Thursday, June 23, 2011

Christian Myths 3

1. If it was done in the book of Acts, then we must do it today.

The Myth: Almost invariably, whenever criticism of the American church takes place, whether it be in written or spoken form, it is said that “this is not how they did church in the book of Acts!” It is simply presumed that whatever was done, or however it was done, was the right thing to do. In that case, then, the church of today ought to mimic as much as possible first-century Christianity.

Here’s the problem: this principle leads to bizarre rules and regulations that don’t make any sense. For instance, ought we to wear the clothes they did? Do we really have to greet each other with a holy kiss? Do we have to have six deacons starting out if this is the first time we appoint them? Are we obligated to have a plurality of pastors? Must we meet daily, instead of a few times a week?

In the case that some feel obligated to bite the bullet, consider that these were just men. They were not infallible. They often struggled with things we would find preposterous (like whether or not Gentiles could commune normally with their Jewish counterparts, or whether or not someone had to be circumcised to be a part of the church). “Now wait a minute,” one may say. “What they did worked!” Yes, it did. But it would be a two-fold mistake to infer that we must then continue these practices. Why? First, simply because one method works does not mean this is the only method available to work, much less the best. To insist that it is the only one is simply to beg the question! Second, it is the Holy Spirit that brings the fruit of the Gospel, not efforts of man. This does not mean the efforts of man do not have a place and a function, but the Holy Spirit used those methods in the hearts of the people. Can he do that today? Absolutely. Is he restricted to those methods? Absolutely not.

Why it matters: Because if we insist on making the Gospel to be uni-cultural (that is, the context of first-century Christianity), we are adding on an extra requirement or hoop to jump through. Not only could this be dangerous (in that it may turn people away from the Gospel), there is no biblical injunction against culture in general. We should look to the book of Acts to see what was important and what they did, and see if it aligns with what is necessary or what is helpful or what was simply cultural. Anything in the first category is essential, the second, recommended for consideration, and the third should be adapted to the current culture in which one is ministering.

2. William Shakespeare translated Psalm 46.

The Myth: I was not really familiar with this one until very recently. I did not know it was taken seriously in some quarters. However, this is on the level of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.[1] The claim is that certain similarities can be fit into an independent pattern, and so lead to the conclusion that Shakespeare either translated Psalm 46 or influenced its translation, whether directly or indirectly, for the King James Version. First, it’s worth noting that pattern-recognition can be very helpful when it can be independently verified. However, when an outcome is created and a pattern developed to fit that outcome, we call it confirmation bias. It is a problem that afflicts every discipline from UFO and conspiracy theorists to physicists. Here are the bits of “evidence” and some explanation.

If one counts 46 words from the beginning of the chapter, one comes to the word ‘shake.’ Discounting the word Selah (the Hebrew equivalent to Amen), we find the same thing at the end of the chapter. The word ‘spear’ is 46 words from the end of the chapter.

This is completely true. It is also completely meaningless. First, it will not do any good to find “shake” and “spear” and deduce that therefore Shakespeare is intended, all literary beauty aside. The fact is there’s just no evidence that he was in any way involved with the translation committee, knew Hebrew or Greek, or did anything of that nature. Besides, they had to completely break the pattern to make it. Why discount “Selah,” especially considering it appears in verses 3 and 7 also? This is an example of “making it fit,” or confirmation bias. But wait, you say, there’s more . . .

Remarkably, Shakespeare was 46 in 1610 when the text was being prepared for printing!

Ah, so here’s where 46 comes in. The problem? The translation committee was put together long before 1610—in 1604 in fact. That they would have foreseen its completion at that point and planned six years in advance is so bizarre as to seem barely worthy of recognition. Besides, Shakespeare was 45 for the first several months of 1610, and the translation’s “banner” year was 1611, not 1610.

You can only find it in the KJV. All subsequent translations have either changed one of the words, or rearranged some words so they do not fall where they need to be. Why was the KJV arranged the way it was, while all other translations were different?

This would sound good, except it’s patently false. First of all, subsequent translations wouldn’t have any explanatory power for prior translations; that’s reasoning backwards. If perhaps he meant the words were not justifiably translated as they were, that simply betrays the author’s lack of Hebrew knowledge. What one ought to do is to seek if this is how prior translations to the KJV handled the text.

Next, it is simply false. Plenty of subsequent, major translations have both “shake” and “spear” (such as the CEV, RV, MKJV, NKJV), and some retain this and the same “pattern” (RV, NKJV). Third, even if for some reason the pattern was not retained, why should it be? It is not as though the translations differ so wildly that one cannot see the resemblance. Typically, I found a cursory survey of other translations done after the King James to come very close to fitting the pattern; in fact, based on this, it would be a stronger argument to infer that the modern translators had a conspiracy against Shakespeare! Finally, looking to prior versions, the Bishop’s Bible (1568) retains both “shake” and “speare” with “shake” being exactly 46 translated words in. Since there is precedent before the KJV  both for the words utilized and the positioning of “shake,” it remains highly suspect, at best, that this was intentional.

Why it matters: Christians (and skeptics) being concerned about secret codes and hidden knowledge may make for great entertainment, but it’s ultimately destructive when built into a movement (see Harold Camping). No, I do not expect there to be a Shakespeare movement any time soon (or ever), but one must be careful when it comes to the Word of God. We must learn to think correctly and truthfully, as a reflection of God, who is truth!

Next up: ?? You get to pick!


                [1] Yes, I know this is technically poisoning the well. But you’ll see it’s justified (and yes, that is a bit of an end-justifies-the-means fallacy, isn’t it?).

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  1. But I want the Acts church to be our church so badly!

    Never heard the Shakespeare one. Great post!

  2. This isn't of any importance but Amen is the Hebrew word for let it be so, or truly. They're not quite sure what Selah really means so that's why it's not really translated to an English Equivalent. It's similar to Amen but Amen itself is Hebrew.

  3. Hey JW thanks for commenting! I too want to be careful here: the times of the book of Acts were wonderful things. I think we ought to desire at the very least to have the type of relationship with the Lord and power from him! I was just emphasizing it's not as though simply because they did/did not do something in the book of Acts it is prescriptive of what we must do. :)

  4. Hey Max. You're right! That should have occurred to me. Thanks for pointing it out! It was very obvious this person was just interested in pushing the urban legend, Dan Brown style. Oh well. :)

  5. Very thought-provoking! We should take inspiration from the church in Acts, but not slavishly imitate it.

    On the Shakespeare issue, God bless you for having the patience to deal with theories as crazy as this one.

  6. Hey thanks for commenting! I figured the Shakespeare thing and other items such as this fit into the category of Christian myths. I'm sure there are tons more to do, but it may take me a while to get to them. Let me know if you've heard any you think would be good! :)


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