The case for biblical languages

I was talking about slow reading a few weeks ago. I recalled reading this statement by Ellen Davis, professor at Duke. She contributed an article in the book “The Art of Reading Scripture” in which she writes, “perhaps the best reason is the most obvious: reading in the original language slow us down.” When we slow down, we read more carefully. We notice the conjunctions, the articles and the prepositions. We notice every letter and every vowel. Perhaps convinced by her statement I opted to learn both languages in order to reap the benefit of reading the scripture slowly.

A few years back when I began thinking about attending seminary. I overheard a professor advising a mature student not to take biblical languages. It is not that he thinks studying the languages is not important. He was merely advising from a pragmatic perspective. Studying languages is not for everyone, particularly when you are older, this obstacle can be insurmountable.

I am in a program that does not require me to take any biblical language but I am doing both. I am doing it because I think acquiring at least a workable knowledge of the biblical languages is vital to anyone working with the scripture. Now that I have completed two semesters of Greek and one semester of Hebrew I am trying to assess my decision.

The truth is acquiring a biblical language is not easy. As a matter of fact acquiring any language is not easy. With age, definitely our memory capacity diminishes. After two months I can see my Greek is already slipping a bit. So the advice is indeed sound and wise. So is it worth putting in two hundred hours (this is the time I estimated needed to be invested for two semesters of language) worth of time in languages versus using the time to learn other subjects such as theology or preaching or pastoral ministry?

My answer is probably in the minority because I think it is worth it even for mature students. After what I considered minimal language work, I am already reaping the benefit of slow reading as I mentioned. I can testify that it is not something you can do with a translation.

I am also recognizing a benefit that I did not anticipated. I am beginning to see what the text is not saying as much as what it is saying. Take a very simple example, in Genesis begin by saying God created the heavens and the earth. Some may talk about heavens referring to many heavens. However, even with my elementary Hebrew I know the word heaven only occurs in a plural (more accurately a dual) form so it makes no sense talking about multiple heavens. This is just the way the language works and translations may not tell the full story and can be mistakenly taken to mean something the original text does not say. Knowing what the text does not say goes a long way in knowing what the text does say.

Every language has its own way of articulating a concept whether it is abstract or concrete. Knowing the biblical language is not only about what the message is but also how the message is articulated. It is a bit vague but all I can say is you do “feel” the meaning more when you reference the original languages.

Some will argue that with the amount of secondary works available, you do not really need to know the languages. I would say, precisely because of the amount of material available that you do need the languages to separate the weed from the grass. What you are acquiring is the capacity to critically read secondary works, this is not possible without the original languages.

The language expert can probably list more reasons but so far I confirmed my belief that the biblical languages is essential to anyone who is dealing with the scripture. I am even venturing to suggest that this group includes (again many will disagree) small group leaders, children Sunday school teachers and worship leaders. I have an odd suggestion, perhaps instead of teaching kids “reduced” biblical stories which will be deconstructed later, we should teach them the biblical languages. It is kind of like in the old days when all the kids in prep school learnt Latin.

Missing the stars

I am still writing this week’s piece… So in the mean time, in light of the recent “Camelopardalid Meteor Shower”, here is an interesting quote from a book I really enjoyed. Once in a while I’ll go back and read a chapter just for fun. This quote is from the first chapter with the observation that the modern person is seeing more artificial lights than stars.

“Today, however, awareness of the sky and its lights is much less a part of our everyday consciousness. … Not only have our shelters and omnipresent lights permitted us fewer moments of wonder under the stars; they have also surly fostered a diminishment in our collective ability to wonder.” — “The Luminous Dusk” by Dale C. Allison Jr.

On studying: part 2: reading slowly, word by word, with joy

I like to continue with the subject of reading a bit.

I do not need to rehash the importance of reading and reading well. Too many words had been written to encourage people to read that it has become a cliché. The unfortunately is even after so much had been written and said, the habit of reading had been dwindling. So I just like to add my two cents here.

I want to start by saying that I have been reading all my life, but there were moments I absolutely despise reading. I know the feeling of not wanting to read another word. So here is a three point recommendation based on my own experience for starting the journey of forming a reading habit. A reading habit is the first step to develop the craft of reading. If you do not read you will not read well. I must say I am in debt to both Daniel Pennac’s book “Better than life” and James Sire’s book “How to read Slowly” for the following:

First, only read what you like, meaning for pleasure, not what you were told. The obligation to read is the single biggest obstacle to reading. I do not know why but once you feel you need to do something your motivation level drops no matter how passionate you are about it. Even if it is mandatory reading in school, you can still find it pleasurable. You want to find the desire to read. When you cannot find it ask your teacher. A good teacher should be a good motivator. However, do not ask “what is the minimal I should be reading?” You are looking for quality not quantity. Instead ask, “what is the best I should be reading?” If you ask the second question instead of the first one your teacher will gladly point you the way.

That brings us to the second point: take baby steps. Start with a chapter, a page, a paragraph and yes, a sentence. (Aside: Stanley Fish’s “How to write a sentence” is a great read. Start reading chapter eight: first sentence and you’ll want to read the rest.) Remember you do not need to finish a book unless you want to. So as little as you like. The paradox is for the quality read, not only will you finish the book, you’ll re-read it. The question is “what is a “good” book?” Hmm, that for another time. For now you can go read Fish or Pennac or Sire.

Finally, read slowly. If you spent an hour reading a good sentence and find it pleasurable. You know you are on your way. You just experience you first “high”. You will be addicted. The following two examples are two more “high” for you. Are you addicted yet?

“So in the room called Remember it is possible to find peace—the peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.”
Frederick Buechner, “A room Called Remember”

“We can never picture God or imagine him. Either we make him too small, and we strain at that, or we make him too big, and he strains us.”
Frederick von Hugel, “Letters to a Niece”

Of course, not all reading are as pleasurable, sometime you have to do “professional” or “pragmatic” readings. On the other hand, starting habitual-pleasurable reading will make the professional or pragmatic reading more tolerable and profitable. Read slowly, word by word, with joy, a brave new world awaits you.

On studying : part 1: three category of reading

Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2
Polonus: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet:Word, words, words.

In seminary a big part of the studying is reading and writing. Those are the tools of the trade. If you cannot read and write, you will suffer. It is as simple as that.

Reading is something I have been doing my teens but only these two terms offers me a different perspective. I thought I know how to read, well, not really.

I am sure there are people who can offer a lot more on reading but here is a bit of reflection based on my experience. I want to classify reading into three categories: causal reading, careful reading and close reading.

Causal reading is almost universally where everyone starts reading with. We either find it a pleasure or a necessarily to read so we do. Say you pick up a mystery and cannot put it down. Say you go to a restaurant when you are hungry and you start reading the menu. Either case your attention is basically to answer the question of “what”. What is going on? What is available? What facts do I want to know? Basically you pick and choose what is in the text to answer your question and that is about it. Occasionally you will find a good word or a good sentence that you like but that is the caveat not the primary objective. Most of we read this way our entire life. I certainly did.

Careful reading Is usually associated with school or work. You need to do this because simply you have to. It is different from causal reading because the “what” is not what you want to know but what you were told to know. You still pick and choose but you choice are now limited to include quite often what you don’t really care much about. You need to read what will be on the exam. You need to read a manual so you can do your work. A question of “why” naturally emerges. You ask either “why” the author is saying this or you ask “why” you are reading this. The scope of you reading then includes not just “what” but also “why”.

Finally, there is close reading. Close reading has recently emerges as a technical term in literary criticism circles but that is a different story. By close reading I mean you read closely. Every word and punctuation is important. A story is not a story but a plot. There is subtext and context behind every text. You read behind. You read in front. You are not just asking “what” and “why” but also “how” and the correction between almost everything. You ask load of questions. As Old Testament scholar Goldingay in a paper “How far do readers make sense” says ‘No close reading of a work is ever close enough.’ You will always be re-reading.

As I continue to learn how to read, I am realizing causal reading does not always do the text justice, particularly when it comes to scripture. Casual reading of scripture can be detrimental in forming habit to just pick and choose. On the other hand close reading is not be done indiscriminately either, far too often the reader got distracted by paying too much attentions to a single feature. It is an art to know when to dive in and when to stand back. To disregard the spectrum of reading is a lifetime of learning. Reading is really an acquired skill that I believe no one should do without. I regret I wasted many years not learn to read better. I never did push myself enough to learn properly. Now that I am learning, I guess it is better late than never.

A while back I read a little book by Daniel Pennac called “Better than life”. The book is about teaching children to read. He begins with the axiom that we all have the right not to read. Reading is not an obligation. It is often this compulsion that is an obstacle to many. Reading should be completely optional and pleasurable. The paradox is that once you are free from obligation and start reading you’ll find reading should be obligation for everyone.

Learning who you are

Since I am in school, the next series will be on my learning experience.

Towards the end of the winter term I wrote a rather difficult paper. I spent a full two weeks on the paper.
There were two incidents during the writing that worth some reflection.

The first incident was concerning the use of secondary source. I found in a book by a reputable author a piece of argument that was very appropriate for my paper. I knew I should confirm this piece of argument with another secondary source or consult the primary source. Thinking this is by a reputable author and being under time constrain I did not. It turned out that this piece of argument was not entirely correct. The professor who graded my paper did not pick it up. However, a friend of mine, who is also a professor, read my paper and kindly pointed it out to me. I did not really suffer any consequence but I knew I took a short cut and I failed in terms of thoroughness; perhaps integrity too since I knew what I should have done.

The second incident was similar. I read on a blog a related topic and found a couple of sentences that resonated with my paper. I did the standard cut and paste and started thinking there is no way I will be caught for plagiarism. Again, I knew I should not but I did. Fortunately, the guidance angel took over and I rework it.

These two incidents, one negative and one positive, are really minor incidents. They did not cause any serious consequences to me, so why am I writing about them?

I think these two incidents reflected a change in my learning perceptive. In my previous learning experience as an engineering student many years ago, I did plagiarized and I did “fudged” data. I even justified my actions by calling these “survival skills”. My years in the consulting business such practice are justifiable; just make sure you do not get caught. The business driven world of technology values pragmatism and the end do justify the means. The argument restated is simply “why invent the wheel again”.

Before I went off a tangent on pragmatism let’s return to my change of the perspective of learning. The difference is I now see a responsibility in my work. Responsibility is a sign of ownership. I feel an ownership towards the content and the manner of my learning. Previously, I went to school not because I want to but because I have to. So I was shaped by that perspective. I did what I did to achieve the pragmatic end given to me. I went to school parents, for my degree and for my job. I cannot say all that is bad because that was who I was. Now this is who I am. Ownerships reflect identity. The way you go through your learning experience reflect not just your ability but more so your character. If I take short cut in my learning then I am a person with the character of taking short cut. Learning is not just acquiring knowledge, in the process of acquiring knowledge you acquire or discover your character. You acquire through learning knowledge about yourself. Therefore, in your learning experience you have a decision to make: what kind of a person do I want to be? Learning is not just something you do; it is about who you are.

I came across these two lines from by Robert Frost in his poem “What Fifty Said”. (How appropriate)

“I went to school to age to learn the past.”
“I go to school to youth to learn the future.”

I went to school many years ago not certain why I went. I acquired knowledge and knowledge of myself. However, only many years later did I recognize what I acquired in my past. These recognitions took me on a journey back to school. Now I look forward, as if back in my youth again, to the future.

Resurrection 2014

What to do after Easter 2014. resurrection of this blog!!

I made a resolution to update at least once a week, worse scenario is just to post a quote from my readings or a photo. So here it goes…

This is something I wrote a few months ago, this came unexpectedly and I just wrote it down:

My room, before Christmas, after class on Trinity

I torn from my shirt
accidentally
a button

Just sit still at the right hand corner of my desk
next to the Book of Common Prayer
in front of the pile of books I intend to read

It was there before I left
It stayed there
It is there now, after I return

Every time I leave my home, my desk, my room
Every time I wonder whether it will still be there when I return
Every time I expect a fire, a hurricane or a change in the Heidelberg constant

I am glad it is still there, for now, for a while
Every time I come home, to my room, to my desk
I feel safe, I breathe normal, I sit quietly

Just my room and me, the creator of my room
The creator of me
The trinity of creator, creation and creation

Fire at our neighborhood

There was a house fire in our neighborhood last Saturday. It happened to about five houses away from us. Two young girls died in the fire and a young man was in critically condition. There were all students from China.

Report by Toronto Star

Shortly after noon Elizabeth yelled to me that there is a lot of smoke in our backyard. I went out and looked and saw very thick smoke coming from a house nearby. The fire trucks arrived very soon. A lot of neighbors went out to look. As I was talking with a neighbor we saw two persons being wheeled to the ambulances. One ambulance left immediately, another remain. The neighbor I was talking to commented, “That one probably will not make it, otherwise the ambulance would have left immediately.” He was right.

We were riveted for a few days, two young lives gone. The next day Elizabeth commented, “Today is a nice day but those two girls will not see it anymore.” It is so sad. Indeed, every death diminishes us, especially when it is so close to home (in this case literally).

Sometime I wonder why bad things happen to us, in this case I wonder why are we so blessed, we certainly do not deserve it.

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