Monday, June 9, 2008

Lead Us Not Into Translation

Shannon Johnston is the Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Prior to his consecration, Shannon was rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Mississippi. He also served as my 'mentor' after I was ordained to the transitional diaconate and then to the priesthood (my first parish to serve after ordination was the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in West Point, which is a few miles south of Tupelo).

One of the many things I admire about Shannon is his love for liturgy and his insights into church life. And so I always enjoyed reading his contributions to the Pastor's Page of the All Saints' newsletter.

Here's one of his contributions to that newsletter from June 2005 that's definitely worth a look. In it, Shannon discusses the traditional vs. the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer.


Lead Us Not Into Translation

With our single service of worship at 9:30 for these summer Sundays, our "8:30 crowd" is having to adjust to the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer that we use at the 10:30 service. So this seems to be a good time to revisit the reasons, behind the changes to the traditional wording of the Lord's Prayer. The changes are rooted in very important concerns; this is most certainly not a case of torturing a venerable text simply for the sake of using "modern" words or phraseology. So important are these concerns that I have chosen to use the contemporary version throughout the summer services in order for our 8:30 folk to be able to engage the issues at hand. For you 10:30 types, it's been a long time since I've taught this (you might not have been here when I did), and so I want to be sure that you are really on board as well.

I realize that the contemporary version is confusing for children, who invariably have been taught the traditional one. This is my own biggest reservations about using the modern wording. Also, some people don't like having to look at the page to read the prayer instead of saying it from memory. That is disconcerting, especially with a prayer you have known all your life. However, I do have a guaranteed solution for both concerns: memorize the prayer yourself and teach it to your children! And when you have to read the prayer from the page, consider that it is a good thing to be more deliberate in saying the Lord's Prayer; this brings more thought and intentionality. We should not be praying this greatest of all prayers simply "by rote." After all, these are Jesus' own words.

And that is the main reason the contemporary version commends itself and commands our attention—what Jesus actually meant in the prayer, and how we would understand His meaning through the words we use. The modern version is much clearer theologically for our ears today than is the traditional version (which comes from 14th century English!). The problems arise from the fact that some of those "traditional" English words and phrases had one sense of meaning for people in 1380, whereas for us today the implications are entirely different, and not to the good. For example:

(1) "Lead us not into temptation..."

Are we to conclude from this that God actually LEADS us into facing temptations? Surely not, as if God would toy with us in so unfaithful (and conceptually ridiculous) a fashion. That is terrible theology, whether child or adult. Pastorally, I've had to deal with a lot of fall-out from that misguided notion. It is much more to Jesus' point that we pray to be saved from (as the contemporary version has it) those actual times in human life that threaten to take us into serious depths of despair or faithlessness. Moreover, it's not mere and vague temptation that is at stake but outright trials, both those in which we are now embroiled and those we will face in the future. This petition also points to some of our deepest fears: dying and death, God's judgment, and the end-time. Obviously, "temptation'' is too weak a word to convey what is meant here.

(2) "Forgive us trespasses..."

In Jesus' own original language (Aramaic), he was getting at the hard reality of sin when it comes to being forgiven by God as we forgive others. The softer and less specific 'trespasses" carries neither the weight nor the sharp, jarring focus intended. Today, when the word "trespass" is used meaning sin, offense, or wrongdoing, it is euphemistic or poetic—a runaround that Jesus would hardly allow!

The contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer was produced in 1975 by the "International Consultation on English Texts," an official body of the English-speaking Churches throughout the world. It was intended to be the one version for everyone to use, regardless of denomination, so that we might have at least this personal legacy of our Lord in common.


bls said...

BTW, Garry Wills, in The Rosary, discusses the Lord's Prayer as eschatology. He says that the modern version, which says "Save us from the time of trial" (rather than "Lead us not into temptation"), is more correct, and that "Trial" (in Greek, Pierasmos) really means the "Tribulation" at the end of the world. Here's more of what he has to say:

"The first clause of this prayer section ['Give us this day our daily bread'] has an unexampled adjective (epiousios) applied to bread. It is usually translated 'daily' bread, since ousios, which follows the preposition epi, 'upon,' can come from the verb for 'to be,' and so epiousios would mean 'on-being' (actual, present, daily). But ousios could, with equal etymological validity, come from the verb for 'to come' - 'the on-coming bread.' In an apocalyptic context, where the messianic meal at the end of time comes first to mind, this suggest the feast God will have with his saved ones. This accounts for the emphatics 'this day' (semeron). We are asking to anticipate our homecoming, to sample even now the final blissful meal....

The second clause of the Our Father, 'Forgive us our debts,' also has an end-time meaning. It refers to the great day of reckoning (Jeremiah 27), modeled on the Jews' jubilee years, when all debts were cancelled.

He also says that "Deliver us from Evil" should actually read "Deliver us from the Evil One."

I like the modern version a lot more than the older one.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing this from Garry Wills. In addition to Shannon's thoughts, this makes an even stronger case for why the contemporary translation is theologically more accurate than the traditional wording.

BillyD said...

[Full disclosure: I strongly dislike the contemporary version. Like most ICEL texts, I find it flat, inelegant, and terribly dated in a 1970's sort of way.]

In spite of the ICEL's rather lofty intention, this has not become the translation used by everyone, regardless of denomination. Not even close. I've never been to an RC mass that used it (and forget about hearing it at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy) and even most Rite II services I've been to have (thankfully) used the traditional form. It's not uniting Christians across denominational borders. I don't see how it possibly could, given the fact that it and other ICEL texts are often adapted by those Churches using them. Whether it's doing anything besides annoying those poor exiles from the 8:30 service remains to be seen.

Some of the arguments in its favor don't seem very strong. If the translation "lead us not into temptation" is so misleading that the only way to deal with it is to scrap it, what does that imply for weightier problems with language in Christianity? Surely imagery like "Father" to speak about God, or "the hand of God" to speak about God's actions, or "begotten" to speak about relations within the Trinity, present similar problems - but they seem to be well dealt with by competent instruction instead of fiddling with the texts. And the traditional second person singular is outdated, but "hallowed" isn't?

Bryan Owen said...

I appreciate your comments, BillyD, but I must say that I find your objections to the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer unpersuasive. The fact that it's not widely used in worship doesn't say one thing against the adequacy of its theology. And none of your counter-examples strike me as being anywhere near as problematic as the suggestion that God would toy with us or even try to destroy us by leading us into temptation.

So long as the theology is orthodox, putting the words of liturgy into contemporary language is hardly about "fiddling with the texts." On the contrary, it's about being faithful to a Reformation principle at the heart of the Anglican Prayer Book tradition since 1549, and which is well summed up by Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion: "It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people" (BCP, p. 872).

Perhaps most Christians understand the meaning of the traditional version well enough so that there's no real problem here. However, if people in fact don't understand the meaning of what they're saying using the traditional wording for the Lord's Prayer - or worse, if their understanding is contrary to biblically sound, orthodox theology (in the ways suggested by Shannon) - I would say that's a problem.

BillyD said...

The 39 Articles notwithstanding, liturgy is about more than putting orthodox teaching into language understanded of the people. Look at the RC's: their liturgy is terribly understandable - and terrible, to boot.

Bryan Owen said...

I agree, BillyD, that it does make a difference whether or not the translation into contemporary language is done well or badly.

But I do not agree that the contemporary version of the Lord's Prayer in the 1979 Prayer Book falls into the "done badly" category.

On the contrary, I think it's a good example of how to do it right.