The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart

 

It’s a reasonable question to raise as to why an atheist such as myself would devote a significant amount of time to reading a new translation of the New Testament. It’s not even as if it’s a collection of books with which I’m unfamiliar, having been brought up first as an Anglican, then subsequently as an Evangelical Christian, the latter of which I thought I had a rather strong faith in as a teenager.

The main answer is that religion in all forms continues to fascinate me. The mysteries of Christianity perhaps more than most due to their familiarity. Secondarily, though, these books are the ones on which Western civilisation was founded. I don’t mean anything like the contention that our morality is entirely Christian (it’s not, although there’s a lot more with Judeo-Christian roots than many choose to admit), but more that in a literary sense, these books permeate our culture. Up until a century or so ago, almost everyone in the UK was familiar with these texts, they referred to them in novels, essays and poems. These books structured their lives and even when they chose to reject them, it was from the position of a society that accepted them, often unthinkingly.

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A new translation of books that are so familiar both to me as an ex-Christian, and to our society as a formerly religious one is an interesting sell, therefore. What could a new translator bring? Hart has chosen to write a translation that captures the strange, clunky and often ambiguous Greek. Most translations choose to iron out strange repetitions, odd phrasing, a poorly written sentence, or even a line that is entirely open to question, making into the books that, whether we’ve read them or not, reverberate throughout western culture. Hart’s translation avoids that polishing and retouching. To take an example, most translations of the New Testament translate ‘angelos’ as ‘angels’, but in the Greek, although it came to mean angels, at the time of the Bible it also had the meaning of ‘messenger’. Through translating each example of ‘angelos’ as ‘angels’, translators have created theology, rather than just replicating the holy text. Hart mostly chooses ‘messenger’ other than when the meaning ‘angel’ is unambiguous.

This theology through translation happens more than some would choose to admit. A footnote in 1 Corinthians points out that a verse saying that women should remain silent in church is quite clearly not part of the surrounding argument Paul is making. The verse itself is found in different places in various early versions of the text, and appears to be written in a different style than those surrounding it. Added to this Paul is quite clear that women do speak in church and refers to a women as an ‘apostle’ (another verse which has been translated and interpreted in order to remove its most obvious suggestion – that Paul was fine with women leading worship).

These sorts of diversions can be extremely interesting for an outsider looking at the arguments within the church, many of which both sides can use scriptural authority to support their position. Especially when some of this seeming authority comes from a subsequent translator, not the text itself.

Outside the translation itself, reading the New Testament is an odd experience. The synoptic gospels are recognisable enough to anyone who’s been to church or had a few RE lessons at school. Although, when you read Matthew, Mark and Luke as separate books, you realise that the story you know is actually a conglomeration of multiple stories, not one, single accepted work. In the nativity, for example, the Kings (Magi, magician is probably a better term) and the shepherds appear in two different gospels, never together. Mark doesn’t even tell about Jesus’s childhood at all, and finishes the story with the empty tomb.

Things immediately get weird with the book of John. Far from the preacher of the synoptics, the Jesus of John is well aware of his future crucifixion, and is a mystic, gnomic character. The opening of ‘In the beginning was the logos’ (often translated as ‘word’, but logos means a lot more than just ‘word’, having meanings of ‘ground’, ‘plea’, ‘opinion’, ‘expectation’, ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘account’, ‘reason’, ‘proportion’, ‘discourse’ – it’s for this reason that Hart chooses not to translate it at all) is a strange introduction to a book about the life of Jesus. It’s mystical and philosophical in a way that some sects adopted, but many brushed under the carpet, focusing much more closely on the synoptics.

Following this are the Acts of the Apostles (actually the second half of the book of Luke, who wrote a considerable proportion of the New Testament), letters, first those of Paul, some attributed to Paul, some unattributed, a few from John (not the previous John), then the Revelation of John (not that John, or the other John). But almost all of it is quite strange to a modern audience. Paul is somewhat more hung up on fornication than I’d remembered, but otherwise relatively sensible. More than anything he’s just overflowing with enthusiasm about this man who he’d never met, and whose followers he had, until recently, been persecuting. This glimpse into a small, insignificant sect is, from an outsider’s perspective, fascinating. They weren’t to know they were founding a religion that would take over 2/3s of the world and would still be in existence two millennia later. Indeed, most of them thought that Jesus’s return was imminent. Jesus said quite clearly it was going to happen within their lifetime. The books, to a degree, struggle with explaining this disparity.

All this said, I’m not sure I’d recommend reading it unless it’s something that particularly interests you. Even for the religious, the complete New Testament end to end is a bit of a slog, regularly repetitious, obscure, or just dull, albeit smattered with recognisable moments of beauty and clarity. Hart does extract something from this text that felt new to me though. Like an art restorer, he cleans off the years of additional grime and repainting that’s been added by translators through the years and reveals a series of books that are more obvious those of the tiny beginnings of a cult in a semi-literate society extremely different from our own. They are something alien, but nevertheless recognisably foundational for our culture, and that’s an intriguing combination.

You can buy the book on Amazon here.

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

 

This isn’t going to be a review. Not even sure what a 500 word review of The Waste Land would even say (“bit weird, rhymes aren’t as good as Pam Ayres, why are bits in German? Two stars”) Instead, this is more about why, when no-one was making me write an essay about it, I decided to dive into this important, difficult work.

I know poetry isn’t a thing most people enjoy. It’s something that’s shoved at them at school, or even at university, its complexity and ambiguity frustrating and intimidating. When it’s comprehensible it seems trite and when it’s not it seems purposefully obscure. I’ve shared some of these views in the past, but keep getting drawn back to poetry because I love the tight, beautiful language that reverberates around your mind for weeks and months.

I’ve dipped in and out of The Waste Land before. Mostly noting the odd phrase that I like (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) but then drifted away from it, scared by footnote references to Dante’s Inferno and the fact the poem drifts in and out of German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It wasn’t a poem I studied at university, but joining The London Library made me realise that there’s a wealth of books I could read to replicate some of that experience and try and get my head around it. Further book reviews will almost certainly show that I’m a long way away from doing such a thing, but the journey of learning more about the poem, Eliot himself, and then branching out into other works of his has been hugely rewarding.

The poem is full of the best of echoing lines. Reading it and listening to multiple readings (Eliot’s own I find hard to love, but Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Fiona Shaw have all done wonderful versions), some many, many times has helped get the wonderful language lodged in my head.

I think the final thing that’s been helpful is the realisation that whilst I still don’t understand all the layers, the depth, the constant references to other works, or what I’m supposed to take from this modernist masterpiece, neither does anyone else. Indeed a poem’s meaning can only ever be what it means to the reader. There is no objective authority to tell you. Even the poet themselves can’t be objective about it. It’s like an unsolved, indeed even unsolvable, mystery.

But best of all, no-one’s making me write an essay about it.

Photo by Nick Perez on Unsplash

The Kindergarten Teacher

In The Kindergarten Teacher, the titular character, Lisa, is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Increasingly detached from her job and family, she finds a child in her class, five-year-old Jimmy, who appears to spontaneously produce poems while pacing the floor.

Jimmy’s seeming works of art allow her to relive the creative, bohemian life that she feels she never got to experience, but her fixation gradually becomes unhealthy and dangerous. The film also leaves us to decide for ourselves what this creative process Is. Is Jimmy really a budding poet? Is he just reciting poems from his uncle? Are these poems actually any good? Can he really be thought of as a creator at such a young age? If a five year old can create amazing poetry, then what is poetry itself?

Where the film itself is filled with ambiguity, Lisa’s insistence on Jimmy’s talent feels like it’s the only firm ground. Her belief in Jimmy increasingly causes her to destroy everything else around her.

It’s a film I’ve found hard to process. Gyllenhaal is outstanding, and the film itself is well-written, making for what amounts to a taught thriller about the odd topic of a pre-school poet. However, the film’s ability to project the deep discomfort Lisa feels about her own life, and the way that one follows the steps of her descent so closely, means that the relatively short running time is almost entirely excruciating. Sara Colangelo has made a film which pulls the audience into Lisa’s loss of grounding in a very uncomfortable way.

Although a film I’m not sure if I ever want to revisit it’s stuck with me in a way few films can, and is well worth watching.

Round The Fire Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle

Since I was young, I’ve loved Sherlock Holmes stories. It was only after a trip to the London Library that I realised the huge number of books Doyle had written that didn’t feature his most famous character. (It was also here that I found out that Doyle is his surname, and Conan is one of his middle names.

The book was originally published in 1908, but remained out of print until the early 2000s when the edition I came across was published. To someone who is familiar with Sherlock Holmes, Round The Fire Stories read a lot like Holmes cases that Holmes is too busy to solve. There’s still a solution (with a similar degree of satisfaction and plausibility I’ve come to expect from other Doyle stories) but it’s delivered by another character, or just as part of the story.

As we would expect from Doyle, they’re short, fun stories. There’s nothing here that’s going to be remembered as great literature, but they’re a fun, brief diversion.

The London Library

The London Library is on St James’s Square. It’s a private, members library and all users pay a membership fee. I’m not entirely sure the first time I heard of the place, but in January I thought I’d contact them and take a tour to see if I wanted to join.

I was about two minutes into the tour, being shown the reading room, when I realised that I had to join. Since then, I’ve worked there and visited at least once a week, and each week I check if the trains are running to see if I can spend the day there on a Saturday. If you like books (and if you don’t, you must be crazy) it’s just a place of pure joy.

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It was established in 1841 when Thomas Carlyle decided that he didn’t like the British Museum Library. It’s been on the current site since 1845, although in that time it’s been extended rather dramatically. When you enter it off St James’s Square, you soon realise the place is like a cross between the Tardis and a labyrinth. It has over 1,000,000 volumes and is expanding all the time.

Ever since I left university, the thing I missed the most was the library. I never really took much advantage of our library for my own pleasure because I had other things to do, but since I’ve regretted it. The London Library is a huge academic library, and best all of, you can read what you want without having to write an essay about it.

As well being a wonderful place to wander around, stumbling across books, it’s a great place to work. There’s a writers room, one exclusively for reading (full of periodicals and reference books, no laptops allowed) and other desks dotted around the place in the shelves (‘stacks’). It’s a great place to get work done, whether you’re a professional writer, or like me, someone who just needs a place to work in central London from time to time.

The whole place oozes character and history. It has the most wonderfully idiosyncratic classification system (‘Science and Misc’ being my favourite – a catch-all for everything that isn’t literature, philosophy, history, art or religion).

It’s my new favourite place in London. If you love books, I highly recommend joining. I’d be happy to introduce you to the place, but you can also just book a tour by getting in touch with them. You won’t regret it.


I’ve been meaning to get back to writing on here more often, and I think the first step is to be a bit more realistic on how often I could put out a 7,000 article like my Bowie album reviews. As such, I’m going to start a bit smaller with articles like this capturing media (and in this case a place) that I’ve enjoyed recently.

 

Weekly Playlist 13 : 30th Century Man

I’ve been revisiting Madvillain’s 2004 behemoth of an album, Madvillainy this week. It’s difficult to choose a single track, but All Caps seems as good a place to start as any. Scott Walker’s 30th Century Man and Matthew E White’s Will You Love Me are stone-cold classics and feel appropriate for this almost-spring we’re enjoying. From there, you get an indie song, Bibio’s Curls, from this year, some Biggie, Mingus and polishing it off, a cover of Arthur Russell by Peter Broderick.

Enjoy!

1. All Caps by Madvillain
2. 30 Century Man by Scott Walker
3. Will You Love Me by Matthew E. White
4. Curls by Bibio
5. Big Poppa by The Notorious B.I.G.
6. New Tribe by Powder
7. Ceramic by Jeremy Pelt
8. Maybe You’re the Reason by The Japanese House
9. Ecclusiastics by Charles Mingus
10. Words of Love by Peter Broderick

 

Apple Music Link

(Photo by Joey Csunyo on Unsplash)

Weekly Playlist 12: Super Cool

Ten more tracks to tickle your fancy for another week. I found Billie Eilish’s new track, Bury A Friend a great intro to her work. The new album due out soon seems like it’s going to be one to listen out for. Joni Mitchell’s The Jungle Line surprised me somewhat, not least because it’s a synth-led track from a jazz-folk artist, but it makes a good pairing with Eilish.

From there we got a smattering of reggae, punk and hip hop before Beck’s Super Cool, which as the song over the credits is a highlight of The Lego Movie 2 (I don’t mean that to sound so damning – watch the film – the credits are great, as The Lonely Island are only too happy to tell you in the song).

Allison Miller is an outstanding drummer and her new jazz project is well worth exploring. And then we finish up with the iconic guitar riff of Television’s Marquee Moon and the iconic strings riff of Sigur Rós’s soaring Hoppípolla.

Enjoy!

1. bury a friend by Billie Eilish
2. The Jungle Line by Joni Mitchell
3. Everybody Bawling by The Melodians
4. Straight to Hell by The Clash
5. Tints by Anderson .Paak feat. Kendrick Lamar
6. CHANCES by KAYTRANADA & Shay Lia
7. Super Cool by Beck feat. Robyn & The Lonely Island
8. Daughter and Sun by Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
9. Marquee Moon by Television
10. Hoppípolla by Sigur Rós

 

Apple Music Link

(Photo by Slim Emcee (UG) the poet Truth_From_Africa_Photography on Unsplash)