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Imagine you are a student in a course in which the textbook seemed to contradict itself in a number of places. The book also contradicts what you have learned in other courses and what you know from your everyday life experiences. You know that your understanding of the material in the book is going to be evaluated by examination and that your performance on the exam is going to have a major impact on your grade in the course. So you first talk to a number of students in the class to try to figure out what the textbook is saying. But you find that the other students in the class have many different interpretations of what the textbook is saying.

So, next you go to the instructor with your concerns. And your instructor says, “If you consider the passages in question in the proper context, you will find that there are absolutely no contradictions in this book.” You do your best to take his advice, but you just cannot resolve the contradictions.

Frustrated, you send an email to the head of the department, complaining that this textbook is not clearly written—certain parts don’t make sense and the students are coming to different conclusions about what the book is saying. Isn’t there a better textbook, one written clearly enough such that all students will understand it? You get an email reply that the current textbook is perfect. The truths it presents are crystal-clear. There is no better textbook. In fact, a better textbook would be impossible.

You continue to wonder how you are going to pass the test, so you identify one particularly difficult passage that seems to make no sense at all, and make an appointment with the dean of the college so that you can discuss the passage as an illustration of how unclear this textbook is. The dean welcomes you and lights up as you present the senseless passage. “The problem here,” says the dean, “is that a few words were not translated properly. If you go back to the Greek version of this textbook, you will see how those words should have been translated, and it will all make sense.”

“Are you saying, then, that in order to understand this textbook properly, I have to learn Greek and read the Greek version?” you ask. “Well, to be on the safe side, you might want to consult the original text in Aramaic,” he replies. “I don’t get it—why can’t we have a textbook that translates the original accurately and clearly into English?” “Now, now,” chides the dean. “If you read the text with a properly prayerful attitude, its truths will be delivered unto you.”

You leave the dean’s office wondering how the instructor, department chair, and dean can possibly believe that this is a good—no, a perfect—textbook. And you wonder how you are ever going to pass that test. “Oh, well, it’s just a test,” you say. “At least it is not life or death.”

[I have been meaning to write this little essay for a while. I was finally inspired to do it after reading some horrible mistranslation apologetics for II King 2:23-25.]


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2008 07:04 pm (UTC)
Nice. I have been mindful of this lately as well. My problem doesn't come with the fictional merit or spiritual lessons of the Bible and its parables - some are quite beautiful... the problem is when people use stories to justify the perpetuation of pain and suffering, ignoring the contradictions and selectively accepting passages on blind faith alone. The Bible is a massive book with a staggering amount of rules and lessons, and among them, plenty are contradictory, and this situation leaves people to either pick and choose which truths/rules/passages they accept (to the exclusion of other passages seemingly of equal merit), or taking the average of all the texts and extracting a generalized message... What is the right way to read it?

By the way, I was just watching Penn & Teller's BULLSHIT on "Signs from Heaven" on youtube not even five minutes ago. It rather brutally drives a good point home, and I thought was refreshing to watch.


(That's only Part 1, navigating to the others is easy enough in the side-window).
Feb. 25th, 2008 09:40 pm (UTC)
The way I like to sum up the way that people pick and choose what suits them from the massive amount of information in the Bible is that the Bible is a gigantic Rorschach inkblot test. Which is exactly the term that Penn and Teller used to describe the cheese sandwich. Thanks for the link to that episode, which I had not seen. No one does it better than Penn and Teller!
Feb. 26th, 2008 05:29 am (UTC)
the Bible is a gigantic Rorschach inkblot test

Oh, it totally is. I think the strange (unprecedented? I'm not sure. The only other true "literalist" movement I can think of is Koranic and from the early middle ages, but I don't really know much about Christian theology past the 1600s) literalist/"fundamentalist" movement is all just a reflection of the rampant anti-intellectualism of our culture, and many other cultural values as well that created the anti-intellectualism. To steal terms from my psych classes, it seems to be a way of relieving some of their cultural, value-related "cognitive dissonance." They've found a way to be true to the values underlying their anti-intellectualism while still buying into a system that's historically and canonically been incredibly intellectually and ritualistically complex. I might be making big, unfair judgments though, as with my background and environment, I've never really been in the vicinity of true Christian fundies, I just read about them in the paper.
Feb. 26th, 2008 05:42 pm (UTC)
Seperation Of Head From Anus
If they do put that spliced and diced version of Hebrew text in the classroom try sneaking in the Tao Te Ching in its place.

At least the Tao makes sense and is not translated on top of translation from 300 different perspectives. Okay, there are a few translations of the Tao, but they all say the same thing. And Lao never commanded anyone to kill their own son and then go, "Ope, it was just a test. Let the boy go."

Besides, have you noticed how vastly different the old text is from the new text? It's like it gives you a hundred ways you must kill someone and then outlaws murder.
Feb. 27th, 2008 02:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Seperation Of Head From Anus
I actually do use several chapters from the Tao Te Ching in one of my courses. It is surely the wisest book ever written.
Feb. 27th, 2008 02:42 pm (UTC)
Re: The Way
That is so wonderful.

I gain a greater perspective every time I read the Tao, even furthering my insight. It's even balanced mathematically; something very important to the Chinese, gaining my respect even more.

Certainly, students should be given the opportunity to explore different ways of thinking. But that's just it; the opportunity, and they already have it.

Teach them well, my friend.
Feb. 27th, 2008 07:11 am (UTC)
I like it. In a grad seminar on the history of psych that I am taking, we recently covered Titchener's mislabeling of Wundt's.

Students would hate the book you speak of. I can see the complaints streaming in now.
Feb. 27th, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)
Exactly. Now here is the million-dollar question. Assuming that my students would agree with you about what a lousy textbook this is, what would they say if I pointed out that the Bible has all of the characteristics possessed by the textbook I just described?
Mar. 6th, 2008 03:50 am (UTC)
Lol! By the second paragraph, I had a sneaking suspicion you were talking about the Bible.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )