Faith between Cultures, and How Scholars Frame Sacred Literature

When I was a little younger than I am now, I openly wished that “secular Protestant” was a meaningful category in our society, akin to “secular Judaism.” I longed for a cultural register within which I could observe the customs, traditions, and habits of Christianity without affiliating myself with any strong doctrines. I think that I envied the way my Jewish friends could partake of a rich cultural-religious milieu, encompassing everything from the Torah and the Talmud to Maimonides and Spinoza and Isaac Babel. Christianity does not make itself conducive to such an experience. “Secular Christianity” does not work, in part because both Christianity and secularism make such broad, universalizing gestures and in part because both have become the cultural dominant in most of the cultures they inhabit. In cloyingly academic terms, Christianity and secularism both have a tendency to colonize and then render themselves normative. Identifying with a “secular Protestant” tradition basically just identifies one as a white American, or a white European, or whatever.

I begin with this observation about secularism and Christianity because there remains, for me, a lingering dissatisfaction with the way Christianity presents itself to the culture at large. As far as world religions go, Christianity is “the Big One”—we mark the secular calendar by it, for heaven’s sake. When people use the term “normative” to describe religious experience (as I did above), they’re usually talking about Christian belief and practice. This means that Christians cannot really enjoy the ethnic, national, and cultural identities that undergird and strengthen other religious communities. Sure, Islam and Buddhism are universal faiths, just like Christianity, but in the West they are marked by Other-ness, so that to identify with Islam or Buddhism is to identify with a number of cozy cultural particularities. To attend a mosque in the West is to stand in religious solidarity with ethnic Arabs or Persians or immigrants from any number of African nations. Further, non-believing Arabs and Persians and Africans in the West may attend mosque for purely cultural reasons. To attend a Christian church in the West is to simply be a white Westerner. And non-believing white Westerners increasingly identify themselves with the statistically significant category of “nones,” those with no religious identity at all. The number of white Westerners who attend church decreases every year. We are not likely to enjoy a secularized Christianity anytime soon.

A few exceptions to the above paragraph exist within American Christianity (there are many more exceptions throughout the globe). One is the rich tradition of African-American Christianity, where the church has historically served important spiritual but also civic, political, and social functions. Historically black churches remain a political and social force in the United States in ways rivaled only by white Evangelical megachurches (although it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a secular African American attending an historically black church for its social and cultural aspects, whereas the idea of anyone who doesn’t already believe attending a white Evangelical megachurch seems pretty absurd). And then there are the numerous Catholic and Orthodox churches that are associated with specific ethnicities and nations. Their mix of doctrinal universalism and cultural particularly is one component among many that have drawn me to these traditions over the past year. (The fact that I’ve come to believe in these traditions and their claims is, of course, a much larger component.)

In short: in the West, it seems possible to identify with a religion like Judaism or Islam without necessarily committing oneself to belief. This is impossible with Christianity, where to identify oneself as “a Christian” seems to necessitate belief. Interestingly, the reverse seems to be true where the scholarship of comparative religion is concerned. And this brings me to the larger topic of this post: how scholars frame sacred literature.

When reading the Bible, specifically the New Testament, I rely on the New King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version. The former is favored by my priest and by most thoughtful believers I’ve encountered. The latter I have used since I was in college, when I took “Bible as Literature” and purchased the HarperCollins Study Bible. I also use David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament, though it’s not the most readable. When reading the Old Testament, aka the Hebrew Bible, I’ll dip into my NKJV or NRSV but usually rely on Robert Alter’s recently completed translation. Finally, I own a copy of HarperCollins’s Study Quran, which I consult whenever I’m researching something related to the Quran.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not interested in the differences between these translations per se, but in the way the translators frame their project as religious or otherwise. I first began thinking about this after I purchased the Study Quran and read Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s thoughtful introduction. He begins, “The Quran is for Muslims the verbatim Word of God, revealed during the twenty-three-year period of the prophetic mission of the Prophet Muhammad through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel. The meaning, the language, and every word and letter in the Quran, its sound when recited, and its text written upon various physical surfaces are all considered sacred” (xxiii). A section on “the Role and Function of the Quran in Muslim Life” appears midway through Nasr’s introduction. Describing HarperCollins’s initial invitation to Nasr to serve as the chief editor for the volume, Nasr writes that he accepted the job only after “much soul-searching and prayer” (xl). The introduction ends with a beautiful “Final Prayer,” offered by Nasr and the other editors of the translation (xlix).

Nasr’s introduction struck me as both extremely honest and remarkably devoid of the scholarly detachment that accompanies so many translators’ notes in my Study Bible. Wayne Meeks begins his introduction to the HarperCollins Study Bible by noting that “[t]he Bible is the most familiar book in the English-speaking world; certainly it is the one most often published and most widely known” (xvii). He proceeds to reflect on the challenges of translating the Bible and on the history of critical study of the Old and New Testaments. Meeks’ introduction is followed by Bruce M. Metzger’s note to the reader on the translation, most of which concerns the history of the NRSV, its roots in the King James Version (“the noblest monument of English prose”), and the various issues with the KJV that rendered a new translation necessary. Each book of the HarperCollins Study Bible features a short introduction by a scholar who offers a more-or-less standard overview of the book’s origin, themes, structure, and influence. There is nothing to indicate whether the translators and scholars were believers. In fact, there is little to indicate that they are translating anything other than a momentously important work of literature.

Part of this scholarly detachment in the HarperCollins Study Bible and religious (but still scholarly) attachment in the HarperCollins Study Quran has to do with obvious differences between the Bible and the Quran. The former is a collection of books from across genres, nations, and languages with varying audiences and purposes. The latter contains the purported words of God Himself, transcribed by one individual in a single language at a particular moment in history. But part of the difference between these two approaches is doubtless the result of the way Christianity and Islam register differently in our own culture. Decades of harassment and suspicion toward Muslims in the West have increased the respect and care with which we approach Muslim belief in scholarly circles. Centuries of Christian dominance in the West, meanwhile, have rendered Christian belief a subject of critical history in the same circles.

What about David Bentley Hart, a renowned scholar who is also a believer? He begins the introduction to his New Testament translation with a reflection on why another translation is necessary. The problem with previous translations, as he sees it, is that they demonstrate too much attachment: attachment to various doctrinal or critical interpretations, attachments to particular effects or meanings or traditions. His attempt at a wholly neutral New Testament is, he admits, bound to fail, but it is an attempt nonetheless. He shows a commitment, if not necessarily to the two millennia of religious practice through which the New Testament is filtered down to us, then to the original community which produced it: “I doubt I ever truly properly appreciated precisely how urgent the various voices of the New Testament authors are, or how profound the provocations of what they were saying were for their own age, and probably remain for every age. Those voices blend, or at least interweave, in a kind of indiscriminate polyphony, as if an early Baroque vocal trio, an Appalachian band, a couple of Viennese tenors piping twelve-tone Lieder, and a jazz crooner or two were all singing out together; but what they have in common, and what somehow forges a genuine harmony out of all that ecstatic clamor, is 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” (xxiii – xxiv). These are the passionate words of someone deeply committed to Christian belief and whose faith transmutes, without corrupting, his scholarship.

As for Robert Alter, his Hebrew Bible begins, like Hart’s New Testament, with an introduction that questions the need for yet another translation of the Hebrew Bible. Alter’s tone is even more urgent than Hart’s when he responds that, yes, a new translation is desperately needed, given the deep inadequacies of nearly all earlier translations. His introduction is preoccupied with the question of translation itself and what he calls “the heresy of explanation” that infects previous attempts to unite the spirit of Ancient Hebrew literature with Modern English. Regardless of whether Alter himself is devout (I do not know), his approach to translation reveals a religious reverence for the language of the Hebrew Bible and a deep respect for the traditions that have allowed the Bible to migrate into our present. Consider his note “on translating the names of God.” He departs from modern Biblical scholarship (for an example, see Edward L. Greenstein’s new translation of the book of Job) to transliterate the Tetragrammaton (YHWH in Hebrew) as “Yahweh.” He rejects the “academic-archaeological coloration” that the word Yahweh provides in favor of the KJV’s use of LORD, itself a nod to the Jewish tradition of substituting the word ‘adonai for YHWH.

Likewise, Alter’s introduction to his Five Books of Moses begins with citations from the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish tradition, and other sources of interpretation that precede his translation by centuries. His introduction to the book of Psalms begins by acknowledging the profoundly personal and devotional role of the Psalms in the lives of both Jewish and Christian readers. This introduction, as do most of Alter’s introductions and commentaries, weaves together theological and spiritual concerns with matters of critical and literary history. At no point do we doubt his deep reverence for sacred literature and its subjects.

The religious tone of Alter’s introductions and commentaries, which he cultivates regardless of whether or not he is devout, is made possible by the tradition of secular Judaism. This tradition fuses so many beautiful aspects of the religious sphere into the lives of otherwise irreligious Jews. Christianity, which poses a universal audience and places so much emphasis on belief, cannot really possess a truly secular identity. It would be nice, however, if this didn’t need to result in the dry, scholarly commentaries of the HarperCollins Study Bible, wherein a commentator either demonstrates rigorous scholarly detachment or devout religious attachment but never both at the same time. I would prefer something closer to what the editors of the Study Quran demonstrate, or what Alter demonstrates at his most religious: a scholarly identity that, without sacrificing rigor, encompasses the experiences of belief and attachment.

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