Thursday, April 19, 2012

Paraphrase Bibles

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about story/paraphrase Bibles:

Q:  Are alternative formats for the Bible a good tool for Christians to use?  What does one gain or lose by using a chronological or story Bible or a paraphrase instead of a typical translation?

Probably the earliest alternative Bible formats to be produced were intended to be used with children.  Picture Bibles were produced for children who had not yet learned to read, and illustrated Bible Story Books were produced for children in the process of learning to read.  Some of these books, particularly the older hand-illustrated ones, are beautiful works of art which also served as excellent teaching tools for introducing the Bible to children at a young age and beginning their instruction in the Faith.

More recently, books have begun to appear for adults which place excerpts from the Bible in chronological order formatted as a story or a novel.  One thing that people often find challenging when first interacting with Scripture is that it consists of several different genres arranged thematically rather than chronologically.  So the Old Testament begins with all of the history books, continues with the poetic writings, then concludes with the record of the prophets.  Likewise the New Testament is divided into the four Gospels and the Epistles (letters), with the books of Acts (history) and Revelation (prophecy) included as the fifth and last books respectively. 

The authors of chronological or story Bibles intend to make the Bible easier to understand by smoothing these various genres into a continuous narrative and placing them in chronological order, and pastors may find some beneficial uses for these attempts, such as guiding a new believer through the Bible for the first time, much like parents might use a picture Bible or Bible story book with their children.

These Bibles do serve to remind us something that has sometimes been overlooked in the most recent era of Christianity—that, beyond being a source of inspirational quotes and proof-texts for doctrine, the Bible is a record of God’s actions from creation until the death of St. John the Evangelist to rescue humanity from the deserved punishment for our rebellion against Him. 

However, this style of Bible does have its weaknesses.  The first of these is that it does not include the whole story.  Because an editor has chosen the highlights of the story, the reader is at his mercy to choose which parts of the Bible are more or less important than others.  This means that bias of the editor may result in overemphasis on certain minor themes or the omission of important details not favored by the editor.

Additionally, since these editions of the Bible are not translations of the Bible text but paraphrases, one is reading the paraphraser’s impressions of a given verse or story rather than the actual text of the Scriptures.  This was a criticism often leveled against early paraphrases of the Bible such as The Living Bible or the Good News Bible, because the biases of the paraphraser can cloud the understanding of the reader.  While this is a concern with any translation of the Bible other than the original Greek and Hebrew, the concern is amplified when dealing with a paraphrase. 

When one considers that some of the popular translations of the Bible have been rated at a 7th grade reading level, and even the King James Version is evaluated to be readable for the average high-school Senior, paraphrasing the text seems unnecessary.  This is one reason that, until recently, most seminaries required a working knowledge of at least Greek, and usually Hebrew, for every man who desired to become a parish pastor—so that he would be able to assist his parishioners in passages that may be difficult to understand or to translate concisely. 

Some pastors may find that chronological or story Bibles have a limited benefit for introducing the broad outline of the Bible for some people under their instruction, but because the various parts of the Bible are so intricately intertwined and interdependent, it would be difficult for a reader to gain a mature understanding of the Bible or a full appreciation for its depth using only such resources. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Build Churches or Help the Poor?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of church resources:

Q:  Is a Christian allowed to refuse life-prolonging medical treatment?  Does the Bible require us to use all available means, no matter how unlikely the chance of success, to extend the life of a person who is critically or terminally ill?  How do we know when it is appropriate to proceed with, discontinue, or refuse treatment?

Knowing how to handle a life-threatening medical condition can be a very difficult thing, especially when we are making decisions for a parent or other relative who is not able to express their preferences at the time of treatment, as is often the case in situations where we are faced with questions such as this. 

For the Christian, life is always a gift from God to be honored and protected.  When we make decisions regarding our own treatment or that of a loved one under our care, this is our starting point.  We desire to respect life as God has given it and care for it in a way which honors Him.  We frequently hear this principle applied to life’s beginning at conception, but it equally applies to life’s end. 

Because modern medical technology did not exist during the times when the Bible was written, we do not find extensive guidance on choosing a course of medical treatment.  However, since the Fifth Commandment says, “You shall not murder,” it and its accompanying explanations in the Bible serve as our boundaries in this sort of decision. 

To begin with, actively and intentionally ending our own life or that of a loved one is never an option for the Christian.  The only circumstances in which the Bible does not consider causing a person’s death to be murder are genuine accidents, self-defense, and government’s authority to execute criminals and defend its citizens through war.  Euthanasia, assisted suicide, and any other active and intentional killing of the patient are therefore not an option.

We also do not withhold essential provisions such as food, water, and oxygen from a person for the purpose of hastening their death, nor should a person refuse such things as long as they are able to receive them through normal means.  At the same time, one is not required to go to employ extraordinary or invasive means to receive or provide them. 

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, he summarizes the Bible’s guidance in this way: “We should…not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”  Our goal when making the sort of decisions described here is to help and not harm the person receiving care.  We want to honor God’s gift of life by making our best efforts to heal and save, but also we do not want to needlessly cause or prolong suffering beyond the likelihood of recovery. 

This can be difficult, because we have no way to know with absolute certainty what the outcome will be, so as we make these decisions we are always ultimately leaving the person in God’s hands.  We do our best to serve them with our decisions, and trust Him to guide the outcome for their benefit. 

As we do so, it is important to honor their wishes whenever possible.  If they have expressed to us a desire regarding treatment, we should honor those desires.  When they have not expressed a desire or the decision goes beyond what they have communicated, we seek to always do whatever is best for them—whatever will bring the most help or the least harm in a given situation, and provide them the highest degree of comfort possible in the process. 

When the person receiving care is a Christian, we have an added consolation, because whatever the outcome, it will be for their benefit.  The Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and the book of Acts tells us that “through many tribulations we enter the kingdom of God.”  This means that if the treatment is successful, they will spend more time receiving God’s blessing on earth, but if the treatment fails, their soul will rest with Jesus to await the Resurrection on the last day when they will be fully and permanently healed. 

As is often the case, the variety of circumstances is seemingly endless, so every situation will have its own unique characteristics.  Although we have general boundaries within which to proceed, the guidance of doctors and pastors is of immeasurable value when making any particular decision.