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Christian History Home > News > 2003 > Sex, Politics, and the Bible


Sex, Politics, and the Bible
Some words just don't mean what they used to.
Reviewed by Chris Armstrong | posted 8/08/2008 12:33PM

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"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'" (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.)

"Gender", "reproductive health," "sexual education," "conjugal love." These are a few of the terms the Vatican says have been made, by radical feminists bent on muddying the ethical waters, to mean rather different things than they seem to mean.

A forthcoming 1,000-page glossary will set the record straight, say Catholic officials. The Catholic World News reports that the new glossary is intended to "help Church leaders [Catholic and otherwise] who are engaged in discussion of family-oriented public issues." The head of the Pontifical Council on the Family, Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, says the glossary will explain that such terms as "reproductive rights"—while they appear to mean one thing (in this case, the right to reproduce)—are now being used in a sense "exactly opposite to their literal meaning" (here, the right to abort). The problem, Trujillo says, is one of "cultural manipulation."

Of course, the problem is as old as words themselves. That old weasel, "interpretation," has always entered the political scene, turning venerable words to newly-minted—and sometimes questionable—uses. Sometimes such morphing of words has seemed so twisted that, as William Safire puts it in his Political Dictionary (Ballantine, 1978), "if they were not so laden with tragedy they would be funny." Safire cites "pacification" (in the Vietnam era, a "euphemism for crushing guerrilla resistance in an area").

In the spirit of the Vatican's attempt to recover older, more straightforward uses of words, here's a quick look at a new book that explores the Bible origins and subsequent history of certain important English terms.

Coined By God: Words and Phrases That First Appear in English Translations of the Bible, by Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain, is due out from W. W. Norton in February, 2003.

This small book's brief but informative entries touch on a mere sampling—150—of the myriad words and phrases that first emerged in English translations of the Bible. The translations surveyed range from John Wycliffe's in 1382 to the 1611 King James Version. None of the terms treated in this book, say the authors, have any previous recorded existence on the printed English page, though some may have preceded their Biblical debuts with a history of spoken English usage.

Here we find that the very word at the root of our problem—"interpretation"—first appeared in Wycliffe's translation of Daniel 5:14. There, King Belshazzar asks the young prophet "to show me the interpretation" of the writing on his palace wall.

Many centuries after Daniel, the postmodern theorists of the academic "ivory tower" (Wycliffe, 1382, Song of Solomon 7:4) have used principles of interpretation to obscure rather than make plain. Malless and McQuain can't resist quoting the incisive Montaigne on this score: "It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things." Fresh from one of those ivory towers myself, I can only answer Brother Montaigne with a hearty "amen."

Here are a few of the Biblical words and phrases listed by the Coined by God authors that have been born again with new political meanings:

Consider "born again" itself, introduced by the venerable Wycliffe in—as every evangelist knows—John 3:3. This familiar phrase has now gained, as Safire put it in the 1993 edition of his Political Dictionary, a "new political sense," viz: "freshly convinced; or newly returned to the fold." I suppose, under this new usage, one could even be a born-again terrorist. Maybe once Charles Colson had brought the phrase to the desks and minds of the nation's politicos in his 1976 biography of the same name, this shift was already inevitable.




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