Monday, March 3, 2008

8 Days of Creation Debrief: Found in Translation

So it took me a year to get through 8 days of creation (good thing my theology allows me to suppose that the creation process took longer than that). Any large writing project requires you to find out what it's really about as you go along, and this was no exception. So, there, I admit it, I really had no idea why exactly I started to write all this. I did want to get my thoughts and some evidence for them down in one place, and I do hope Sam and Aidan get a chance to read that letter some day, and those two reasons are reason enough. But there's a deeper reason I found as I went through the process: There is great value, for myself, in the simple act of translation.

Biochemistry has its translation too. In the cell, "translation" is the process of turning the information encoded in DNA into a specific protein. Translation is particularly appropriate because it's the process of turning a DNA/RNA language (with 4 letters) into a protein language
(with 20 letters). You are changing words from one format to another, yet if you make a mistake the words don't work anymore. We've got to translate, but we've also got to be faithful to the original template. That's a fine line to walk that I probably veered from a few times during the writing of the 8 days series. But it's my job as a writer to minimize it.

Now, who am I to be talking about translation? After all, I'm no Wycliffe. I can't read Greek or Hebrew. I'm just getting to the point where I can turn Greek letters into English ones ("pi" = "P" for example). After three years of Latin and three semesters of German I can kind of comprehend each, but it takes me a while. And I'm still struggling to keep my Linux box up and running, so I can't even claim fluency in computer language, for that matter. But the most important documents in my life are written in foreign languages, so I'm well aware that reading them requires a shift from one word-idea association to another.

I think the urge to grapple with that is what drove me to spend hours added up putting it all together in what I hope is something like ordinary language. This can't include pretensions of ironing out every mystery or explaining everything as A=B+C with words in the place of variables. The fundamental goal of translation is to be able to read Genesis 1 with the same neurons that read The New York Times or Journal of Biological Chemistry.

So when I read "day" my mind images not a 24-hour period of creation but a long time of prehuman history, maybe with an overlay of a day-long vision given to an original author long ago. When I read "the sea was filled" and then "the sky was filled" I fill in the land with large, lumbering lizards as well. I noted clearly my inability to perfectly translate the fourth day, but I can still read it and imagine something that can be described with those words happening sometime. When I look at the hands doing the forming, I know they're the hands of God.

These hands didn't leave fingerprints in the clay after molding it. These hands were skilled enough to flick atoms back and forth, and deft enough to set up a mechanism that would run and unfold by itself. Make no mistake, those hands are very close. Every time an oxygen molecule latches on to a hemoglobin to swim around your bloodstream, that gives you life, and God is there. He created the stars that crushed simpler atoms into oxygen, and the water which makes up your blood, and the electromagnetic forces that make the oxygen stick to the iron. He made the hemoglobin so it would stick onto the oxygen just right: tight enough to grab, loose enough to let go. And I think the way he made it was to set up an iterative, long-term, fluid process that can make mistakes, but he can give grace even through those mistakes. This understanding is a translation of Genesis 1 into 21st-century biochemistry mind-language. The reader has a slight further translation to make into whatever language is your true native tongue. Words are fluid, but behind them is a reality: God is creator. Later parts of the Bible weave this understanding into the further reality: God is a redeemer as well, or a less loaded 21st-century world is that God is a repairer as well as a maker.

Looking at the rest of the Bible beyond Genesis 1, I see examples of translations in the past, and the need for more translations in the present, faithful to the past but in today's language. Jesus did it with his parables. He spoke to people who worshipped God in a temple, who hated their foreign occupiers, and who had a script to follow with focused actions -- perhaps too focused. Paul translated when he encountered Greek culture, seeing "many gods and many lords" worshipped by the people around him and calling them to the creator God, the real one, looming behind the tangle of stories. I still don't know all of what they meant, but that's what makes Bible study so rewarding, the act of connecting and translating it all into a change in how you think or act. It's a holy act of holistically bringing these things together. What do we long for today? What have we found with our experiments, and what do we still need? We have to connect Scripture to two currents of knowledge: what we find from the past and what we need for the future. The God who’s the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow is the constant in the midst of the tumult from those two great currents. Jesus and Paul made the connections; Jesus paid the price, Paul pointed to Jesus; now we are imitators of those great translators.

There's a lot of other Bible passages that need to be brought closer to where we live, which is where they belong. I don't know if I can even be successful at this, but I've got ideas for further translations. Even the name of this blog (once I get around to explaining it) has something to do with the act of translation. So I'm going to keep doing it and deciding how to translate next. I challenge you to find what God wants to translate into your life and where, and when he wills, his Spirit will provide the power behind the words we can provide. All we have are words and actions. In his hands he holds what is necessary: the life. It's what he made in the first place, so he certainly knows what to do with it.

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