Sunday, May 26, 2013

St. Paul can't write

There.  I said it.

This has been irritating me for I don't even know how long.  I think I had already noticed it as a teenager, but I wasn't really paying attention.  But now I am an adult, and sometimes I am actually paying attention.  I remember learning another language, and scanning poetry (even in English), and having to read three and four and five times and then having that "Ohhhhhh..." moment.  So I dutifully read the epistle.  And then I read it again.  And again.  Today's, for example:

Brothers and sisters:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.
Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions,
knowing that affliction produces endurance,
and endurance, proven character,
and proven character, hope,
and hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.


Those sentences are endless and totally impossible.  First of all, he uses more appositives than any writer I have ever seen.  I love appositives myself; dependent clauses, elaborate punctuation, periodic sentences - bring them on.  But when your appositives HAVE THEIR OWN APPOSITIVES, I think you have to accept that the reader has given up.  And I don't think the fact that he wrote in Latin is remotely an excuse for this sort of thing; I don't believe Paul was the only scriptural author to write in Latin.  (I suspect I am about to be authoritatively corrected on this point.  But I move blithely on.  I read a little bit of Latin.  No amount of inflection could excuse this sort of thing.)

So let's see, above, we start with...well, we start the entire passage with "Therefore."  That in itself seems like a mistake, to me.  Not that a sentence (or a Bible verse) can't ever start with "Therefore," just that it's an indication that the writer plans to challenge the reader right off the bat, and the writer should notice that fact and provide the reader with the tools necessary to follow an already compound point.  But does he?  HE DOES NOT.

He proceeds to, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  I'm following so far; all the bits of sentence are relevant to the things before and after.  However, I'm seeing some early warning signs - there are three prepositional phrases in just those two brief clauses, and at least one of the concepts ("peace with God") is fuzzy enough that, if the text continues on like that, the reader will lose all concrete meaning and just lapse into "I'm reading God stuff."  I note that I'm not saying I dispute that there could be peace with God, I just don't know what that would be.  Eternal bliss in God's presence?  The peace OF God "that surpasses all understanding"?  COMMUNION with God through repentance of all grave sin?  A good writer would end the sentence there ("...through our Lord Jesus Christ") and then circle back to clarify the "peace with God" bit.  What does Saint Paul do?

Oh.  He refuses to end the sentence at all.  Possibly ever.  Next we have: "through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand."  Again, we have a LOT of prepositional phrases per capita (four in that clause alone!), which is bad not because prepositions are bad things, but because each prepositional phrase requires the brain to process the meaning of the small phrase, and then return to the big clause and integrate the meaning into the whole.  When you start going insane on the prepositional phrases, the reader gets heavily bogged down.  Also, it starts to give the impression that the writer has lost his train of thought and is just wandering aimlessly.  And this example is a good one - so we've gained access BOTH "through Christ" AND "by faith" - apparently you need the faith to get to Christ, and then thereafter Christ to get to the grace.  (And don't we also believe that faith is obtained by grace?  Best not to go there.)  This is starting to become woefully attenuated.  Is it helping us to get to the major point of the sentence?  Is there a major point of the sentence?  Is the sentence about to be over?

Well, almost: "...and we boast in hope of the glory of God."  In ten words, three more prepositional phrases.  (You get the impression he had a bar bet with St. Barnabas or something.)  Nothing wrong with this clause overall, other than the fact that (a) as usual, removal of one or more prepositional phrases would only improve the clarity and impact ("we boast of the glory of God" - much better; don't even care that it changes the meaning a bit, as it's still true in any case) and (b) it has nothing whatsoever to do with the first 90% of the sentence.

Oh, wait...unless what he meant to say was (see how reading it the sixth time could help!), "We have been justified by faith.  And this has two results: first, we're able to boast about our hope to be part of the glory of God.  And second, we have peace with God [whatever that means] through Christ.  And there's actually a logical circle here - our justification by faith allows us to have peace through Christ, and it's through that same Christ that we receive our current grace - being part of the Christian community!"  Of course, that doesn't solve all the problems, because I had to chop out a few bits that really didn't scan (the through Christ/through whom/faith/faith).  And I readily grasp the inelegance of scriptural bullet points.  But if you're going to try to get across this many itty-bitty permutations of concepts, the reader could use all the formatting and syntactical help available.

But the mentally exhausted reader is not finished yet.  "Not only that [!], but we even boast of our afflictions" - OK, fine, but this is the first time you've mentioned afflictions.  Well, all right then - "knowing that affliction produces endurance" - no debate there - "and endurance, proven character" - sure, that makes sense - "and proven character, hope" - OK, now things are starting to break down.  How does proven character produce hope?  Hope that we'll behave well the next time, too?  That has some logical appeal, but is at odds with the Christian message (including St. Paul's), which tells us that virtue is the product not only of discipline but of grace, so we shouldn't take for granted that we've once and for all achieved virtue.  Therefore, it's entirely unclear what hope could be produced in us by the fact that our character is now "proven."

OK, moving on..."and hope does not disappoint" - all right, fine, if we assume that there's a logical meaning and source for that hope, I guess that would work - "because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."  WHAT???  You JUST said that the hope was PRODUCED BY this "proven character" business.  And THEN you said that hope does not disappoint BECAUSE of the love of God poured out into our hearts.  WHAT DO THOSE THINGS HAVE TO DO WITH ONE ANOTHER?  This is where the massgoer sitting in the pew drifts into a lazy trance of "more of that God stuff."  And with good reason.  Yes, of course, we could fill this logical gap in with generic bits of Christian theology - such as, proven character is virtue, and virtue is a gift, and one of the fruits of virtue could be hope (I guess - I've never experienced a significant uptick in hopefulness with an increase in self-discipline, but let's assume), and the gift of virtue is prompted by God's great love, being poured into our hearts along with those virtues.  Plus, the Holy Spirit is the mediator.  Q.E.D.

Fine.  BUT THE TEXT DOESN'T SAY THAT.  It doesn't even fairly IMPLY it.  And if we have to supply all our own explanations and theology, drawn from the store of millenia of theological development that was itself based on Scripture, then the Scripture passage isn't exactly elucidating God's nature and plan for us.  It's more imposing on the reader to understand those things already.  Which, especially given that this is an epistle, offered to an original reader(s) who had the benefit of none of our modern theology, means it's not really doing its job, now is it???

I wonder what the recipients of those Pauline epistles did with them.  "All right, let's get all the chief folks together.  We'll all read the letter out loud.  Five times.  And then we'll see whether anybody has any good ideas.  And then when nobody does, we'll spend all night praying about it.  And maybe drinking - God works in mysterious ways; getting more mysterious by the minute, in fact.  And then at sunrise we'll put our heads together and decide what we're going to tell everyone it actually means.  But we can't say 'We have salvation through faith and Christ's crucifixion and this is the source of our hope and joy' again.  We said that about the last three letters.  And people are starting to notice that the letters are longer than a sentence."

I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit inspired the spirit of St. Paul's letters.  I just don't think the third person of the blessed Trinity can be fairly blamed for the sentence structure.


  1. Hey there, St. Paul wrote in Greek, but the structure of Greek and the structure of Latin are close enough. Unlike the "kitchen-Greek" of the Gospel, the Pauline letters are written in a literary Greek that would only be used by a highly educated person.

    Neither Greek nor Latin translate well into English. Greek and Latin both lend themselves to long sentences and clunky transition words (like therefore). Both are noun-driven. English, like all Germanic languages, is verb-driven.

    There are some disasters of sentences in English translations of Augustine's Confessions that even the world's best classists could not render into elegant English. I've heard that the Confessions translates beautifully into Romance languages. I wonder if the same would be true for the Pauline letters.

    1. That is fascinating. Now that I think about it, I have been told - probably repeatedly - that the Pauline epistles were written in Greek. Lazy brain.

      The noun-driven/verb-driven distinction is a fascinating one. I'm trying to picture how that works in my head, but it's not really working. I took a bit of Italian, and a bit less of Latin, no Greek, so I'm thinking I just don't have an adequate frame of reference. The noun-driven thing might explain about the infestation of prepositional phrases, too - they're all noun-based, and possibly in Greek wouldn't have required prepositions at all (if it's like Latin in that respect, anyway).

      Regardless, I think I am on sound footing blaming the translators - the lectionary versions of epistles are absolute garbage, and nobody seems to care enough to do anything about it!!

    2. I wouldn't be so quick to blame the translators. There is a saying in French: Traduire est trahir, to translate is to betray. There are plenty of Bible translations with short, punchy sentences, but these translations represent quite a departure from the Greek originals. When you're translating the Word of God, how much betrayal do you want to do? There are slightly better translations than the Lectionary (namely the NRSV), but a brief review of different translations of those particular verses from Romans doesn't turn up anything dramatically better than what you posted above.

      The noun-driven/verb-driven distinction comes from Deidre McClosky's Economic Writing, which changed the way I thought about writing when I read it years ago. In Latin and her daughters, [to be or commit, or have/make] + [whatever you really want to say] is a common construction. In English, the verb should be where the action is (pun intended). Her point: don't write in English like you would write in Latin, even though Latin sentence structure seems more academic. But when you're translating, there's a tough decision: Render noun-driven sentences into verb-driven ones and risk inserting your own theology into the text, or leave the noun-driven sentences as written, and end up with a clunky at best, incomprehensible at worst, translation.

    3. So what you're saying is that I need to learn Greek.

    4. In your copious spare time, of course! :)

  2. Amen, sister! Usually on Fridays I get together with two other women from my church and we do a prayer - upcoming mass readings meeting (after the requisite chat about our week, of course). We go to a French church so we use the French lectionary.

    But this one .... yup ... my brain was tying itself in knots. A few days before our prayer night, and a few days after Sunday, I usually read/meditate (think Ignatian/lectio divina) on one or a couple of the mass texts. For this one, I was looking up the reading in several translations - French, English, King James, New Jerusalem, my mass book, etc.

    Well. Now at least I know it's not just me, by reason of failure to concentrate, in confusion, to clarify, by wherefore understand, through clarity of thought ... you know ....