which I see as being specifically related to disability.

On editorial. As an oversimplification, editorial additions such as titles, are outside the text of the Bible, and therefore an editor has freedom to say what they want. Obviously it helps if titles added by the editor have some relation to the content, although this is not always the case! Where an added title uses unhelpful terminology, this could be due to the version being outdated, where language has changed over time, (this highlights the need to be producing new translations to take account of evolving language). Or it could be due to the editor not being aware of the issues, and thus in need of some education or access to a team of consultants. An example of this is in Marks gospel, chapter 2, where the story of the disabled guy being lowered through the roof is given the added title “Jesus heals the paralytic” even in most modern versions in both English and Spanish. People who are older than I am might remember a time when “paralytic” was a helpful term to describe someone with a spinal injury, I don’t remember that ever being the case. In fact we have a friend in the UK, who happens to be a wheelchair user, who the first time she read the story in Mark 2, honestly believed that it was referring to a drunk, because she and I have never used the word “paralytic” to mean anything other than “eight pints too many”.

On translation, as another oversimplification, translators have less freedom than editors. The job of the translator is to act as a bridge, to be accurate to the ancient text, and to render it into language which is clearly understood by the contemporary reader. SIL (Wycliffe Bible Translators) say that:

The ideal translation should be…

  • Accurate: reproducing as exactly as possible the meaning of the source text.
  • Natural: using natural forms of the receptor language in a way that is appropriate to the kind of text being translated.
  • Communicative: expressing all aspects of the meaning in a way that is readily understandable to the intended audience.

Going back to the guy in Mark 2, he is referred to as “the paralytic” within the body of the text as well as the title. When I pointed this out, I was reminded that it is more complex to change the text than the title as we have to be true to the original documents. I totally agree, and my knowledge of Greek is pretty limited, so I would need help to figure this out. We need to look both at the Greek, and at the social context of the time. If the word in the original was also outdated, inaccurate, and offensive to its audience of New Testament times, then “paralytic” is exactly how it should be translated in order to preserve the same impact. If however, it was merely a neutral term used to describe the guy as having a spinal injury, then “paralytic” would be the wrong word, an inaccurate translation because it is negatively loaded in a way that the original text is not.

Now I’m about to get into a philosophical area that I don’t know anything about, so please read this next bit as a question which I would like to dialogue on rather than a fully formed opinion… I am wondering about the interface between the text and the translator, and how they impact on one another. The reason why I am wondering this is because in the Bible, Jesus goes out of his way to include the excluded, and he reserves his harshest criticisms for the establishment and hierarchy. For someone to have done enough studying to make a contribution to translating the Bible, it would seem to me that even if they started life in an “excluded” group, the process of attaining that level of study signifies becoming assimilated into the establishment and hierarchy (this is as much the case here as in the UK, especially since Latin Americans will often do their doctorates in “the West”). Hence, I am caused to wonder how far Bible translators are really able to identify with Jesus in being a voice for including the excluded, and therefore what impact this has on the translations which we hold in our hands today.

All of which leads me back to the point that I made in the first place, which is that we need to be hearing from the full richness of the voices in our midst; in theology, in translation, in all aspects of church and mission, and until we find ways to do that, we will continue to confine ourselves to an impoverished gospel.