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The offensiveness of the gospel in the language of the street April 30, 2019

Posted by P, J, or J in Uncategorized.
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I used to have a print copy of “Gods Brainwave: The Story of Jesus doing the job his old dad sent him to do”, a retelling of the gospel in the language of the Chiltern Hills, and originally commissioned by the BBC’s Religious Broadcasting department as a series of radio slots and released as an LP in the UK, Canada and Australia in 1970.God's Brainwave

The sleeve notes explain that the producer had wondered “how the New Testament might be broadcast in a form that would be contemporary, startling, compulsive and offensive only in the sense that when the worlds of Jesus really come home they are so often offensive”.

The result was very much a paraphrase, not only using colloquial language to tell the story but also mixing in the ideas of the writer and performer without  the level of checking that would lead anyone to call it an accurate translation.

It was after all intended to be a piece of theatre rather than a piece of theology, and like much of Jesus own preaching it was meant to provoke reaction and discussion.

Other retellings, paraphrases and translations have been released in regional dialects over the years and each has faced the same challenges both of how to use local expressions and forms of speech and of how ‘free’ to be in their interpretation of the scripture.

Theatre or Theology?

The use of theatre is not new and includes periods of history when literacy was low and key stories where remembered and celebrated in ‘mystery plays’.

A similar thing happens in movie versions of scripture, some try and stay close to the script(ure) filling in gaps or abridging things to convey what the producer, director and a team of writers and advisors feel is an accurate retelling, others put a fresh interpretation or simply use the familiar story for their own narrative.

The language of the street or the language of the church?

Meanwhile in Scotland here’s a couple of reviews on Amazon of the 2012 translation of the New Testament in Doric, the Scots dialect spoken in North East Scotland (Not to be confused with Scots Gaelic which has nine versions readily availabe via YouVersion)

“Opened ma een ti reedin’ i’ Bible. Canna be beaten – nithin like it oan i’ market onwye… recommend to a’ Doric spikers I warl’ ower…” – Mattha, Mark, Luke and Jock

“This is nae fer abody. Ye’ll need help tae understaun it. Bit it dis add something tae the text yer used tae. It reminds ye thit the original wis fer ordinary folk. If ye hinnae read the Bible afore in ye have the Doric – this might be a guid place tae start.”- Robert F

Google can’t quite understand it well enough to translate what it says, but for me the key line is, “it reminds you that the original was for ordinary people”.

There is now a North-East Scots Language Board. Dr Thomas McKean said of it in a BBC interview:

“It’s important that young people see themselves – and the language they speak – reflected back at them in public life. Just as children need to see diverse gender and race role models, they need to know that someone who speaks their native language can be a success in any walk of life.”

and added in Doric, “Through wirk wi scuils we’ll mak the tongue mair accessible tae bairns, an through media, tourism an signage we’ll mak Scots mair visible tae aabdy that bides here.”

As part of my MA I’m exploring attitudes to language within the UK church. Standard national language are useful but if you also speak a local language, regional dialect, or one or more languages from your or your parents country of origin its good to be reassured that they not only matter to you, they also matter to God.

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