Friday, July 28, 2006

A Question of Translation

Newsweek is currently running an article about Hip-Hop Liturgies, which I found vaguely interesting until I got to the hip-hop translation of Psalm 23. Take a minute and compare it to the original, and then ask yourself if "and I know that I am a baller and life will be phat" is really semantically equivalent to "thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over". I'd say most emphatically not. For example, "I am a baller" implies that the "balling-ness" (??) is an intrinsic property of the speaker, whereas the traditional translation attributes the anointing etc. to extrinsic sources (presumably God). I tried to find out more how about Ryan Kearse, the gentleman who adapted this particular psalm, went about the task without any luck. Most of the links that I was able to find quote the psalm itself or are talking about the source, The Hip Hop Prayer Book; I couldn't find anything about the adaptation process itself. Though its interesting to note that it appears to be making some Anglicans cranky (search the page for "burnings"). Right now I'm trying to figure out if this is just a misguided guy trying to do something good, or if its another sign of the general miasma of anti-intellectualism that seems to surround modern religious practice. As they point out here, this may just be a cause of "'a 40 year old white guy trying to sound all street and shit'". But the guy who edited the book, Reverend Timothy Holder, got his MDiv from Harvard Divinity School; presumably he understands the problems of maintaining nuance when translating a text. I have to assume that Rev. Holder is more interested in making scripture relevant than in maintaining its actual message. Which is fine by me, but once you admit that you're making shit up in order to draw people into your church it really becomes hard to maintain your moral authority.


Blogger Tyler Simons said...

Hey! I got a link during the time I was irresponsibly neglecting our blog over the summer. Cool. This is a thoughtful post, of course. Even though I think the Hip-Hop liturgy is pretty lame, I'm inclined to look more favorably on the the guy.

I have to assume that Rev. Holder is more interested in making scripture relevant than in maintaining its actual message.

Unless you've been to services at his church or examined some liturgies, I don't think this assumption is justified. It's fine for alarm bells to go off when something so silly comes out of scriptural passages of such power, it's probably a good instinct. I'm tempted to suggest that, worst case scenarion, getting these kids off the streets for a little and providing them with an alternative message, no matter how watered down, can't be that bad in the grand scheme of things. I don't think that the Hip-Hop E-Mass is going to take over the church the way Hegelian philosophy did in pre-Kierkegaard Denmark.

The scenario isn't, one might assume, as bad as could be, either. What does the eucharistic prayer sound like? Isn't there an inherent power in a crazy group of people standing around a table participating in the sacrament of our Lord that transcends a shoddy translation and prayer style?

In the end, if I remember the article correctly, the old folks in the congregation were, for the most part and after some initial hesitation (which you'll find in any congregation when changes happen) cool with the whole direction the church is taking. If you can make productive changes while continuing the active engagement of the long-time members, I think that you're doing something really right.

All that said, assuming I'm ordained eventually, there ain't no congregation of mine that's gonna use the hip-hop translations for anything but an example of theological ham-handedness and absurdity in youth group. For most 12-year-olds, the Book of Common Prayer sounds pretty sensible in comparison. That's a pretty rare achievement for most youth pastors!

5:49 PM  

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