Utterly Ineffable

Sitting in an office full of Bibles, I feel well equipped for an apocalypse. At times, however, the irony of editing Bibles is almost overwhelming. Standard publishing contract boilerplate includes the assurance that the work of the author contains nothing “blasphemous.” I once had an author object to this language since just about anything said about religion or the Bible could be considered blasphemous in the right circumstances. In these days when Tea and other parties promote a literalistic reading of Scripture and some of its antiquated perceptions of humanity, I realize that the problem is the strange theological tenet known as “inerrancy.”

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The idea of inerrancy is that the Bible is without error of any kind, itself an errant assumption. Those who hold it do not fully appreciate that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all. The Bibles we read and swear on today are translations of copies of copies of copies in a long regression back to missing originals. Those translated copies have to be typeset and printed, and errors creep in at every stage, as is clear from a glimpse of the manuscript trail as well as many famous misprinted Bibles. Even when the inerrantists are pushed back to the original languages, the problem of not having the autograph remains an unsurmountable barricade to the mind of God. Bibles, like any other books, are subject to human error at each step of the publishing process. On my desk sit contracts where the editor of a Bible swears nothing blasphemous exists in the words. Such contract signers are braver than this tremulous hand.

Once I sent a hastily drafted contributor agreement to a Jewish author with the divine name accidentally misspelled. Within literal minutes of hitting the send button, my phone rang. The contributor was civil but reproving. Did I expect a Jewish man to sign off on a document with the ineffable name misspelled? I apologized but otherwise held my tongue. I had inadvertently blasphemed, perhaps, in my need to get too much done in a day. Now I am editing Bibles. One contributor to a study Bible told me his student evaluations state, “he wrote the effing Bible!” Effing? Ineffable? Inerrant? I’m not sure I have the nerves to handle this kind of pressure. Then there is that box full of leather Bible-binding samples under my desk. Bible-binders sure know their leather. Don’t tell me my thoughts have gone astray yet again.

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Presumption Be Thy Name

I once dashed an email off to a colleague in a hurry. The email concerned, in some way, the Judeo-Christian deity, known in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton YHWH. Quite unintentionally, my harried fingers tapped out YWHW—an honest, if impious, mistake. My colleague, who happens to be Jewish, immediately pointed out my unintentional blasphemy—one more casualty of the computer age. Naturally, I apologized and life went on. (I try not to spin out the larger implications.) The point is, based on the third (some would say “second”) commandment, Judaism has strongly preserved the taboo on using the divine name at all. God’s name is spelled without vowels to prevent anyone from trying to say it, and when written with the vowels of the word “lord” (adonai) gives us the false form Jehovah. Casual use of the divine name is considered offensive, and some would say it’s swearing.

HebraicRootsBibleWhile on Amazon.com the other day—it is the site to which I go for solace; so many books! So many books!—I came across the Hebraic Roots Bible. Subtitled “A Literal Translation,” it was clear that this was yet another well-intentioned, but ill-fated attempt to make the definitive English translation of the Hebrew Bible. True, literal translation is a chimera. Languages are thought-systems and can only be approximated in other languages. Those who wish to read the Bible literally must become proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic. In any case, none of that caught my attention. Without a hint of irony, the author of this book was listed as Yahweh. In case you’ve been wondering why some prayers are going unanswered, you may have your answer here—the Almighty has been busy writing a book!

My first reaction was a coy smile. That is kind of a cute selling point. But then I realized there was likely no humor to it. This was probably understood to be read literally: Yahweh wrote this book. I wonder who he got to write the Foreword. My error to my Jewish colleague was, literally, unintentional. This was literally scary. Who would be bold enough to claim that their own interpretation was the word of I Am himself? Why did he wait until 2012 to publish it? Blasphemy comes in a variety of forms. While still at Routledge, one of my Jewish authors insisted that I strike the blasphemy clause (standard for many publishing contracts) from his agreement. “Who can write anything that isn’t considered blasphemy by somebody?” he reasonably asked. The thought comes back to me, looking at the Hebraic Roots Bible. The author’s name, after all, didn’t even make it onto the cover of the book.


Terror Able

Saturday afternoons were made for B movies. After a hectic week, nothing soothes like grainy picture quality and poor dialogue. This weekend offered a chance to view The Terror. This 1963 Roger Corman film won its bad marks the honest way – by earning them. Nevertheless with Jack Nicholson playing against Boris Karloff and a plot so convoluted that I had to draw a chart to figure out what I’d just watched, the movie lived up to its grade. Throw in Francis Ford Coppola as an associate producer and it’s party time. Corman’s legendary cheapness and fondness for disproportionate claims of scares that never materialize only add to the charm. After watching the opening sequence one gets the distinct impression that Franklin J. Schaffner had watched this film before setting up the climatic scene of Planet of the Apes.

In keeping with a recent trend on this blog, the plot involved a witch. An old woman from Poland resettles in France to avenge her murdered son. The crone casts a spell transforming a bird into a beautiful young woman. The first words of the spells sent me fumbling for the “rewind” button. “Tetragrammaton, tetragrammaton,” the old woman intones to begin her spell. In a movie fraught with dialogue problems, this might be considered simply a choice of foreign-sounding, mysterious syllables to be uttered for an audience not expected to know that tetragrammaton is the title of the sacred four-letter name of Yahweh. By this point the plot was so convoluted that making God the agent behind a pagan curse seemed almost natural.

The analog with the Bible soon became clear. The Bible holds its sway over many because of its often beautiful rhetoric. Sparing the time to study what the rhetoric might have meant in its original context is an exercise few believers can afford to undertake. Our world has become so full of things that taking time to explore the implications of one’s religion must compete with ever increasing Internet options, thousands of channels of television, and plain, old-fashioned figuring out how to get along. Religion is a luxury item and, as experience tells us, it is best not to look too closely at luxuries – their flaws too readily appear upon detailed inspection. Allowing religion its exotic sounding mumbo-jumbo preserves its mystery and power. And if a witch says a theologically freighted word we can just chalk it up to entertainment. We are too busy to examine what our religions really say. Roger Corman may have unintentionally discovered a real terror in a movie that will keep no one awake at night.


Souper Sensitive

Last night we had minestrone soup for supper. That’s a pretty bold claim for a non-Italian family in New Jersey, but we try our best. This particular recipe called for shaped pasta, and we have an entire cupboard dedicated to that particular starch. In the back of the cubicle my wife found a package of aleph-beth pasta shapes, a novelty for kids, I suppose. Vaguely I recall having purchased it a few years back to try to interest my daughter in learning Hebrew. (It didn’t have that particular result.) Well, pasta is pasta, and just in case it goes bad after the course of a decade, we decided to use it.

As I was spooning some of the soup out, I noticed the letters shin and a final mem in close proximity, bringing to mind ha-shem, “the name.” It then occurred to me that aleph-beth pasta might lead to theological conundrums difficult to swallow. What if one were to end up with a yod, he, waw, and he in the same spoon? Does ineffable also count as inedible? The larger extrapolation then took over; letters are but abstract symbols, only bearing the meaning we decide they bear. Yet extreme devotion is frequently ascribed to certain words in various religious traditions.

A spoonful of trouble

Soup is, by its very nature, chaotic. Spellings could be simply accidental. To eat or not to eat? That was the question. The purchase of the pasta had been with the purest of intentions. Never before had a wheat product put me in such a compromising position. As I slurped up ha-shemp (only in abstract form, along with zucchini and a bit of carrot) I reflected how much religion controls human behavior. While we may consider it a system of beliefs, its real-world applications are far reaching. Sacred texts and pasta all at the same time. It must be that another semester is about to commence.


The New Tetragrammaton

It all started with Genesis. I’ve been reading Genesis since before I was even a teenager. When I began teaching it in a seminary setting, the age-old question of how science and religion fit together had become an insistent preoccupation. I began reading books by scientists who hypothesized that belief itself has a biological basis. Of course, there will never be any convincing those who believe since it is a chicken-and-egg style argument whether the body has “faith structures” because God put them there, or if we believe in God because our bodies grew them. One thing seems fairly certain, humans are “programmed to receive” what has been labeled “divine input” through the very bodies we’ve evolved.


Last night I finished reading Dean Hamer’s The God Gene, the latest in a long series of such books I’ve picked up over the years. While much of the technical and statistical information was beyond the comprehension of a simple humanities scholar such as myself, it became clear that a genetic basis likely does exist for a sense of spirituality among people. Quantifying spirituality, obviously, is a task open to long and serious debate, but the general traits of spirituality are nevertheless instantly recognizable. If those recognized as spiritual share characteristics uncommon among the non-spiritual, that itch should be telling us something. Hamer tracks the culprit to the gene VMAT2, responsible in some way for the monoamines that trigger spiritual experiences. He displays the evidence for how he drew this conclusion in a scientific way, being careful to note that genetic predisposition to spirituality neither proves nor disproves God.

Since the traditional Judeo-Christian name for God consists of four letters known as the “tetragrammaton” and since the “God gene” also has four letters, VMAT, I wonder if we’re onto something here. God can’t be measured in the lab (yet), but the “receptors” for God can. Others scientists have analyzed “God nodules” in human brains that seem to react to spiritual influences. As long as religion does not object to the laboratory probing of its sacred cows, we may eventually find God in a test-tube or petri dish. Chances are he won’t be a bearded white man sitting on a golden throne, and the smart money says most people won’t worship him once he is found.