Holy books, wholly understandable

I try, every year, to read the scripture of some other faith. That is, read the books themselves, not just a second-hand analysis of them

In 2016 it was the Koran, which I found well worth the read, if a little repetitious. It is about 4/5 the length of the New Testament.

In 2017 I have read the Bhaghavad Gita, which is a substantially shorter book. And I have just started the Book of Mormon, which is twice as long as the New Testament.

The two books I did as Audible recordings, of which I am a major fan, the Book of Mormon on LibriVox.

My observation here has to do with clear communication:

The Koran I read was the Penguin edition (1956) by N. J. Dawood; it is meant for non-specialists and was very understandable. Click HERE.

The Bhaghavad Gita I accessed two ways; first through then through the wonderful introduction and translation by Eknath Easwaran. And much, but not all, of the 2000-page commentary by Swami Ramsukhdasji, a gift from a dear Hindu friend.

Especially in the case of the Eknath Easwaran edition (click HERE), the rendering is very clear, with technical terms carefully explained; and then before each chapter, the author sums up the previous context, then gives a summary of the new chapter. In other words, it couldn’t be easier for the non-Hindu.

Foment curiosity and independent thinking? Sure! Create confusion? No!

All to say that, in both cases, someone exerted a great deal of effort to make clear to me the basic message of the holy books of another faith. In neither book was I ever lost, although of course my understanding of them remains superficial.

The application for the Christian should be clear.

How much more should someone who is interested in communicating our true message take great pains to

  • study it seriously,
  • meditate on it deeply,
  • pray about it thoroughly,
  • rely on God’s grace to live it authentically, and
  • seek God’s direction to proclaim it truthfully and powerfully.

Also, I would add, use straightforward language instead of flowery or technical; and to employ good English – rather than Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Bohairic, or who knows what. (See my long article on this issue HERE). To give Paul’s statement a different but legitimate application: “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” And out of the church, even more so.

These versions of holy books remind me of our dear late professor, I. Howard Marshall; the first sermon I heard him preach, in Kings College Chapel in Aberdeen, was on the theme of “repentance” from Romans 2: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” He was speaking to a mixed group, some of whom were not very familiar with the Bible. I paraphrase him: “Repentance is not making ourselves out to be the worst person that ever lived,” he began, and then gave us a simple short sentence on what it does mean to repent. Clear as a bell. The handful of times I went to hear John Stott preach, same thing.

That is the apostolic way, it is the way of love.

“Holy books, wholly understandable,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

My Time with the Koran, April 2016

Read the whole file here shogren_my-time-with-the-koran or download it on your phone. my-time-with-the-koran

My reading the Koran is like a rock-and-roller trying to figure out what in the world that jazz trio is up to. Still, if I will opine that the Koran is right, wrong, or indifferent, I feel I should have at least a basic, first-hand awareness of what it actually says. This, even though people all the time comment on books they haven’t yet gotten around to; the Bible in particular, unread by many Bible-believers.[i]

I bring this up because, like you, I have seen certain Facebook memes and books that “prove” that all Muslims are “really” in a jihad against the West; and that when some (apparently very nice) Muslims claim they are not planning to blow stuff up, well, they are lying, since everyone knows that in Islam it’s cool to lie about not being involved in jihad in order to be more effective in jihad. See my dilemma?

We live in a world where from all directions, especially in the social media, we see quotations taken out of context. I love the new usage of “cherry-picked,” a term that is often applied during election years. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is “When only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument.”

Jefferson’s well-known statement that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” is usually taken out of context; when Lincoln “said” that he was not concerned about slavery, but maintaining the Union, that’s cherry-picking; and when the Lincoln meme tells us “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” that’s just a fake. We run into supposed quotes from George Washington, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Joe Stalin, even George Carlin. A snatch of a phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville or Gibbon’s Rise and Fall, also practically useless unless read in context.

At any rate, I have had on my reading list for some time to go ad fontes (Latin, “back to the sources”) and read books of other faiths, not objectively—which is unattainable for anybody—but directly and unmediated. I have a copy of the Book of Mormon waiting in the wings; a dear Hindu friend gave me a beautiful edition of the Bhagavad-Gita, also on my list; Confucius’s Analects I read long ago, also the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic literature. On the wackier side, I have read the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus (meh) and looked over some of the “exposés” of the Catholic Church by Charles Chiniquy (yow!). I read Pope Francis’s Laudato Sii on environmental issues and later on his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee: the latter in part because I heard somewhere that it promised to send Protestants to the guillotine in a 21st-century Inquisition; turns out, it did not mention decapitation or any bloodshed; who knew?

I also wanted to read the Koran because of a phenomenon that is very obvious from a Google search, that there are Muslims apologists who carefully read the Bible—in order to refute it.[ii]

So, this was my first time through the Koran, and I went cover to cover. I looked up some points to clarify what I was looking at, but tried to avoid the Hadith interpretations or other viewpoints, except for the ones I read afterward about jihad. It was “Back to the Koran” time.

s-l1000

Let me give some broad observations, from a Christian for Christians, and then address specific topics. (more…)