Sunday, September 8, 2013

Living from the Diaphragm

In church, I love it when the translation is wrong.

In a sense, the translation is always wrong. When reading the New Testament, we're always fitting English words over the Greek, and sometimes they fit snugly, while other times they don't fit at all, hanging off in one place, pinching in another, truncating and even obscuring the best parts.

Just today this showed up in Romans 12:3. Romans 12:1-2 is one of the most well-read verses, and justly so. Romans 12:3 is different because it's practical and straightforward, and it can also be deflected and moved past a little too easily if you're not careful.

Romans 12:3 reads "Don't be uperphronein but rather be sōphronein," which is translated something like "Don't be high-minded but be sober-minded." That works, but it sounds a little bumper-stickery, maybe too moralistic. Don't drink and drive, you know. If you didn't come to church drunk then you can pat yourself on the back and move on. You'd be missing the heart of the verse.

If words were garments, then one of these fits well while the other doesn't. Uperphronein as "high-minded" fits pretty well -- you can even see the "Uper" that relates to our "hyper" or "uber-" prefix. But the "so" in sophronein is not really about sobering up, it's more about being sane and being safe. It's about being balanced and connected with reality rather than disconnected. The person who has unplugged from the lying distant voices online, the one connected to local reality, seasons, rhythms, and relationships is the one who is "sophronein." "Safe" is also a nice angle on this word. I want my students to be "safe-minded" in lab, so we take care and work deliberately.

Also, the "phronein" has multiple layers of meaning. It's about how you see yourself, so "-minded" works, but it's also about much more. It's about the center of things, where your heart is, and how you have trained yourself to see, how you self-control ot regulate yourself. It comes from the root "phren", which means the regulator of all other things. We get the word "diaphragm" from it, and this is where it really makes sense for me.

Soon after I joined choir (and married the accompanist), I learned that I wasn't singing right. I may have had emotion and volume but it was not regulated. I wasn't singing from the diaphragm. I had to learn to stand stright, shoulders back, breathe deep, and most of all, keep the right things tense and the right things loose.

The diaphragm supports all the other things going on -- it is the core and the discipline regulating all other singing. Every time we sing the first thing we do is take 5-10 minutes to sing warm-ups, nonsensical sounds that are designed to get the diaphragm toned up and regulating the way it should. It is boring, it is work, it is hard, and some days are better than others, but it comes from a true place, which is the constant need to hold the diaphragm right as you're singing. Your heart may in the right place, but if your diaphragm isn't, you won't sound right.

Paul is saying here that we need to live warmed-up, and need to maintain self-control in all things, including especially our self-assessment of "how am I doing today." We'll mess up, sometimes even when we warmed up right, sometimes in a place where everyone can see, sometimes where only God can see. The danger is not in the messing up but in thinking too highly of ourselves so that we don't give ourselves the chance to mess up.

Live loud and balanced, from the diaphragm.

All that is contained in a contrast between two Greek words, and it's well-nigh impossible to capture in English so succinctly. So there are tools online to help you unpack (I like the Biblos Interlinear Greek Bible, as someone who doesn't really know Greek at all!). These tools help me hear more layers of what there is to hear and help bridge the gap between the 21st-century English and the 1st-century Greek. Inbetween are textures of meaning. It adds another dimension to reading, and it allows the ancient words to speak more clearly.

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