Sex, Politics, and the Bible
"'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.
Or how about the seemingly theological term "doctrine." Wycliffe created many English coinages by making more or less direct transliterations from Jerome's Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. This one he brought over from the Latin verb docere ("to teach"), to render Jesus' quotation from Isaiah in Matt. 15:9: "This people honors me without cause, teaching the doctrines and commandments of men."
Over the centuries, this term has acquired a constrictive, even totalitarian flavor, becoming something of a cuss word in the free air of America. Familiar in such phrases as "Monroe doctrine," the term, while still showing up in religious contexts today, is just as likely to appear with the meaning Safire lists: "policies that have hardened with acceptance."
For readers who think I've strayed inexcusably far from the Vatican's noble lexicographical effort—O ye of little faith! (Wycliffe, Matt. 8:26)—let's look at a few of the "sexy" terms that have made their way into our language via the gates of Scripture. These include a few that show up on the front lines of today's sex-and-family culture-war skirmishes.
Never mind the postmodernist/feminist favorite, "gender." The very term "female" itself first made its appearance in Wycliffe's 1382 rendering of Genesis 1:27.
The biologically specific term "puberty," too—where would discussions of "sexual education" be without it?—debuted in the same translation, in the Malachi 2:14 expression "between you and the wife of your puberty."
Finally, one need look no further than that same 1382 translation to find the very first printed use of the term nobody in these debates can do without—"sex."
Here again, in rendering a passage from Genesis (the instruction to Noah in 6:19 "that male sex and female" of every animal be shipped out), Wycliffe followed the lead of the Vulgate, which used at that place the Latin root term sexus.
I can't resist a last word on the Vatican's effort to clear up and set "right" again terms obfuscated (or if you prefer plain Anglo-Saxon, muddied) by the radical left: Whatever their lexicon's success, the many Catholic social scientists who have contributed can find comfort in the fact that the term "left wing" itself first emerged in a Bible verse.
The source for this one was Coverdale's 1535 translation of the deuterocanonical Book of Maccabees. There, a moment comes in the Jewish patriot Judas Maccabaeus's military exploits when "they which were of the left wing [lefte wynge] saw that the right side was discomfited" (1 Maccabees 9:16).
Yes, it was only, as Malless and McQuain point out, 250 years later that the term took on its modern political meaning in the French National Assembly. But here again, as in every debate in every time—left wing, right wing, or somewhere in the middle—our words eventually come back to God. Not necessarily to some coinage in a particular translation of the Bible (though the study of these is worth putting Coined by God on your bedside table), but to God sure enough.
Read John 1:1, in whatever translation you'd like:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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