Perspective I: Hermeneutics of Translation

I didn’t know what the word hermeneutic meant until I was in my late twenties. I started to hear the word thrown around in my graduate coursework with ancient languages, and gathered that it had something to do with interpretation. I had nerd-ed my way into a small group of students that wanted to pursue further academic studies that had the guidance of a passionate professor. This man saw that we wanted to learn, and not just within the box — we wanted to be challenged and to think more deeply than our classes were already asking of us. The school I went to already encouraged students to engage with material and viewpoints they didn’t agree with. I had heard a saying that to go to a similar kind of program at another nearby school that shall remain unnamed… there you would be told what to think — but if going to the school we were attending, you would be taught how to think, with an implied sense of think for yourself, think critically — think with a mind of your own rather than being blindly told what the “right answer” is.

Part of me wanted the right answers, it simplified trying to master material and “do well” in school. Another part of me loved the freedom and dignity in being encouraged to have my own thoughts and grow in working those out in my studies. One of my favorite semesters in my graduate studies included a fascinating collision of hermeneutical models. I was taking a small specialized course in Hermeneutics designed by the professor I mentioned above, basically a supernerd course for those of us hoping to pursue PhDs and couldn’t get enough of school. Along with a couple of other courses, I also took a marital therapy course over the same summer. I quickly realized in many ways, we were talking about the same thing: perspective, viewpoint, lenses, interpretation… hermeneutics!

When working with couples, you have to consider how two different people in the same relationship can experience the same exact conversation and see it in completely different ways. These two people who share in the same exclusive relationship can experience and view the relationship in entirely differing ways. A memory that is shared by both parties may hold completely different meaning, both then and now, for this couple. It’s all a matter of how they see that same thing and what it means to them. What’s the context those experiences get placed within? What associations with certain words or actions shape and define what those things mean to each person? Are there genuine misunderstandings of what has happened or what is said that distorts the viewpoint and meaning?

The way I am trained in working with couples is to slow things down. We do this because our brain and body will interpret what is happening around us in milliseconds through something called neuroception (see earlier posts on Polyvagal Theory), this is simply our brain and body perceiving what’s happening around us, scanning those surroundings — are things safe? good? conflictual? unsafe? a threat? If we can slow things down, then we can consider what is present in our viewpoint that might be shaping how we are interpreting the other person.

I’ll give an example here… I am an extremely expressive person. I like to communicate and process out loud and let people know what I’m thinking. I’m aware a lot of this comes from not liking silence or having to guess what was on people’s minds when I was a kid, this didn’t feel safe, I hated never being certain if someone was mad at me or if something else was wrong. As a kid, I didn’t understand that I shouldn’t have been burdened with that tension that often filled my house, especially between my parents. I internalized it and to this day, if I am not mindful, it is easy for me to assume that someone’s quietness or shortness could be because I did something wrong. With my husband, if I’m not careful, this will be my assumption when he’s quiet. And let me tell you, having married a man who’s extraordinarily introverted, stoic, and quiet by nature — it’s been a growing process. For him, to be quiet is safety, it’s calm, it’s peace. To my system, it sends off an alarm bell that something could be wrong. His quietness often means he’s happy to be home with me at the end of our days, and is peacefully resting and enjoying the calm of being together in our safe place. If I’m not mindful, I can bring a lens to this that entirely distorts what’s going on and makes assumptions that feel or seem to be based on facts, but the problem is those facts are misunderstood through a perspective that holds certain assumptions. Our assumptions, our grounding posts in how we see the world, these things shape how we see the world. And if we’re not careful, they can wildly distort what’s right in front of us without us even realizing it. The most obvious visual example of this would be a funhouse mirror.

So, why am I talking about how people interpret each other? I think it’s an interesting lead in to talking about how we interpret things in our faith. In the same way that we bring with us a certain lens or framework for how we interpret people we are in relationship with (and this is not exclusive to couples — it happens with friends, family, coworkers!), we bring a lens with us to basically everything in life. Our normal, our assumptions, our convictions — they shape how we view the world. And this isn’t necessarily bad! I think it’s a helpful thing to inherently view all people with human dignity and respect, this is an assumption I firmly hold and that I have no intention of ever letting go of. It is however unlikely that holding a view that someone who is quiet is mad at me is going to help me in my relationships in life…

How does this connect with our faith? Well, there’s a lot of interpretation that happens in our faith, especially western evangelical Christianity. Whether we identify as evangelical or not, it’s hard not to be influenced by western evangelical Christianity if you’re a Christian in the states, the west, or nowadays with technology… anywhere! The culture is massive, it influences us through worship music, popular speakers/pastors/podcasts, books/online content… there’s so much that we absorb from the people who lead and teach us, and trickling down through pastors, seminaries, churches, and books are assumptions that make up the lenses through which people see the world in a “Christian” way — these assumptions dictate how we are to understand certain verses in the bible and apply them to our lives… no biggie, right? (that’s sarcasm in case it’s not clear enough in writing…!)

We could take this conversation in a lot of directions. I’d love to try to narrow us down to the heart of it all… these assumptions deeply influence our understanding of what it means to be human. How we understand (which is really an interpretation of) Scripture informs how we view ourselves, the world around us, and God. Now, this might not seem problematic at all — you might be thinking, well of course I want my faith to inform how I see myself, the world around me, and most importantly, God. And if so, I’m with you — absolutely! The question I’d love to uncomfortably sit with is, what if our viewpoint has unhelpful and even inaccurate assumptions in it that we don’t even realize are there? Even worse, what if things that we have always assumed as stakes in the ground are not actually stakes in the ground, but instead opinions or biases of other humans that have had such an influence that we accept them as gospel truth?

A couple of examples here… doing extensive study in Greek and Hebrew in seminary, along with deep dives into hermeneutics, shook me. I had never considered that any translation work intrinsically includes facets of interpretation, and to consider the interpretive lenses used in translation work for the bible. I had no idea how translation committees functioned or to consider overt or covert agendas held in those people’s personal views that they might want to push through their choice of English words that would be printed neat and tidy in a pretty English bible accepted as an accurate representative of the original ancient texts. I have no intention of going down a path to say that because of textual issues that arise in translation work that we can’t trust Scripture or should question it — that’s not my aim here. My aim is to take a step back and consider the human influence on translating the bible into what we know it of today, whether that’s the bible we read in a quiet time, the bible our pastor teaches out of, or the bible our bible study follows. If we don’t consider the human interaction with the text, including our own, we are entirely missing layers upon layers of interpretive decisions that are consciously and subconsciously happening, shaping our understanding of what we are reading and hearing, and shaping how we believe that ought to be put into practice.

And that’s the epicenter of what I want to consider — praxis. How is the practice, the living out of our faith, influenced by the assumptions that others and ourselves hold? What is the intermingling of these assumptions with theology, and how does this impact not only our views but how we live them out? I’d love to follow this down to what is arguably one of the most important strands in this larger tapestry — how do the assumptions that shape the understanding of our faith impact our understanding of what it means to be human, both in thought and action? And how is this intertwined with our view of God and our relationship with him?

We’re going to consider this in a few different ways. To start, we’ll consider how verses like Jeremiah 17:9 are used to reinforce a certain view of our humanity, based on an English translation that is… well, arguably less than helpful for the reader who is trusting the translation to express the original text in a way we will interpret and understand effectively. Look out for the next post, Perspective II: Wicked or Wounded?


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