The fifth page for Good Friday, April 10, 2009
I met a woman this week who was born in Eastern Europe, and was trained as a translator. I have felt for some time that part of my work as a minister is to in some sense “translate” ideas and values rooted in the Ancient World into language that connects with us in our context. This woman told me that when she was going to university, her “mind was blown” when she heard a professor say that languages evolve. Later in our conversation, this woman told me that when she met her future husband she knew very quickly that there was an important connection between them, but she had no words to describe how she felt. Years later she learned the term “soul-mate”, and felt that it fit. She said that in the language of her home country, there simply was no word for how she felt about this man.
Things can happen, and we can have thoughts and feelings for which there are no adequate words. We may end up doubting the validity of our experiences, if we can’t find a way to talk, or even think about them. My new friend found that the discovery of the term “soul-mate” liberated her, and made it possible to explore in greater depths her relationship with this man. Her own language of thought “evolved” when she was able to add this valuable concept.
It seems to me that the writers of the Bible were often in the position of having to tell a story, or describe something, for which they lacked words and concepts. They did what we do- they drew on the “tools” available to them, to describe and to interpret (attach particular meaning) events and experiences.
When the first followers of Jesus began to tell the stories of his life, and his teachings, and the dramatic events of the time we call “Holy Week”, they would naturally have drawn on the poetry, and the religious ideas of the time and place in which they lived. One of the religious ideas which provided a framework for discussion of the death of Jesus on the cross was the story in the Old Testament book of Leviticus about the sacrifice of the “scapegoat” to atone for the collective sins of the nation of Israel.
Canadian song-writer Steven Fearing has this line in his song “When My Work Is Done”:
“Hold a hammer tight enough
The world looks like a nail”
If by our cultural and religious conditioning we have been “programmed” to believe that God is an angry, vengeful being whose favour must be re-established each year by making blood sacrifices, then it may be difficult to move beyond this way of thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross.
But if our religious language is allowed to evolve- if we are able to learn new words, new poetry to talk about these things- we might be able to see God and ourselves in a whole different kind of relationship.