Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.

Review: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move

I’ve gone through two of John McWhorter’s Great Courses on language; I’ve read several of his books, and I’m a faithful listener to his podcast. When I picked up this book I suddenly realized, “I know just what he’s going to say. I get John McWhorter.” I put the book down after two chapters. But a testimony to his consummate skill as a popularizer and communicator is that I couldn’t help myself and I finished the book anyway. And then, particularly with regard to back-shifting, McWhorter managed to say something new to me that my own reading in linguistics hasn’t brought me to. I also collect many quotable quotes and fun illustrations from him that I can use in my own popularizing work.

McWhorter’s head is screwed on straight. He spends an entire book bemusedly observing the sometimes random changes in language (in both word meaning and pronunciation) and offering none of the moral judgments people expect about them But he knows readers want that judgment, and he gives it to them in a wise form. Listen to this:

For a linguist to hope that the public will give up the idea that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others would be futile—especially since all linguists agree with the public on this. Often we are asked, “If all these things considered bad grammar are really okay, then why don’t you use them in your writing and speeches?” However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life. The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context. To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are “bad.” (220–221)

This is very practical wisdom. It would have saved me from asking a Singaporean friend what his first language was and (I’m so embarrassed by this) asking a Kenyan friend why he speaks English wrong. It would have saved me from mocking a teacher who had a Southern accent when I was eighteen. And even now, the implicit connection to class McWhorter makes (“equal chances at success in life”) is a good reason to be humble about whatever facility I’ve attained in the use of standard American English. The truth is that I’ve been schooled in it from infancy. I never, never had to labor to acquire it. (Thanks, English Major Dad.)

McWhorter also raises the question: “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?”

And he provides an answer:

When people are doing things on their own. I once knew someone who, for some reason, despite otherwise perfectly ordinary American English, used “nerfry” for nursery and “grofery” for grocery. That was, quite simply, off because no one else says the words that way; nor is there anything about their sounds that makes it likely that anyone ever will. (195)

Get it set in your mind that McWhorter isn’t giving the inmates permission to rule the asylum, only noting that they in fact do whether think they do or not, and you can quell your moral alarm at his sometimes nonjudgmental descriptions of language change.

And then there’s this, an idea I consider a significant advance in my own understanding:

The fury some harbor over language usage issues is incommensurate with the gravity of the issue. Does anyone genuinely fear that we are on our way to babbling incomprehensibly to one another when no such thing has ever happened among a single human group in the history of our species? One suspects more afoot than logic: rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribalist impulse roiling ever underneath.

The tribalist impulse has ever fewer officialized outlets in our society, in which open discrimination is increasingly barred from the public forum. The very pointedness of the rage behind so many comments about language usage suggests something exploding after a considerable buildup of pressure, denied regular venting. In this grand and tragic world of ours, it is rather unexpected, in itself, that anyone would experience anger in response to the construction of a sentence. A student can hand in their paper anytime after Thursday—this use of their is grounds for fulmination amid global warming, terrorism, grisly epidemics, and the prospect of a world without bees? (223–224)

I doubt this explanation will persuade anyone of (ahem) their guilt, but this is by far the best explanation I’ve seen for the furor people raise over language change—and the moral disapprobation I see on people’s faces when they find out I’m fine with particular language changes that have occurred. I have literally been told that I am a moral relativist, even after I have tried to explain with great care what I do and don’t mean. (It was during a Q&A in front of a large group of people; it was awkward.)

(And I’m not a moral relativist.)

Especially helpful for me was the fact that one theme in McWhorter’s book was identical to the major theme of my upcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (in fact, I’m hoping to get my hero McWhorter to blurb the book for me!). The argument I apply to the King James he applies to Shakespeare. And the argument is this simple:

English has changed a lot more since Shakespeare than we think. (205)

The key there is “than we think.” People who don’t obsess over language change like McWhorter does just aren’t likely to notice all the subtle differences that make Shakespeare and the KJV bumpy sidewalks for modern readers. There are many words in each that McWhorter calls “false friends,” words that we still use today but that meant something different in Elizabethan times. McWhorter and I share the same value: we want people to understand what they read and hear. So he made precisely the call I’ve made: update the false friends. His words on this issue are exceptionally wise and deft—and I promptly added them to the manuscript of my own book.

Thank you again, John McWhorter. I owe you a great debt, I really do.

Review: Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family

Andy Crouch is among the first parents to have nurtured children from clearly-too-young-to-have-a-smartphone to now-old-enough, during a time in which smartphones were in fact available for that whole period. It’s only been ten years since the iPhone’s debut. And in that time Crouch’s eldest child went from eight (too young) to eighteen (old enough). So Crouch is able to speak from a place of not just wisdom but also experience. In fact, his “Crouch Family Reality Checks” at the end of most chapters, little sections that revealed how well his family lived up to his stated ideals, give the book a weight I haven’t felt in other writings on this topic. Even when he had to admit his failures to be fully wise in the formation of his family (and of his own soul), Crouch still had wisdom to offer me.

Keeping it simple in this review, I’ll just list off his family’s ten commitments:

Ten Tech-Wise Commitments

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

Readers of Crouch’s other excellent works, particularly Culture Making, will hear Crouchian emphases, especially perhaps in point 2. That’s gold. Crouch manages to be perceptive in an arena full of platitudes, and I think he can do this because he’s a gifted and dedicated popularizer. His major books have all been teaching and applying the work of scholars to the needs of the church. This book is no exception. Highly recommended.

In Which I Answer a Friendly KJV Defender Who Is Not KJV-Only AND REVEAL THE COVER OF MY NEW BOOK!

The following is a comment I recently wrote in response to someone who prefers the KJV but does not insist on its exclusive use. He clearly has good education—from Southern Seminary, I believe. He also prefers the TR.

[William,] your argument that study Bibles and commentaries are just as good as using multiple translations is the first serious attempt any KJV-defender has ever made to answer my simple argument from experience, namely that checking multiple translations has helped me understand Scripture countless times. I’m afraid, however, that it “was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation” (to quote Chesterton =), because I plan to write my next book on this very topic. In other words, you make a fair argument, and I hear you.

I’m still unclear, however, and I’m genuinely curious as to what you’ll say, on what actual problems stem from the use of multiple translations in a church. It seems to me that if the pastor cannot answer the question, “But how come MY Bible says…?” then he didn’t get enough training. Such a question may require some time in the study, but if he doesn’t have the tools to answer it, he doesn’t have the tools to preach, either. I LOVE to get such questions, because I can always, always explain.

The punctuation in the KJV is not “uncommon.” It is “archaic.” It is therefore confusing to modern readers. Ask 100 lifelong KJV readers what the KJV punctuation means, and 100 of them will stare at you blankly. I’ve been reading books with contemporary punctuation conventions out loud my entire life, and I’ve never once struggled to know when to pause. William, I’ve reached the point of dismay as I write, and that’s not a good place to be, because I don’t want to offend a good brother. But I say with all my heart, you’re too smart to be saying what you’re saying! Do you honestly think that the KJV’s placement of colons and semi-colons is a bigger help for public reading than using words people actually know? And again, I don’t deny that the thees and thous are helpful in Luke 22:31–32. That’s a good example. But to take just one counterexample, do the thees and thous in the KJV really help us understand as often as quotation marks and em dashes in the ESV/NIV/NASB help us understand? And I put to you again the same question I asked earlier: what evidence do you have that the KJV translators deliberately brought thee and thou back for the sake of clarity? Did they say this? I think it’s equally possible to argue that they simply didn’t want to go to the trouble of manually replacing nearly 19,000 instances of thee, thou, ye, thine, or thy in a Bible (the Bishop’s Bible of 1568) that they were only supposed to be revising as necessary, according to Richard Bancroft’s instructions.

As for the profit motive being the reason we have so many contemporary translations, again I’m dismayed, just grieving deep in my heart. Remember, you are talking about fellow Christians here. Was Vern Poythress, an ESV translator and a very respected client of mine and influence on me, unduly motivated by profit? Was Crossway Books, run by your brothers and sisters in Christ, unduly motivated by profit in making the ESV? Is the laborer worthy of his hire—should Bibles be given away for free? Is Doug Moo, top commentator on Romans and head of the NIV translation committee, motivated by profit? What kind of car does he drive? What evidence do you have that your brothers and sisters are motivated by money rather than by love of God and love of the church?

I bring a little passion to my questions because I love the truth, and the upshot of your viewpoint is that many individual words of God are taken out of the hands of people who need them, who have a right to them. Very few people have the good theological education you’ve been given. They need a Bible in their language. I actually believe the KJV has some life left in it, too. I don’t want to be over the top. But somehow after years of TR-only guys rejecting other TR-based translations, I just can no longer believe that they’re taking an honest look at the alternatives. And then, ultimately, I can no longer believe that what they really care about is the TR. I do not call them liars. I think they are not able to see through their tradition, a sin of which we are all at times guilty.

The other day I was raked over the coals by some commenters at the Logos Talk Blog for questioning the practice of capitalizing deity pronouns. I got BRUTAL comments (a few of which I had to delete) accusing me of giving in to all sorts of demonic wickedness. You tamper with people’s traditions, and they will lash out at you like a wolverine in a trap. It’s scary to me, because I have to wonder how often I’m doing the same thing. I hope I’m not; my life is a continual effort to reform my traditions by Scripture. But I have come to the conclusion that all defenses of the modern use of the KJV are examples of making void the word of God by tradition. That word tells us, especially in 1 Cor 14, that intelligibility is key to edification. And though the KJV is still largely intelligible, it is—through no fault of the KJV translators but merely because of the inevitable process of language change—unnecessarily unintelligible in countless little places. You’re going to have to make time to read my book. =) I will prove this assertion.


And now a bonus for those of you who made it this far. I just got the cover for my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. Details on how to pre-order it will be coming soon, Lord willing. My friend Bryan Hintz here at Faithlife did a fantastic job, I think (he also produced an ingenious cover design for Andy Naselli’s recent No Quick Fix—and used my handwriting!). Without further ado: