Friday, November 6, 2009

Paul's "Sarx" and Malik Nidal Hasan's "Pound of Flesh"

Soon I'd like to post on "Exactly What Paul Meant by Sarx." But Malik Nidal Hasan has caused a profound tragedy, and we need to assign blame or otherwise to make sense, so I'm coming back to Paul's precise intention more precisely another day.

Today's post has 2 Parts.

Part 1: Paul's "Flesh"

When I was a kid, my parents and my other evangelical Christian teachers used to warn me about The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. The World included tv where one could watch Flip Wilson's character Geraldine confirm "The Devil made me do it." And The Flesh was one of a three-parter in The World, as in the Bible (the leather-bound thin-paper red-letter NRSV I was made to read and memorize):

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever. I John 2:15-16

But God was ironic if I wasn't to love The World or to have the desire of The Flesh. He was as ironic as Geraldine in The World talking like a Christian blaming The Devil. (Here's how I got that as the kid of missionaries in a war zone, Việt Nam, where I was made to go to Vietnamese church every Sunday where I'd hear this: "Đức Chúa Trời yêu thương thế gian" and "Ngôi Lời ở thế gian" and "Ngôi Lời đã trở nên xác thịt.") In other words, God got to love The World, and Jesus was in The World, and Jesus became Flesh. That's what John (aka Giaêng) also said about God and Jesus in my NRSV (John 3:16, John 1:10, and John 1:14).

God loves The World; but we must not. Jesus was in The World in The Flesh; but we must avoid the desires of The Flesh.  But of course, we are not God or Jesus. So John comes along to make that crystal clear. He comes along, after Paul, to keep us from doing what God and Jesus did. Don't love The World and especially don't have the desire of The Flesh. John (in I John) was listening more precisely and more carefully to Paul; and Paul (as the NRSV and the Vietnamese Bible arranged it) had already written a few books and chapters and pages earlier to confirm with precision and with sense, this very sense:

"For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it." (Romans 7:18)

Nobody yet had the (New) Living Bible or (Today's) New International Version (2011) to flesh out the understanding that "thịt" and "flesh" mean "sinful nature." And that's what Paul may mean, and may mean exactly by "sarx." So Douglas Moo is making decisions -- now with bibliobloggers and translationbloggers making decisions about his decisions.

What are the consequences of Paul's "Sarx"?  What's the sense you make of it?

Part 2: Making sense of a "Pound of Flesh"

The terrorism of Malik Nidal Hasan is arresting to so many of us, directly injurious to thirty of us and murderous to thirteen of us. How do we make sense of it?

Top biblioblogger Dr. Jim West jumps in early asking for "the faithful to pray for all involved" and wondering about "a war without an end in sight and being waged for no clear objective" and saying that Hasan "snapped" and that that does "show just how much pressure our military personnel are under."

And Polycarp, at his blog "The Church of Jesus Christ," responds to the early reports that Hasan was killed (although now we know he was shot by a female officer but now is alive, stable, and refusing to answer questions). Polycarp says "let us remember the example of the Amish and while we pray for those afflicted by this tragedy, the families left behind, let us too remember his family"; and the example of the Amish that Watts links to is this:  to forgive the dead terrorist with concern for "the welfare of the killer's family."

Feminist blogger Phyllis Chesler says "Call me 'Islamophobic,' call me 'psychic,' call me what you will." And she says that most may call Hasan the victim.  She says that in her post entitled "The Jihadist Is Always the Victim."

And a blogger who calls himself "Improvable" asks a rhetorical question with respect to Hasan. The blogger says: "So he decides to take out as many infidels as he could to get his pound of flesh for the jehad?"

Now we in the West hear Shakespeare, and we hear Shylock saying of Antonio: "The pound of flesh which I demand of him Is deerely bought, 'tis mine, and I will haue it."

The Bible, the Koran, the words of William Shakespeare. These are texts that demand interpretation, texts and interpretations that we may use for hope and healing and for terror and death. What does it matter exactly what "sarx" and what "pound of flesh" mean if they're mostly tools of terror?

What are the consequences of Malik Nidal Hasan's "Pound of Flesh"?  What's the sense you make of it?


Anonymous said...

"God loves The World; but we must not. Jesus was in The World in The Flesh; but we must avoid the desires of The Flesh"

Thanks for this, I never realized the paradox before.

I've been working on a new translation of the NT, starting with John. I intend to translate sarx as "flesh" just because it's both literal and satisfyingly vague. ;-)

I see the negative references to sarx as simply the body, being mortal, having cravings that need to be controlled, rather than having a conscious evil mind of its own. In this way I can avoid the conclusion that flesh must be evil, which would conflict with the fact that Jesus became flesh.

Same issue with "world"; it can be seen as positive or negative (or neutral), such that context is the final arbiter of its meaning. I think the only way to avoid confusion would be to make up one word or phrase for positive usage and another for negative. Yet again, such a "solution" gives the translator too much temptation (being in the flesh and all) to decide which it should be.

This all reminds me of "answer/don't answer a fool according to his folly". And in that case as well as "love/don't love the world", the answer must be (to make an understatement) nuanced. The question is whether to let the reader figure it out or try and help with translation or footnotes.

J. L. Watts said...

The consequences, I fear, will be a sharp, and undeserved, increase in Islamophobia. Instead of attempting to understand the stress that this man was under - I do not excuse the murders - and to see examine our role in the greater friction which really IS, we will call it domestic terrorism, have a few rallies, blame those who look different, and fell pretty good about ourselves.

wbmoore said...

You wrote, "God loves The World; but we must not. Jesus was in The World in The Flesh; but we must avoid the desires of The Flesh."

I think you have identified a dichotamy that does not exist. God loves the world (Jn 3:16). We ARE told to not love the world 2 Jn 2:15-17. But while it might appear we are told to not do what God does, thus is not the case.

We are to love our neighbors (Mt 22:37-40). We are to love our brother (1Jn3:10). In those ways, we ARE told to love.

There is a difference between loving the world (in terms of loving people as we love ourselves) and loving the world (in terms of loving the things not of God). 

We ARE told to love the world as God loves the world - the people of the world (love God and love your neighbor...). 

When we are told in Jn 3:16 that God loves the world, it is the people God loves, not the things of the world. This is what we are told to do in Mt 22:37-40 and 1Jn3:10.

As for Christ being in the flesh in the world and us being told to avoid the temptations of the world, this too is false dichotamy.  Christ withstood the temptations of the world (Hebrews 4:15), which is what we are told to do (Romans 6:12-13). 

J. K. Gayle said...


I intend to translate sarx as "flesh" just because it's both literal and satisfyingly vague. ;-)

Thanks for sharing your translation! And thank you for you wonderful comment about your approach to translating sarx. Both literal and vague (and ambiguous too I'll add)... satisfyingly.

Yes, and we follow what you mean about "world" (i.e., kosmos, which Aristotle of course, or someone using his name, writes an entire treatise on -- as not ornamentation, as it once mainly meant, but as the the universe in and below the heavens and the orders of things therein).

>J.L., You remind us that we in America "look different" - that we all have different looks, that skin color, that religious creeds, and various ones make up all of us here. This year, I visited the Oklahoma City Federal Building museum and grieved the lives lost at the hands of two white guys (Timothy McVeigh and his buddy Terry Nichols), and in Texas we have reminders of religious extremists like David Koresh, who also doesn't look (or in his claims to "Christian" "faith" sound) very different from a majority of Americans. We do - in the American mosaic once called a melting pot - abhor racism and sexism and hatred of the "other," and we do demand justice on behalf of those innocently injured and murdered. That's no easy balance (i.e. e pluribus unum).

>WBMoore, You're wondering whether I've identified, as you put it, "a dichotamy that does not exist."

I'm interested in how we readers and listeners (whether in Greek, in Vietnamese, or in English) can see meanings as the same or as different. In fact, John writing the gospel uses the very same words as John writing the epistles. Of course most read the meanings of the same words as being drastically different in the two contexts (with the other constructs and contexts you bring in to support the sharp difference).

Translators, and bible teachers, and the like, tend to do the work for the reader and the sunday school students. The interpretations, precise as they purport to be, lose the ambiguities (or as Paula in her comment here puts it, both literal and satisfyingly vague). Because of traditions and constructs (i.e., traditions that are afraid of mis-interpretations or that want to control how readers and listeners must come to a text), there is little wiggle room for seeing the Bible from various perspectives. To me, the Jesus who the gospel writers write about gets away from such narrow prescriptions and propositions. Rather, he asks people how they read the scriptures and he tells stories that don't always have just one interpretation, and that make the listener actually interpret for herself or himself. I think Jesus tends to appreciate language the way Paula here does -- meanings of words are not always pre-determined.

As for the dichotomy, well, as a little kid hearing and reading Vietnamese and NRSV bible and then a young adult reading John's Greek, I did find there to be amusing irony in God and Jesus moving toward the world and toward love and in flesh while John elsewhere has to turn that around on his readers with prohibitions. I'm sure you've been amused by people saying one thing that you yourself can easily take another way, as a contradiction, and then laugh or smile. I like translations that (like the original texts do) let us smile and laugh and ponder the richness of our human condition.

Anonymous said...

Tanks J.K. :-)

But ya know, dis be backwards: "I think Jesus tends to appreciate language the way Paula here does."