Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Here's a free tip for the clergy: Don't be afraid to revise Scripture. The Bible's countless insights into the nature and ambitions of the human soul are couched in weak, antiquated writing. Kindle them with poetry. Have faith: Polishing the language for the sake of oratory will not constitute a betrayal of sacred trust.

To borrow the words of ghostwriter David Charnoff:
The spoken and the written word are not the same. The trick is to use the building blocks of the spoken language to convey not the thing itself but the authentic tone of the thing. ...The average translator gets the literal meaning right but misses the tone. And tone is everything.
In centuries past, buildings were alive. Architecture was a continual process, and no structure was ever "finished." Musicians completed each other's concertos; painters recycled their canvases. The sense of inviolability we assign to art today is a recent phenomenon. If the pendulum is going to swing, we will have to expand our notions of revision and evolution. Art seems to achieve more when it is willing to stand atop the shoulders of its predecessors rather than simply admiring them from afar.

I don't think the Bible's greatest value is in helping man to understand God, but rather in helping us to understand ourselves. In most editions I've seen, the potency of each story is dulled by language that reads like Chaucer. A book publisher would be wise to invest in a modern revision of the Bible in the spirit of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf; but in the meantime, God's servants shouldn't hesitate to interpret his words for the flock. You can't stir a man's soul unless you can first command his attention.


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