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A Failure to Communicate

(Due to freezing fog, the ice is getting thicker, and electricity outages are rising slowly; roughly 1/6th of my zip code is blacked out now, total 110,232 in the St. Louis metro area. My power flickered three times around 7:00 pm, then stabilized, perhaps because of a repair in my area? All eyes on the Sunday weather forecast, where a couple of degrees' difference Sunday afternoon during the forecast heavy rains will make all the difference as to how well the area weathers Sunday night's forecast high winds. Before 7 pm, I was growing increasingly optimistic. Now? Not so much.)

I've been committing the classic teacher's mistake lately, on the subject of secret history and forbidden lore: I keep forgetting that not everybody knows the stuff that I know. Which reminds me of the funniest time that ever happened to me, before, on an entirely different topic.

In 1974, when I was 14, my parents became increasingly worried about the amount of drug dealing and racial violence in the Hazelwood School District and, without consulting me, yanked me out and put me in the only non-Catholic private school they could afford. It was a Baptist-run, theoretically non-denominational, far-right fundamentalist K-12 school called Faith Christian Academy. At the time, I hadn't darkened the doors of a church even once in 10 years. And not wanting to be the proverbial pink monkey in a cage full of brown monkeys, I set out the summer before to acquire some protective coloration by learning the cultural customs and language of regular church-goers before my freshman year of high school began.

The only person I knew who attended church regularly was my best friend growing up, my same-age next-door neighbor. His mom was still dragging him every Sunday up to a tiny little inter-denominational church called West Alton Community Church, which was (unsurprisingly) in the very, very tiny rural farming town of West Alton, Missouri, at the very far north edge of the St. Louis metro area. Ironically, West Alton isn't west of Alton, Illinois; it's actually south. But it is on the opposite, west, bank of the river, more or less right across from Alton, so there you have it. It's the actual town on the Missouri side that's exactly at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, a narrow little spit of flood plain. Unsurprisingly, it went completely under water in 1993, and I was operating under the impression that they bulldozed and abandoned it afterwards. But the 2000 census says otherwise, and so does Google Earth. Go figure. But even 20 years before the flood, West Alton was a tiny and mostly dead little town. It was one of those places like the ones that H.P. Lovecraft and then later Stephen King wrote so much about, rural farming towns where the best and the brightest of each generation have been steadily leaving for over a hundred years, and where nobody ever moves to there from anywhere else. Spooky, really. The people weren't actively unpleasant, usually, but something always seemed kind of "off" about many of them. I didn't find out how "off" until later.

A few months later, I started school at Faith Christian Academy, including my first theology course. And I was hooked. I'm told that the same thing happens to many people who study Catholic catechism under the Jesuits, which is that even though I didn't believe word one of it when I started studying it, and I don't believe word one of it any more, it's still one of my favorite "games" to debate Christian theology from a Biblical basis. The system has an almost mathematical elegance to it, and like the best mathematical systems, it's a closed, therefore finite, and therefore comprehensible system. Being pathologically unable to play dumb, this lead to me asking smarter questions than the teen-class Sunday School teacher was used to, which brought me to the church's more or less favorable (at first) attention. Which is why, scant months later, the Christian Education director came to me one morning. You see, the pastor was ill, and not going to make it in that day. They could schedule a song service for the morning worship service, but somebody had to handle his adult Sunday School class. And she wanted me to do it.

I was boggled. Other than a little bit of tutoring in grade school, I'd never taught anything before. (And I was squirmishly uncomfortable, because I still didn't believe a word of it.) But she handed me the lesson plan and told me to just get up in front of them and read it. They were an undemanding audience, I'd do fine as long as there even was an adult Sunday School class. So I did. I took my own Bible up there with me to read the indicated passages. I anticipated some trouble, because my Bible was the (then) newest and most state of the art (and to my taste, still the best) translation from the original Hebrew and Greek that was available, Zondervan Press's New International Version. (I do not feel the same way about the newer, more politically correct second edition, which takes enough liberties with the text to be, unlike its predecessor, completely useless to serious students.) So before I started reading, I apologized for the fact that what I was going to be reading wasn't going to match word-for-word what they had in their KJVs or RSVs; they could either listen to me or read their own texts when we got to that point. And as I went through the class, there was a core group of adults, aged roughly 30 to 90, maybe six or seven out of the twenty five or so of them, who were getting increasingly uncomfortable themselves. But they didn't interrupt me. Instead, they sent a committee, after class, to Deal With Me. Three ambulatory adults and a 90-something in a wheel-chair. They let wheel-chair do most of the talking.

They were almost speechlessly angry that I had substituted a different book for the Real Bible. So I went back over, more slowly, the point of the new NIV translation, why it existed and why I was using it instead of the KJV. And to my confusion, they couldn't follow a word of what I'd said. Not one word of what I'd said made any sense to them. So I backed up and tried again, one concept at a time, trying to figure out where the mental block was, what concept I'd failed to get across. They were getting increasingly impatient with my inability to give them a comprehensible, straight-forward answer as to why I wasn't using the Real Bible, but they gave me (I think) 3 tries. And at the end of the 3rd try, I finally spotted what the problem was -- and was instantly struck dumb. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I tried to convince myself that I had to be wrong, so I took the key concept and paraphrased it very carefully: were they under the impression that both Moses and Jesus Christ spoke English? Yes, of course, everybody speaks English. What? Sure, that's what "language" means: English. I tried to find out if it was really true that none of them had ever heard of the concept that people in other countries, let alone in earlier times, spoke other languages. But that was so obviously patently false and stupid an idea that they all four lost their temper at once and started shouting at me. When they finally settled who was going to be talking first, it was the youngest of them, a guy of maybe 35 or 40, who said to me (and I'll never forget a word of it): "If the King James Bible was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it's good enough for you!"

That left me with nothing useful to say, other than to reassure them that their usual teacher would be back next week and it would never happen again.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2007 09:51 am (UTC)
Its a little known fact that Paul was a time traveller from 1930s Cinncinatti. I'm surprised these people were clued into that fact...
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 14th, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC)
Same difference. All that stuff happened in "history," which is all one undifferentiated mass.

At least, I think that's part of what was going on. The 4th explanation, the one I was cut off at the beginning of by unanimous shouting, started with the reminder that the very first page of the KJV, before even Genesis 1:1, explains that this version was written in 1611 AD. And even they "knew" that Jesus was born in 1 AD (close enough) and died when he was 33. So I tried to explain to them that the King James version was ordered by King James of England, over 1500 years after Jesus' death ...but didn't get to finish that explanation.

I think that there may have been some discomfort there at trying to imagine what "1500 years" means.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 14th, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
Let me see if this makes it more comprehensible: the key concept, I'm convinced, is that one of them said that the words "language" and "English" are synonyms.

My friend's grandma still lived there, and I remember from visiting her that while somebody had given her a TV set, she never turned it on; there weren't any stations that came in at all clear. She had a radio, but it only got one or two stations, and she only used it to listen to emergency weather forecasts and Cardinals games; otherwise she never even turned it on. There almost certainly had to have been people from that town who went off to World War I and II, and maybe even Vietnam, but so far as I can tell (or at least guess) none of them came back to West Alton afterwards. And there had been zero immigration to the town, English-speaking or non, in these people's entire lives. Note that the foreign-born population, all ages, is ZERO according to the census data from the link above. And only 50 of the town's 540 current residents have any college, a number that would have been much lower in 1974.

When would any of those people have ever heard another language spoken? Indeed, the only time they might have ever even heard the word "language" used in a sentence was when their class in English was called "Language Arts" or when their parents disapproved of their (English) vocabulary and told them to "mind your language."

It doesn't even make them stupid, per se. Incurious, and by most of our standards under-educated, but not stupid. What it does make them terrifyingly narrow, parochial.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 15th, 2007 01:20 am (UTC)
But it's not dense -- it's sheltered. If you've lived all your life unaware that there are other languages, and some upstart kid tries to tell you that your view of the world -- for the full 30 or 40 or 90 years you've been alive -- has been flat-out WRONG... of course you're going to have trouble accepting that.

It's on a level with some guy coming at you off the street and saying "by the way, you know the world is round"? When you've known all your life that it's flat, and can prove that empirically...

You're coming into this with a significant assumed knowledge-base. You've benefitted by growing up in a more culturally diverse area, whether you were aware of it at the time, or not.

These folks, by contrast, may be equally as innately intelligent as you and your peers -- but they have not had access to the information you have at your fingertips. And while it is very comfortable to say "well, they should have sought it out"... well, how much energy do you typically invest in looking into things that you've never had any reason to question before now?
Jul. 10th, 2014 03:25 am (UTC)
I am ashamed to be a member of the human race
I am ashamed to be a member of the human race.
Kate Gladstone
Jul. 10th, 2014 03:30 am (UTC)
Proposing a modest experiment ...
Hmmm,what would happen to West Alton if people from outside could be induced, financially or otherwise, to visit it and walk around in public while speaking other languages?

By the way ... If these people believed the Bible as literally as you say, how did they understand the Old Tesament story of Babel, or the New Testament story of Pentecost? Neither story is even comprehensible if you have never so much as HEARD of other languages ...

Kate Gladstone
Jan. 14th, 2007 12:32 pm (UTC)
I was raised by those people in that church(their clones many miles to the east) and escaped. That's why I'm loony tunes.
Jan. 14th, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
That's remarkably close to a story I once heard a pastor tell when asked to explain which translation he used and which he suggested for his congregation. The punch line being a little old lady demanding that he use the KJV because "I want to hear the words the way Jesus spoke them!".

Some people just shouldn't be allowed anywhere near religion.
Jan. 14th, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC)
But those are the people for whom religion is exactly perfect.
Jan. 14th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
yup.. some of my relatives in Michican...
I developed my violent allergy to revealed religion when staying with my Aunt Judy in Michagan. I was ... maybe 5 or eight years old, and ran into that EXACT same issue, and even at that age it boggled me.

and even if the ones that KNOW its not true still FEEL and act, and argue as if Jesus and Moses and all the rest really did speak english, as if those are there words exactly as they wrote them.. as God (who clearly speaks English as well) wrote them...

and these are the folks on our schoolboards and dictating what can be said about the Grand Canyon ... and who push their reps (or are manipulated by them really) on issues like same sex marriage and abortion...

there really isnt any REASONING to be done here.. which either leaves A) thier kids grow up smarter than they are -which is why they have to fight public ed so hard or B) a country divided between christian Taliban and the rest of us... at which point one side or the other is either going to have to kneel or fight.
Jan. 14th, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
Re: yup.. some of my relatives in Michican...
You really can't pull God into that one, tho - it's GOD, it can do whatever it wants, whether it's being a leaf on a tree or speaking English (American, Australian or Queen's). Pull god into it, and they'll jump on it like a liferaft to avoid you tarnishing their illusions...
Jan. 14th, 2007 03:01 pm (UTC)
That ended slightly differently than I was expecting.

I was expecting the KJV = revealed word of God, which I guess this is a refinement of...
To me, KJV being revealed means that when the people doing the translation for King James had a conflict or question about the translation, they prayed about it and were answered since they were doing a Holy Thing.

But Moses, etc speaking English is a new one to me... They obiously ignored their history. »shakes head in disbelief« Tower of Babel anyone?

I agree with another commentor, this could be leading to an American Taliban...

Good luck with your power!
Jan. 14th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
There's so many layers to the revelation, though - the "original" scriptures were then, revealed to the authors. Any translators/transcriptionists of the first writings must have been similarly influenced so that no linguistic drift occured. The councils deciding the proper format and content for inclusion in the official bible must have been similarly guided and inspired. Then all future translations and transcriptions must have been similarly guided. If youd god goes to THAT much trouble to make sure nobody fucks up his message over that many centuries, why would he STOP with the King James?

But as another person said - it's not a matter of reasoning. In fact, what's most dangerous of all, from my point of view, is that many denominations now seem to be preaching hard on the "logic is stupid, just believe - do not question, have faith" angle. 's kind of like, those mammalian species where part of the male's ejaculate is a coagulant to forms a sort of "plug" to keep other males from successfully inseminating that female.

But if people take that message to heart, then go out in the world and say "fuck rationality", then that's really scary.
Jan. 14th, 2007 07:53 pm (UTC)
If your god goes to THAT much trouble to make sure nobody fucks up his message over that many centuries, why would he STOP with the King James?

Why, because America is god's chosen country, of course! All those translations were divinely inspired so that the Bible could come down to us, personally. The language in the KJV Bible is the most perfect expression of God's Word, even _better_ than the "originals". I so badly wish I was joking...
Jan. 14th, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC)
Well, here's an explanation that, while it would never have occurred to them at West Alton, may appeal to you. Or may not, but it's worth a try. It's the one that my fundamentalist theology instructors used.

First of all, there's the practical consideration that prior to the KJV but after the (Catholic) translation we know as the Vulgate, nobody bothered referring to the archaeological texts, or even to the copies thereof. They just kept retranslating the Vulgate from Latin to whatever language they wanted. It was precisely to correct that problem that King James ordered his translators to work exclusively from the Hebrew and Greek. He also ordered them to preserve as much of the sense of the literal Hebrew and Greek as possible. All those weird verb tenses, the "esths" and "ests"? Those are there to preserve verb tenses that don't exist in English, so that somebody who knew the basic principles of Greek or Hebrew could use the KJV as a study volume. The KJV in most passages (not all) even tries to preserve word order as much as possible.

And from the KJV until the NIV, hardly anybody ever started over from scratch from the original texts ever again. They just kept paraphrasing the KJV into less stylized English, or translating from its English into other languages.

So my bibliology instructors taught me that God intervened particularly to protect the Vulgate and then later the KJV, because He knew that those were important, that those would be the translations that would take His Word to all the corners of the globe.

When I was studying theology under them in the mid to late 1970s, the hot topic was whether or not to trust the translators of the NIV, regardless of their technical skill, to have been guided by the same level of providence? That debate has still not entirely been settled, which is why to this day serious fundamentalist theologians expect their best students to have at least some ability to read Hebrew and Greek, and to be familiar with the KJV even if they use other translations as well.
Jan. 16th, 2007 06:39 am (UTC)
Actually, while there are some odd bits of verb and etc. in the KJV, the -eths and -ests, as you call them, were just Standard English, more or less contemporary (although formal, see below) -- nothing to do with maintaining the sense of the Hebrew, exactly.

English has lost a lot of its verb conjugation since 1611, but the present tense declension USED to look like this in Middle English:

i do
thou doest
he doth
we do
you do
they do

i have
thou hast
he hath
we have
you have
they have

Compare the (modern) German, since English is Germanic:

ich habe
du hast
er/sie/es hat
wir haben
ihr habt
sie/Sie haben

By 1611, the singular 2nd person thou was mostly deceased in actual usage, but per Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thou),

As William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the early 1500s, he sought to preserve the singular and plural distinctions that he found in his Hebrew and Greek originals. Therefore, he consistently used thou for the singular and ye for the plural regardless of the relative status of the speaker and the addressee. By doing so, he probably saved thou from utter obscurity, and gave it an air of solemnity that sharply distinguished it from its French counterpart. Tyndale's usage was imitated in the King James Bible, and remained familiar because of that translation.[8]
Jan. 14th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
I wonder how this group of people, and they brothers and sisters across the country, reacted to Mel Gibson's snuff film. They are a core part of the audience for it after all.
Jan. 14th, 2007 03:19 pm (UTC)
I had a similar argument with someone who wanted to learn Hebrew because that was what Jesus spoke. I could not convince them that modern Hebrew is actually an amalgamation of Russian, Yiddish, and Aramaic- he was convinced that it was Jesus' own language.

(Deleted comment)
Jan. 14th, 2007 07:37 pm (UTC)
Hebrew could have been the inspiration for the Dwarvish language in Tolkein- it was kept preserved as a ritual/religious language for centuries, and did not alter.

Modern Hebrew is probably starting to diverge, as it is once again a "living" lagnguage.

Jesus of Nazareth himself probably did not use Hebrew daily- he probably spoke Aramaic.
Jan. 14th, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
Ancient Hebrew stopped being spoken as anything other than a ceremonial language in Roman times; the modern Hebrew is that ceremonial language, modernized with loan words, and developed into a new mother tongue that's only a couple of generations old. It would be like taking Church Latin from the fifteenth century and deciding to speak it at home, and indeed there were plenty of scholarly situations where that happened - C.S. Lewis used to conduct conversations on all kinds of topics, in Ancient Greek.

So he wouldn't be far off in saying that Hebrew was the language Jesus spoke, at least at those times when Jesus was studying the Law. The rest of the time, he spoke Aramaic, which was a totally different language.
Jul. 10th, 2014 03:41 am (UTC)
Re: Hebrew
Re: "modern Hebrew is actually an amalgamation of Russian, Yiddish, and Aramaic"
Documentation, please? I speak/read modern Hebrew and two of the other languages you named. (Admittedly, my Yiddish is poorer than my Russian.) there are more English words in modern Hebrew than there are Russian, Yiddish, or (I'm told) Aramaic words altogether.
Jan. 14th, 2007 06:41 pm (UTC)
and Jesus was a Nordic looking guy - blue eyes, blonde hair. sigh.....so dreamy.
Jan. 14th, 2007 06:42 pm (UTC)
So convinced of the absolute revealed truth of the KJV that they extended it all the way back to believing that Moses and Jesus speak English? And then the further error of believing that the KJV was used before it's creation? Wow.

Although I wonder just how many people in this country have a similar pair of beliefs, among others, and are lobbying for their view of the world to become the national law...
Jan. 14th, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
I have met people who thought that the "King James" in the title of the KJV was James the apostle. I attempted to disabuse of them of that notion, but they wouldn't listen. Very scary.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 14th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
It was the Romans who did the actual crucifying, the Jews just didn't want him to go free.
Jan. 14th, 2007 09:15 pm (UTC)
That's addressed in the text.

Remember that a scant 5 days earlier, Jesus had marched into town at the head of a ragtag army who proclaimed him the next King of the Jews. And to the Roman governor, it cannot possibly have seemed like a coincidence that the existing power structure were the ones who demanded that he be executed for blasphemy (not a death penalty offense under Roman law) and insurrection (absolutely a death penalty offense, in particular a crucifiction offense).

The reason that Pilate famously "washed his hands" of the matter and let the Jewish officials proceed with what was, under Roman law, an illegal crucifiction was that he was facing an insurrection either way; he judged that, as people who'd lived more or less comfortably with Roman rule for a long time, the existing power structure was more easily placated. But to put them in their place, he made sure that the sign proclaiming Jesus' offense proclaimed him the "King of the Jews." The representatives of the reigning King of the Jews objected to that, insisting (as it says in the text) that it should read not that Jesus was the King of the Jews but that he said that he was the King of the Jews. Pilate refused to negotiate: "I have written what I have written." In other words, what he had written was a warning shot: if any King of the Jews comes even close to threatening insurrection, like you just tip-toed up to the edge of doing, I'll nail him up.

He wasn't kidding, as we saw in the Emperor Titus' seige of Jerusalem 40 years later.
Jan. 15th, 2007 08:15 am (UTC)
I thought that whole story was apocryphal?
Jan. 15th, 2007 11:50 pm (UTC)
Shhh, we're supposed to pretend the Gospels all happened.

Science: But--
Me: All of them!
Jan. 15th, 2007 11:57 pm (UTC)
Well, that too....
I was thinking of the story of "the Jews" being consulted in the case of Jesus. It's really unlikely that a Roman bureaucrat would let "the Jews" have any say in anything. Plus, "the Jews" are individuals. But beyond that, there is, I am told, no evidence that this story ever happened, and the Romans kept meticulous records.
Anyway, I have heard that this story was added later to put the blame on "the Jews".
Jan. 15th, 2007 02:58 am (UTC)

Add to the stupidity of A) believing that English was the original tongue of Jesus and Yahveh, and B) believing that the KJV is the "revealed" word of Yahveh, is the whole "do not worship graven images" thing.

Because what is the written word, if not an engraven image?
Jan. 15th, 2007 05:32 am (UTC)
Your story is a prime example of why I don't debate religious fanatics. It's usually a waste of time and breath and leaves everyone frustrated and angry.

I give you credit for being more patient and tolerant than I would be. The type of people you're describing work my last nerve, so I've learned to just stay away from them as a rule.
Jan. 15th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)
I went to school with people like that. My mother substitute-taught in the highschool attached to my elementary school; teenagers there would try to have this same argument with her. They believed that the Bible had always been in English, and that all translations to foreign languages (for missionaries) had been sourced from the KJV. The selective ignorance, in otherwise well-educated people, is truly frightening. My parents pulled me out of that school in fourth grade, not wanting me to end up completely bigoted and intolerant.

Other Christians are also battling this ignorance, like James White in his book The King James Only Controversy. It's one thing to acknowledge differences between various translations; it's quite another to declare one as the "true word of God" and all other translations as being "from the devil".
Jan. 17th, 2007 08:52 pm (UTC)
What disturbs me most about this anechdote is that Brad prefaced it by saying it was "funny."

Not, I'm thinking, "Funny-Ha-Ha." More like, "Wow, that could have been me! Hahahaha!"
Feb. 21st, 2008 10:19 am (UTC)
Thank you very much
For a robust belly laugh moment. i read in Larry Niven's Known Space somewhere that laughter is an interupted defence mechanism. Presumably, we interupt it when we realize getting defensive will be futile or counterproductive. The defensive mechanism I'm interupting is the urge to want to run for the horizon. Seriously. And yet, the problem happens with Judaism too. Chazal, the loose collection of about 100 or so proto-Rabbis who cooked up the reintegration and re explanation of Judaism between the Macabees revolt and the end of Talmud being redacted had an AWFUL habit of doing the precise same thing. They said that the patriarchs all knew halakhah better than Chazal themselves did...intuitively understanding the bits that didn't exist when the patriarchs actually lived because their insight was so amazing these three men could "sense" what would eventually have to be there.

Rabbis and regular Jews alike since Chazal have been doing the same damned thing: denying the historicity of their religion. Because you see, once you admit that history probably has an influence, then you can no longer reliably unentangle where G*d stops and man begins. This shouldn't have to be a cause for a conniption fit (the first prayer of the Jewish morning service offers a tenuous but clear response to this conundrum) but conniptions occur anyway. Because I think most people honestly cannot understand a complicated explanation of anything. and it takes a very complicated explanation for the claims of ethical monotheism to make sense. Even then, you don't get a slam dunk proof you get a "well, I suppose if you squint at in the right light and stretch parameter A a bit, and tuck parameter B in, then yes, G*d has interacted with humanity and does have expectations of us which we should fulfill". Ie. you lose certainty. The fact that the system has a very difficult time working without certainty is the most damning charge against it at the end of the day. When certainty is the one thing it DOES NOT grant.

But thank you for sharing a new angle on an issue thats been haunting me for months. (wry look)
Jul. 10th, 2014 03:20 am (UTC)
The human race is doomed ...
If a WHOLE TOWN can be like this, the human race is doomed.
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )