Search This Blog

Monday, June 18, 2007

Proverbial Sayings

When we consider modern English language, many idioms and proverbial sayings come to mind. For a person raised in THIS culture and time period, such figurative language presents no obstacle to understanding. But if you are an immigrant to whom English is a second language, it can cause a great deal of confusion. I have a friend from Taiwan who showed me a book she had brought with her to the US, entitled "American Idioms", written by a man whose primary language was Chinese. There were many, many errors in his book, some of which would have been incredibly embarrassing to have repeated in public! I suggested that she throw the book away and just learn them as she comes across them. Even within the United States there are various regional idioms and proverbial sayings unknown to the general population.

Now consider the Bible. We are removed 2000+ years from the time and thousands of miles from the cultures. Yet we often forget to take that into consideration when studying our Bibles. I find myself expecting that everything written in the Bible is totally unique apart from its time and cultures. Yet if we think about it, we should realize that time and culture were just as much used by the HS as each author's individual writing style and vocabulary were.

This can take on particular significance when applying the Grammatical-Historical method of interpretation. This literal method of interpretation takes into account the use of figurative language - metaphors, poetry, idioms, proverbial sayings, etc. But if you don't recognize something as figurative, you could easily misinterpret it literally.

For example, if I became frustrated trying to work on a project and laughingly said, "I think I'll just shoot myself", you would know that I'm laughing at my frustration. But if you didn't HEAR my laugh or tone of voice and you didn't pay attention to the CONTEXT in which I used the phrase, you might become concerned that I was threatening suicide. You can see how easy it can be to misunderstand the figurative use of language.

One of the advantages of reading "old stuff" is that in ancient writings I am always coming across material in non-biblical sources that I had previously assumed to be completely unique to the Bible. Suddenly a light bulb will come on and I'll understand that the biblical author was using a common proverbial saying or idiom from his time and culture to clarify his biblical point. If I don't understand that in my interpretation of the passage, I may erroneously put the emphasis in the wrong place - and miss the REAL point all together.

Recently I've been reading Plato. [It's another "Greek summer"! ;)] Today I came across two proverbial sayings that sounded very, very familiar to me and resulted in my reconsidering the biblical passages where they are used.

For example, Mark 9:43, 45 says:
Mar 9:43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
Mar 9:45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.

Now if I interpreted that literally, I would be handless and footless by now! Fortunately, for most of us, common sense would tell us that Jesus is not teaching that we are to literally cut off a hand or foot, but he is using figurative language to teach the point of the heinousness of sin. I'm relieved that I have interpreted it this way, because I just happened to come across the very same proverbial saying in Plato's (431BC-351BC) "Symposium":
"And they will cut off their own hands and feet and cast them away, if they are evil"

What do you know? Jesus was repeating an ancient Mediterranean proverb to teach a point!! [Good thing I held off on the self mutilation!]

Here's another, less drastic, proverbial saying:
Mat 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.

Plato, in "The Republic", in reference to the education of the Philosopher-King, writes:
"For wherewith shall it be salted if the salt have lost its savor?" The point is ... if something lacks its purpose, it's good for nothing. The context of Mt.5:13-16 makes it easy to now understand Jesus' meaning. If a follower of Christ doesn't have good works that glorify the Father, then they are worthless ... like salt that doesn't taste salty or a light that doesn't shine.

I guess the moral is to constantly remind ourselves that such figurative language, as well as possible quotes from works familiar to the original readers, existed. I think I will start keeping a list of them as I read through ancient writings. In the meantime, probably the best thing we can do to avoid major errors in interpretation is to -

(1) Be humble in realizing there is more to Bible interpretation than we may at first consider

(2) Read the Bible slowly, thoughfully and repeatedly


(4) Try to determine the MAIN POINT the author is making, rather than getting too bogged down in the figurative language or even with a specific cultural practice that is only reflecting that main point

(5) Read more "old stuff"

Friday, June 08, 2007

Preparing for a "Literary Vacation"

Beth, Nehemiah and I are about to take a little "literary vacation" to the Berkshires this weekend. This kind of trip has become a tradition with my family and friends. The last two summers I have dragged numerous friends to Concord, Mass. to visit Hawthorne's home and his grave on Authors' Ridge, after forcing them to read some of his work first, of course. [Hey... the lunch at the Concord Inn makes it all worthwhile!] Hawthorne has become a favorite of mine in recent years and I marvel at how I am now able to understand and thoroughly enjoy his writing... which seemed so cold and distant to me when in I was in HS. I heard Beth recently voice one of my own observations - great literature is often wasted on the young. Partly I think a good teacher can make a huge difference in learning to understand and appreciate a work. What a difference Tim's prof in a Milton course made in his enjoyment of "Paradise Lost", a work few would willingly choose to read. Ah... if only we ALL had such teachers introduce us to great works!

But I also think we are better able to appreciate really great writing the more we are exposed to it, and the LESS we expose ourselves to bad writing. I'm always amazed at the depth of my friend Heather's knowledge in literature. She was raised in a home that enjoyed poetry and good literature, particularly English lit. I wish I could have had as much of an influence on my own children, but I didn't really begin to enjoy classic books until they were grown and gone.

One thing I like to do on "Literary" trips is buy a classic work at the author's home. They usually give out a nice bookplate to paste in the front, saying where the book was purchased. Some of my favorites include copies of "Little Women" from Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, Mass., "The Old Man and the Sea" from Hemingway's house in Key West and Hawthorne's "Tales and Sketches" [which includes: "Mosses from an Old Manse", "Twice-Told Tales", "The Wonder Book for Boys and Girls" and "Tanglewood Tales"] from his home in Concord. I also cherish two books I got at the Huntington Library while visiting Tim in Cali - A replica of "The Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales" and "Shakespeare at the Huntington".

In preparation for our trip, Beth and I are reading "Moby Dick", as we're planning to go to Melville's House, and I'm also reading Edith Wharton's "A Backward Glance", her autobiography, in preparation for visiting her home, The Mount. I plan to buy a copy of "The Age of Innocence" at The Mount and two of Melville's early books based upon his own experiences as a South Seas sailor, "Typee" and "Omoo". After avoiding "Moby Dick" all these years, I have to say it's a surprisingly easy book to read. I am even enjoying his digressions into history and descriptions of whales and sailing. I've been quite surprised to find so much humor. I never would have expected that from Melville, but he makes me chuckle quite often. The book IS quite long, but who's in a hurry?

Wharton's autobiography has been so much fun I'm considering reconvening a Literary Luncheon Group just so we can enjoy discussing it. This summer I'm also determined to host my "Paddington Bear Tea" for several little girls who are friends of mine... before they are too old to appreciate it. I dragged a stuffed Paddington all the way home from London on one trip, holding him on my lap on the plane so his hat wouldn't be crushed. I've bought them all copies of the first Paddington Bear book. My idea is to have a "Tea" with my stuffed Paddington as our honored guest and then read a few chapters of the book to them, before giving them copies to bring home. Summer is meant for fun... and what could be MORE fun than reading?!