A Word About Translations

 

In this morning’s class I read from David Bentley Hart’s newly-published translation of the New Testament.  The passage I read, from the fourth chapter of the first letter of John, contained some words that we are not familiar with, used as we are to the several relatively standard translations readily available to us.  Throughout his ministry with First Baptist, Pastor Joel has stuck rather faithfully with the New International Version. (The NIV has itself been revised several times since it was first published in  1978.)  Many of us are old enough to remember the use of the King James Version in the churches we grew up in.  During my formative years Dr. Weaver often used the Revised Standard Version because, as he would say then, “the meaning is clearer there.”  In the past few years, many churches have begun to use the so-called English Standard Version, first published in 2001.  Moreover, many of us will remember using paraphrases like the “Good News Bible,” (1966) and “The Living Bible.” (1971).

 

There are many differences in the language employed by these several books, but what all of them have in common, and one thing that distinguishes them from David Bentley Hart’s new work, is that they are the work of more than one person.  Indeed, the standard, familiar translations are the product of very involved, long-term collaboration among established scholars who were chosen with the idea of gaining an broad and fair ecumenical perspective.

Given that, Don asked a very thoughtful and fair question in this morning’s class: “How can we look at any ‘translation’ done by any one person as anything more than a commentary?”  Some quick answers might leap to mind, such as “we know that this translator labored to be faithful to the text, even where that text might be somewhat inconsistent with the translator’s overall theology.”  But Don’s point is forcefully made and it stands.  This is the work of one man or woman and inevitably will be tinted by his or her personal biases.  Why then should we even bother with translations that are the work of an individual, where there have been no checks and balances and no compromise?

Mr. Hart takes this very question on in his introduction to his new translation.  He first admits that any attempt to translate the Scriptures is somewhat presumptuous and will inevitably be met with lots of criticism:

To write yet another translation of the New Testament is probably something of a foolish venture.  No matter what one produces – recklessly liberal, timidly conservative, or something poised equilibriously in between – it will provoke consternation (and probably indignation) in countless breasts

Should the translator’s concern be:

to produce good literature or to provide a stringently faithful gloss; whether one should strive for more explanatory clarity or for literal accuracy; whether one should substitute modern equivalents for the obsolete idioms of the ancient world or remain obedient to the unfamiliar diction of the original despite any awkwardness that might ensure; whether a paraphrase is a duty or a sin; and so on.  It is a game in which no player prospers.

Hart goes on to explain why one might find value in a translation made by a single individual:

The inevitable consequence of this [translation by committee] is that many of the most important decisions are negotiated accommodations, achieved by general agreement, and favoring only those solutions that prove the least offensive to everyone involved.  This becomes, in effect, a process of natural selection, in which novel approaches to the text are generally the first to perish, and only the tried and trusted survive.  And this can result in the exclusion not only of extravagantly conjectural readings, but often the most straightforwardly literal as well . . . .

[] I think I have come to be opposed to translation by mass collaboration on principle, even when (as in the King James) the final product is literarily admirable.  All such renderings, it seems to me, become ineluctably mired in the anodyne blandness and imprecision of a “diplomatic” accord.

But even if we credit what Hart says here, how can we know what value to attach to any translation made by one individual?  I can only answer that one must rely on all of the learning and common sense one has accumulated to date; all of the experience of God’s Spirit as we may know it in prayer and in the fellowship of the saints.  Given all of that, does what this author proposes seem right?  Does it make sense?   Can it be defended?

Of course – and as is inherent in Don’s pointed question – in every case there will be instances in which we will disagree with the individual translator.  But the more important question – given how we have been surrounded by the standard, committee versions all of our lives – is maybe this one:  Does this writer open passages for us that remained opaque as we read the old versions?  Does he or she provide a greater depth and dimension to passages that were familiar but perhaps not fully understood?

Although I have already found much to disagree with in Hart’s work, I have already been enriched in my understanding of the New Testament just by reading his outstanding Introduction where he writes at length about the experience of translating the Scriptures and what he learned in the process.  He says that while the Old Testament represents:

the concentrated literary genius of an ancient and amazingly rich culture – mythic, epic, lyric, historical, and visionary, in texts assembled over many centuries and then judiciously synthesized, redacted and polished. . .

In contrast:

the Christian New Testament is a somewhat unsystematically compiled and pragmatically edited compendium of “important documentation” : writings from the first generations of witnesses to the faith . . .

He says that in his translation he made every effort to preserve the distinctiveness of the many voices that are heard in the New Testament.  He claims that the committee translations have, on the contrary, attempted to “flatten out the various voices of the writers into a clean, commodious style . . . And yet in the Greek their voices differ radically.”

The New Testament writings are:

The devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something “seen” and “heard” that transcends any language, but that nonetheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can muster

What Hart hears emerging from this strange harmony of different voices is this:

 . . . the vibrant certainty that history has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was, and that all terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest of levels

Amen, and Hallelujah.

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Xerxes – A Girly Man

 

What qualities would we expect or hope for in a king; in an absolute ruler?  We would expect and hope for wisdom, farsightedness, and self-restraint.  Someone who would consider all sides of a matter before acting.  Someone with enough personal experience and backbone to hear advice and weigh it and consider the source.  We would dread a ruler who is capricious and impulsive.  That’s what we’d expect and hope for.

But that’s not what we get with King Xerxes.  At every turn in the story his character is shown to be weak.  He seems to carry no personal convictions at all and to be totally dependent upon the advice of his courtiers in all of his decisions.

Thus, we begin with the most private and personal issues – the king’s own marriage.  He has asked his wife Vashti to do something that she has refused to do.  The very fact of the king’s asking tells us a good bit.  First, he is so indiscreet and reckless as to make the communications between himself and his wife a matter of public knowledge.  If the king had had any doubt about how Vashti might have reacted to his demand he could have saved face by communicating with her privately.  As it is, he opens the secret chamber of his most intimate relationship to all of his buddies and hangers-on.  Had she refused him in private, that would have been a matter they could have resolved between themselves.  But when the demand was made publically the refusal becomes and embarrassment and, as it turns out, a federal case.

Xerxes, the king, doesn’t have the sense to handle his personal affairs prudently.  He does not have enough insight into the personality and character of his wife to foresee that she might not be crazy about the idea.  He has no foresight into what the political fallout will be in the event of a refusal.

On top of all of that, his reaction to the problem he has created for himself is self-defeating.  Instead of giving the matter mature consideration and thinking twice about his own actions, he flies off the handle and once again brings the sycophants around him into his marriage.

They propose drastic action – in effect the dissolution of the king’s marriage (all for acts done in a state of drunkenness) – and, right in character, the king agrees.

The one bit of real humanity we see from the King in the entire story is right there in the first verse of Chapter 2:

After these things, when the wrath of King Xerxes subsided, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what had been decreed against her.

Although other interpretations of this verse are possible, I read this to mean that Xerxes was feeling some regret.  He was missing his wife and reconsidering the wisdom of his banishment of her.  Good on him.

But this moment of sanity and sobriety and rationality does not last long.  Once again the king’s advisers – I think of them as the ancient equivalents of today’s lobbyists – jump right in to protect their own interests.  Now king, they say, let’s not be rash here.  You’ve got to leave things in place or the precedential effect will be awful (for us).  Here’s what we’ll do instead:  We’ll make sure you get all the chicks.

 

Once again, Xerxes defers the most private and personal decisions of his life to his advisors.  He goes along with their plan.

We are not told why Xerxes bestows great honor on Haman.  Maybe it was legit.  Maybe he had really done something to deserve it.  One is tempted to think – given the way we’ve seen the king’s mind work – that Haman himself might have been the author of his own story.  That is, that Haman or somebody inside the court on Haman’s behalf sold the king on some inflated story about Haman’s valor.

What we do know is that in the one case where it is clear that the king ought to have honored someone – this time Mordecai, who had foiled an assassination plot against the king’s life – the king fails to act.

Finally, when Haman has his dander up about Mordecai’s refusal to grovel before him, he sells the king a bill of goods about the Jews:

Then Haman said to King Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents[b] of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”

Of course, this was all it took to convince Xerxes.  He immediately gives Haman his royal blessing to prosecute the contemplated mass slaughter of the Jews.  This without the first though of further explanation, fact-checking, or consideration of Haman’s possible ulterior motives.

Indeed, even later in the story, when the king finally does the right thing, he appears impulsive and intemperate.

What lessons might we draw from this study of Xerxes’ character?  That’s for the next post!

Cain and Abel

So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.

What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil?  Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation?  We know good and evil.  We can tell right from wrong.  Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice.  Why is that a curse?  I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.

Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel.  Everybody knows this one – the first murder story.  No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God.  It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering.  I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue.   Here is the text:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now.  It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.  Unjustly, even.  It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.

But now I believe just the opposite.  I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected.  Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.

In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice.  At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit.   Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!

That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me.  I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that.  But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.

When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us.  It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.

We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind.  Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God.  This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.

By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too.  We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind.  We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them.  Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love.  We may have vocational goals.  And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.

We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted.  We are not blessed.  The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us.  The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.

And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected.  At least it is not obvious at first.  If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice.  The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough.  The blessing we so desired is denied us.  Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.

That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral?  So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way.  Interesting.  But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?

I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew.  Maybe there is something else; something more.

This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted.  He gets the girl.  He gets into med school.  And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to.  But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.

Jordan Peterson and the Book of Esther

What follows is the entirety of my essay on Jordan Peterson and the Book of Esther.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it’s likely that you’ve already read this in the three prior posts here that spit this thing out in pieces.  I’ve put the whole thing together here for anyone who wants to read it all at once.  Ed.

Although his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is full of citations to the Bible and lengthy excursions on the meanings of the stories there, Jordan Peterson never mentions the Book of Esther.  I think he missed some thunder.  This little book affords much support to many of his arguments.

We’ve been talking here in the last few weeks about truth telling.  It’s one of Peterson’s themes; one of the book’s 12 rules is “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.”   He also writes a great deal about the idea of sacrifice, taking us back to the first books of the Bible and the complex system of ritual sacrifice outlined there.  Peterson tells us that the fundamental dynamic in sacrifice is the foregoing of some immediate good – some pleasure or peace or gain – in the hope of greater good sometime in the future.

Look at the story of Esther.   Look at the truth telling there, almost all of which involves some measure of sacrifice.  First, there is Queen Vashti.  She refuses her husband’s – King Xerxes’ – command to show herself before his drunken friends and, consequently, is banished from the presence of the king.

How does this involve truth telling?  Well, Jordan Peterson says that one of the most insidious forms of lying – in fact the kind of lying that allowed the murderous tyrannies of the 20th century to continue for generations – is the lie of omission.  What that boils down to is this: a lie of omission is a kind of lie or type of dishonesty involving remaining silent when one knows that something ought to be said.  Vashti knew that her husband’s demand on her was not right.  It wasn’t moral.  It did not recognize her as a person, but treated her as an object; a thing to be ogled.  She could have committed a lie of omission here and just showed up and played along, thereby saying in effect that everything was okay, when in fact it was not.  Her refusal to come to the king’s party was a statement.  It was telling the truth:  What you have asked me to do is not okay.

Now let’s look at Mordecai.  He finds out about a conspiracy among court insiders to murder the king.  And he tells the truth about it.  Rats out the conspirators.  But that ain’t all.  Sometime later he makes another statement, this one non-verbal.  You see, there is a law in place that demands that everyone bow down before one of the king’s men, some cat named Haman.  Mordecai rightly interprets this bowing down as an act of worship and he refuses to lie about it.  The lie of omission would have been simply to do as he was told –to go through the motions and let old Haman have his kicks.  But he told the truth.  By refusing to bow down he makes a truthful statement that what Haman and the law have demanded of him is not right; it’s not okay.

Of course, this act of civil disobedience gets Mordecai in a heap of trouble as he must have, from the outset, known that it would.

***

When I read about Mordecai refusing to bow before Haman, my first impulse is to think that Mordecai has in mind the second commandment; that he is refusing to give to any man what ought to be reserved for God alone.  Some commentators think otherwise.  They argue that the Jews would in fact bow down before kings  (1 Sam. 24:8; 2Sam. 14:4; 1Kings 1: 16) and other persons (Ge. 23:7; 33:3; 44:14)  The issue between Haman and Mordecai, they say, goes way back to the time of the Exodus when the Jews on their way out of Egypt were attacked by the Amalekites.  (Haman, they say, was an Amalekite.)  In any event, Mordecai’s refusal to bow lands him in hot water.  Haman decides that the only remedy for this intolerable situation is the killing of all of Mordecai’s people.  The killing of all of the Jews.

Mordecai pitches the idea of genocide to King Xerxes, telling the king that the Jews are actually a social and cultural threat to him and to the kingdom.  Without much deliberation, the king agrees and gives Haman the authority to put the plan into action.

Haman (to the king): All the provinces in your kingdom are overrun with one insignificant group of foreigners, people who haven’t adopted our customs. Their laws differ from all other peoples’, and they do not keep your laws. Therefore it’s not a good idea for you to tolerate them or their actions any longer. If it is your wish, sign an order that these people be destroyed, and I will bear all the costs. I’ll pay 375 tons of silver directly to those who carry out the king’s business in order to relieve the royal treasury of the expense.

Mordecai finds out about the impending apocalypse and runs to tell Esther about it.   Esther is his niece who was an orphan and whom Mordecai raised.  Esther, because of her stunning beauty and charm, has found favor with King Xerxes who has made her his queen.  But Esther has kept her nationality – her Jewish linage – from the King.  Xerxes does not know that the killing of all of the Jews would result in the death of his beloved Queen Esther.

Mordecai tells Esther that she has to petition the King on behalf of all her people:

Tell Esther, “Don’t be fooled. Just because you are living inside the king’s palace doesn’t mean that you out of all of the Jews will escape the carnageYou must go before your king14 If you stay silent during this time, deliverance for the Jews will come from somewhere, but you, my child, and all of your father’s family will die. And who knows? Perhaps you have been made queen for such a time as this.”

So, Esther is faced with the proposition that she must go to the king and tell him the truth.  She must tell him that she is a Jew, thereby revealing that she has not been forthcoming about this from the outset.   She knows that the stakes are high.  Making such a petition before Xerxes was no simple matter, not even for a queen.  She explains to Mordecai:

11 How am I supposed to see the king? It’s known throughout the land, from the greatest of the king’s officials to the common folk who live in the provinces, that any person who approaches the king in the inner chamber without being invited is sentenced to death. That’s the law! There’s only one exception, and that’s if the king were to hold out the gold scepter to that person and spare his or her life. It’s been 30 days since the king last summoned me!

So, here we are, Mr. Peterson, faced with the dilemma of sacrifice, the dilemma of truth telling.  And Esther does tell the truth.  She approaches the chamber of the king and he does extend his scepter and allow her admittance.  She sacrifices her immediate safety and security for a hoped-for future benefit.

 

It pays off.  Because Esther was brave enough to speak the truth, disaster – the killing of all of the Jews – was averted.  Moreover, the scoundrel Haman is brought to justice (hanged)and the good works of uncle Mordecai are richly rewarded by the king.  Here Peterson’s argument is made plain in this high drama.  Peterson’s case is that it is only the willingness to speak truth to power that will prevent tyranny.  He points to the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

One of the major contributions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, was his analysis of the direct causal relationship between the pathology of the Soviet prison-work camp-dependent state (where millions suffered and died) and the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own day-to-day personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering, and thereby prop up the dictates of the [ir]rational, ideology-possessed communist system.

Solzhenitsyn (and a few other brave writers) is a modern Esther!

 

(more later)

 

 

Telling The Truth (Part 3)

What follows here is the third installment of a study of the book of Esther as it illustrates themes in Jordan Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.  If you’ve already read the first two installments, then dive right in here.  If not, just click back on this blog to the last two posts – they are short and will bring you right up to speed to read this last segment – the punch line, so to speak.  All of it will make even more sense if you will take the few minutes necessary to read the Book of Esther in the Old Testament.  It’s only a few pages long.  You can get through it in half an hour.  Ed.

 

Esther 3:8-9 The Voice (VOICE)

Haman (to the king): All the provinces in your kingdom are overrun with one insignificant group of foreigners, people who haven’t adopted our customs. Their laws differ from all other peoples’, and they do not keep your laws. Therefore it’s not a good idea for you to tolerate them or their actions any longer. If it is your wish, sign an order that these people be destroyed, and I will bear all the costs. I’ll pay 375 tons of silver directly to those who carry out the king’s business in order to relieve the royal treasury of the expense.

 

When I read about Mordecai refusing to bow before Haman, my first impulse is to think that Mordecai has in mind the second commandment; that he is refusing to give to any man what ought to be reserved for God alone.  Some commentators think otherwise.  They argue that the Jews would in fact bow down before kings  (1 Sam. 24:8; 2Sam. 14:4; 1Kings 1: 16) and other persons (Ge. 23:7; 33:3; 44:14)  The issue between Haman and Mordecai, they say, goes way back to the time of the Exodus when the Jews on their way out of Egypt were attacked by the Amalekites.  (Haman, they say, was an Amalekite.)  In any event, Mordecai’s refusal to bow lands him in hot water.  Haman decides that the only remedy for this intolerable situation is the killing of all of Mordecai’s people; the killing of all of the Jews.

Haman, who is furious with Mordecai and who has a long-standing hatred of the Jews, pitches the idea of genocide to King Xerxes, telling the king that the Jews are actually a social and cultural threat to the king and the kingdom.  Without much deliberation, the king agrees and gives Haman the authority to put the plan into action.

Mordecai finds out about the impending apocalypse and runs to tell Esther about it.   Esther is his niece who was an orphan and whom Mordecai raised.  Esther, because of her stunning beauty and charm, has found favor with King Xerxes who has made her his queen.  But Esther has kept her nationality – her Jewish linage – from the King.  Xerxes does not know that the killing of all of the Jews would result in the death of his beloved Queen Esther.

Mordecai tells Esther that she has to petition the King on behalf of all her people:

Tell Esther, “Don’t be fooled. Just because you are living inside the king’s palace doesn’t mean that you out of all of the Jews will escape the carnageYou must go before your king14 If you stay silent during this time, deliverance for the Jews will come from somewhere, but you, my child, and all of your father’s family will die. And who knows? Perhaps you have been made queen for such a time as this.”

So, Esther is faced with the proposition that she must go to the king and tell him the truth.  She must tell him that she is a Jew, thereby revealing that she has not been forthcoming about this from the outset.   She knows that the stakes are high.  Making such a petition before Xerxes was no simple matter, not even for a queen.  She explains to Mordecai:

11 How am I supposed to see the king? It’s known throughout the land, from the greatest of the king’s officials to the common folk who live in the provinces, that any person who approaches the king in the inner chamber without being invited is sentenced to death. That’s the law! There’s only one exception, and that’s if the king were to hold out the gold scepter to that person and spare his or her life. It’s been 30 days since the king last summoned me!

So, here we are, Mr. Peterson, faced with the dilemma of sacrifice, the dilemma of truth telling.  And Esther does tell the truth.  She approaches the chamber of the king and he does extend his scepter and allow her admittance.  She sacrifices her immediate safety and security for a hoped-for future benefit.

It pays off.  Because Esther was brave enough to speak the truth, disaster – the killing of all of the Jews – was averted.  Moreover, the scoundrel Haman is brought to justice (hanged) and the good works of uncle Mordecai are richly rewarded by the king.  Here Peterson’s argument is made plain in this high drama.  Peterson’s case is that it is only the willingness to speak truth to power that will prevent tyranny.  It is only sacrifice that will assure future prosperity.  He points to the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

One of the major contributions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, was his analysis of the direct causal relationship between the pathology of the Soviet prison-work camp-dependent state (where millions suffered and died) and the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own day-to-day personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering, and thereby prop up the dictates of the [ir]rational, ideology-possessed communist system.

Solzhenitsyn (and a few other brave writers) is a modern Esther!

Telling The Truth (part 2)

Although his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,  is full of citations to the Bible and lengthy excursions on the meanings of the stories there, Jordan Peterson never mentions the Book of Esther.

 

I think he missed some thunder.  This little book tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament affords much support to many of his arguments.

We’ve been talking here in the last few weeks about truth telling.  It’s one of Peterson’s themes; one of the book’s 12 rules is “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.”   He also writes a great deal about the idea of sacrifice, taking us back to the first books of the Bible and the complex system of ritual sacrifice outlined there.  Peterson tells us that the fundamental dynamic in sacrifice is the foregoing of some immediate good – some pleasure or peace or gain – in the hope of greater good sometime in the future.

Look at the story of Esther.   Look at the truth telling there, almost all of which involves some measure of sacrifice.  First, there is Queen Vashti.  She refuses her husband’s – King Xerxes’ – command to show herself before his drunken friends and, consequently is banished from the presence of the king.

How does this involve truth telling?  Well, Jordan Peterson says that one of the most insidious forms of lying – in fact the kind of lying that allowed the murderous tyrannies of the 20th century to continue for generations – is the lie of omission.  What that boils down to is this: a lie of omission is a kind of lie or type of dishonesty involving remaining silent when one knows that something ought to be said.  Vashti knew that her husband’s demand on her was not right.  It wasn’t moral.  It did not recognize her as a person, but treated her as an object.  She could have committed a lie of omission here and just showed up and played along, thereby saying in effect that everything was okay, when in fact it was not.  Her refusal to come to the king’s party was a statement.  It was telling the truth:  What you have asked me to do is not okay.

Now let’s look at Mordecai.  He finds out about a conspiracy among court insiders to murder the king.  And he tells the truth about it.  Rats out the conspirators.  But that ain’t all.  Sometime later he makes another statement, this one non-verbal.  You see, there is a law in place that demands that everyone bow down before one of the king’s men, some cat named Haman.  Mordecai rightly interprets this bowing down as an act of worship and he refuses to lie about it.  The lie of omission would have been simply to do as he was told –to go through the motions and let old Haman have his kicks.  But he told the truth.  By refusing to bow down he makes a truthful statement that what Haman and the law have demanded of him is not right; it’s not okay.

Of course, this act of civil disobedience gets Mordecai in a heap of trouble as he must have, from the outset, known that it would.

 

(more later)

Jordan Peterson and Totalitarianism

 

 

One of the most salient bits of wisdom in Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (and there are lots of these salient bits there) is his definition of totalitarianism.   A totalitarian, according to Peterson, is one who thinks he has it all figured out – that he is possessed of the answer – and that nothing more need be known or found out.   He tells us – and this is a part of his fine insight, too – that such thinking may be present not only on a political or societal level as was obvious in communism and fascism, but that individuals may be totalitarian in their personal lives, as well.  That is, some eighteen-year-old kid may decide that his life’s goal is to retire at age 50.  He’s got it all figured out.  Doesn’t need to know anything else.

This, says Peterson, is a prescription for misery because this 18 year old – like every other 18 year old – doesn’t have it figured out and what he needs more than anything else to flourish in this life is that humble attitude that is always searching, always willing to admit mistakes and always ready to learn more and to be corrected.

Amen to all that.  It’s good advice – advice that every 18 year old, and every 70 year old, ought to heed.  But I think that in one important aspect, at least, Peterson may be guilty of totalitarian thinking himself.

Although throughout the book Peterson demonstrates a familiarity with and in some instances a depth of understanding of the Bible and although he sees personal and societal problems as finally moral problems, I think he is at last dismissive of Christianity.  Although he admires the wisdom of the Bible, he does not seem to believe that Christianity is what it purports to be.  He comes very close to saying that Christianity simply does not stand to reason; that it cannot stand in the face of what science and philosophy have taught us over the last few centuries.   He seems to be saying that although no rational person can actually accept the miraculous claims of Christianity, the stories in the Bible – like those in other religious writings and traditions – may instruct us about human nature and the world.

It is as if he has, following the lead of modern critics such as Friedrich Nietzsche,  seen it all and figured it all out and has separated the wheat from the chaff.  Christianity is not, for Peterson, what it was for the Apostle Paul and what it is and has been for countless believers today and down through the centuries.  That is, Peterson does not experience God as a living and active Being with whom he can communicate and upon whom he may rely.  For Peterson, the resurrection is an archetype or spiritual dynamic and not what Dorothy Sayers described it to be, that is: “a thing that actually happened.”

More than once in the book, Peterson describes personal practices that come very close to prayer.  When he and his wife are at loggerheads, they retire to separate rooms in their home and ask themselves what it is within them that they might change so that they might come out of the chaos and into order again.  This sounds a lot like a prayer of repentance to me, although Peterson avoids calling it that and seems to contend that the answers come from deep within or from the collective unconscious or something and not from the living God who hears the cries of humble and contrite hearts.

 

This, of course, ignores the living experience of millions who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.  That is, people who know from experience – from a surrender of their lives to Christ and a subsequent and enduring experience of grace – that what the Bible says about Christ is actually true and not merely some helpful myth or analogy.

In that measure Peterson also ignores, for example, the testimony of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that, ironically, is one of the touchstones of Peterson’s book.  Men like Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky who wrestled through the modern critiques of Christianity have come out of the desert into faith – into an embrace of Biblical Christianity.  Peterson will not go that far.  He knows too much.  He is sure of too much.