Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Getting Ambiguities

And he said to them, 
You don't get this parable?
Then how are you going to get all the parables?
--Jesus to the disciples
(translated into Greek
by Mark
translated into English
by me) 

In English, the word “ambiguities” gets a bad (w)rap.  The “good” grammar teacher or “good” grammar book told us long ago:  “Using ambiguities is bad.”  And we believe this.  We want one and only one meaning for every one word.  We want to wrap up our phrases into a singular package.  We desire no slippery slope.  And this is why I also say too that, “in English, the word 'ambiguities' gets a bum rap.”  We forget that we humans are the ones who assign meaningS to our wordS, whether we're the ones saying them or writing them or listening to them or are reading them.  We may really want to avoid ambiguities, but even if we were successful in such avoidances, then would we really be getting success in communication?

Here's a true story.  You might think of it also as a parable of ambiguities:

Once upon a time, I wrote a blogpost.  In the blogpost, I quoted Aristotle teaching his male only, Greek only, disciples to use “only good Greek.”  One of his commandments, which all of these boys believed, was “avoid ambiguities.”  Then a professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley commented at my post to correct me to say this:  
Linguists have long distinguished between between vagueness and ambiguity. Vagueness is when you give too little information....  Ambiguity is when there are two distinct interpretations....  [T]here's a small middle ground between vagueness and ambiguity, but the distinction is clear most of the time, and is quite useful.  Aristotle [in this quotation of him that you give] rails against vagueness, not ambiguity.
So we looked together at the actual Greek word that Aristotle used for “ambiguities” or “vaguenesses,” and we had to agree.  Aristotle's word was both vague and ambiguous.  To be very sure and absolutely sure, Aristotle's Greek word, then, was ambiguous.  Oh, and it was also a tad vague.  Therefore, if you've followed the syllogism here, or the enthymeme presumed here, to it's necessary and logical and singular conclusion, then you get this:  Aristotle had inadvertently, hypocritically, failed to avoid using vagueness and ambiguity.  “Do what I say, fellas, not as I do,” he surely whispered to himself.  (Here's that post where you can almost hear Aristotle whispering and can almost see his face, pink from private professorial embarrassment.)

Now, let's go back to Jesus.  Or are we going forward to him?  When he was talking to his fellows, he'd say and do what Aristotle said to avoid in good language.  That is, Jesus spoke in many parables that few could understand.  His words, his phrases, his sentences, and even his stories were ambiguous, and vague.  Sometimes they were vaguely ambiguous.  Other times they were ambiguously vague.  So his disciples got to question him.  He was all about the Socratic dialectic.  So his rhetoric and his hyperbole and his hyperphysia and his poetry and his feminisms and his parables just weren't all that dangerous, because he let people ask questions and form, and re-form, and trans-form.

(This is a parenthetical paragraph.  It's an aside.  It may make one of the main points of the blogpost.  You be the judge, won't you?  Do get this:  Aristotle belittled Socrates's dialectic, calling it an anti-strophe of rhetoric, which he warned was exaggeration.  Aristotle was about Nature, which he called physics, or if you had to then meta-physics, out of which he invented his log-ike to shut down ambiguous logos and all manner of pluralistic dissoi logoi.  Sappho was a poet, he acknowledged, but the Mytilenean men, he conceded, honored her “although she was a woman.”  Then Aristotle said such men were like the fable-telling parabowling Aesop and those bar-bar-barian fellows of Libya before Muammar Gaddafi came in like he was Alexander the Great.  Aristotle would warn his disciples of such:  “Get this, fellas.  There are dark, woman-like, pluralistic, ambiguous slippery-slope stories [λόγοι logoi] thrown violently alongside your own:  the fables of Aesop and the parables of the Libyans.”)

At first, the disciples of Jesus were sort of like the disciples of Aristotle.  And they were all exactly like we want to be, sometimes.  They wanted to avoid ambiguities.  Fables of the sort Jesus told in public, and so many of them too, were all too vague far too often.  “Please say what you mean, teacher.  Please give us the one and only meaning of what you mean, Rabbi.”  And then Mark comes along, and he translates the words of Jesus into Greek.  All of the metaphors go flying in all these different semantic directions, even when Jesus gives his clear explanation.  All of the metaphors go flying in all these different semantic directions, especially when Jesus gives his clear explanation, in Mark's Greek.  Which makes us think also that translation too can be ambiguous.  It's now a parable of translation.  But that's another story all together.

(In his Greek translation, his own version of this story, Mark makes the parable of Jesus that would unlock all of the parables sound like Gorgias Praising a Woman, the woman of all women, Helen.  I mean, really.  Did you ever read what Gorgias wrote next to what Mark translated, and how?  Notice how they both depend on the reader to get the meaning.  Not just one meaning either.  At least four.  But then there's their twists at the end.  In both accounts.  Oh, this is another parenthetical, fairly unimportant paragraph, depending on how you read it.)

I've been silly here.  But now I want also to be more serious.  I want to talk a little now about how we people want to contain the meaning of our words.  I want to talk some about trying to contain, to dis-ambiguate.  We might look at Chinese (as Victor Mair does here, showing how letters for sound can restrict meanings of 便 ).  But we might as well just look at our English.

Here are some words and phrases:

gender neutral

Here now are some posts that get to the ambiguities of those words.  Or they're posts that sometimes would dis-ambiguate these words of ours as we might use them.

Doesn't fellow avoid ambiguities?  Isn't it male only, and not female at all?

Suzanne has written on fellow as also feminine in “Broadly Evangelical?” and in “The death of the masculine generic.”  Look, ladies and gentlemen, she did not make this stuff up.  It's in Shakespeare and in the English Bible and in all sorts of places before men who wanted the word all to themselves said different.

Doesn't feminist avoid ambiguities?  Isn't it only bad female and not good male at all?

Notice how one of the commenters (“roguephysicist”) at the second post linked above says this:  “The blowback from 'gender-neutral' translations sponsored by feminists and homosexuals has hardly started.

It sounds a little like “feminists” are real bad women here.  They can't be good, can they?  And they wouldn't be men either, would feminists?  

And then there's the statement by the COMMITTEE ON BIBLE TRANSLATION:
“Second, we object to the 'guilt-by-association' labeling of some of our translations. The review [by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] notes some renderings in the updated NIV that are adopted also by 'feminist' interpreters. Yet they fail to note that many of these same renderings are also adopted by complementarian interpreters. (For instance, 'assume authority' in 1 Tim. 2:12 is Calvin's rendering.) The fact that egalitarians and complementarians alike adopt many of these translations suggests that, in fact, there is broad scholarly support in favor of these conclusions. It is the scholarship that has influenced the decisions of CBT in these texts – not a modern agenda of any kind.”
Notice how the COMMITTEE does not dispute or correct the Council, at least not on the would-be un-ambiguous view that “feminist” is a position not desirable.  Again, real bad women (and not real good men) are those who would hold that “feminist” position.

Jesus would not be one of those, nor would he listen to them either.  This is the thinking that would be “not a modern agenda of any kind.”

Well then.  Would Jesus listen to Mollie?  She's a feminist, a young modern one, perhaps with a bad reputation as one, she says.  And she also asks:
“Where are the religious people that are accepting, loving, and kind? They are probably the ones who are humble, quiet, and non judgmental. It’s a shame that a few extreme feminists can make a bad name for all. Is it the same deal religious people, with some groups and religions representing everyone? Certainly, they are not interchangeable, but I cannot help but wonder.”
But weren't some of the first feminists ever Christians?  Weren't some religious, good people with good names too?  Come to think of it, I think so.  Here are some of those fellows, men and women.  So who has the “a modern agenda”? 

Doesn't gender neutral avoid ambiguities?  

Doesn't that phrase mean that  

The male-oriented meaning has been neutralized 

and that 

The emphasis on Jesus as a male has been neutralized 

and that 

'Man,' 'father,' 'brother,' 'son,' and 'he/him/his' are ... are removed or neutralized?

Yes, if you believe Wayne Grudem.  This is how Wayne for the Council (the CBMW) has avoided ambiguities.  With the above sentences, he makes “gender neutral” mean one thing and one thing only:  males are getting hurt!  Notice that “gender neutral” cannot now mean anything nice.  It's hurting males, even Jesus as a male, and it's hurting a whole bunch of male nouns and pronouns in English too.  Wayne writes these sentences in his essay, “The 'Gender-Neutral' NIV: What Is The Controversy About?”  

Wayne has built on what David Kotter, executive director of the Council (CBMW), has said.  David has been concerned about “gender neutral” bathrooms and college dorms.  He says:
There is a direct path between a departure from biblical truth to confusion over gender and finally to concrete examples such as gender-neutral bathrooms. The work of CBMW affects the every day life of every believer.
Notice how David's “gender neutral” is unambiguously “confusion over gender.”  The executive director of the work of the CBMW is making sure every believer every day won't be confused when a bathroom can be used by men and by women or when a dorm is like an apartment complex with men and women both rooming there.  Biblical truth won't allow such.  And the Jesus of "biblical manhood" only only used bathrooms clearly marked "MEN" and also condemned all Ruths for sleeping on those floors for Boazes only.  And that same Jesus of "biblical manhood" would never give “gender neutral” money advice to yuppy women and men like that confused probably-feminist probably-not-believing Kimberly Palmer has.

And God said,
Let us make a human
in our image,
by our likeness....
And God created the human
in his image,
in the image of God
He created him,
He created them.
--Genesis 1
(translated by Everett Fox
from Hebrew
into English)

This is the record of the begettings
of Adam/ Humankind.
At the time of God's creating
in the likeness of God did he then make
he created them
and gave blessing
to them
and called their name:
on the day of
their being
--Genesis 5
(translated by Robert Alter,
from Hebrew
into English)


Kristen said...

When I first heard about the "gender-neutral" controversy, it was about the TNIV. At that time, it was my understanding that the problem was that the "bad" TNIV people had translated as gender-neutral in places where the original was clearly masculine. I have since discovered that this is not the case; that the TNIV, and now the NIV 2011, were trying to translate as gender-neutral where, to the best of their understanding, the original text was gender-neutral. But up until now, I truly thought the issue was about whether the translation was actually accurate or not.

Now you inform me that people like Grudem believe this is not about accuracy in translation at all, but rather about their definition of "gender-neutral" as "male-neutering." I find that very odd.

As far as accuracy is concerned, it is clear to me that since Jesus was deliberately ambiguous in his attempts to get his listeners to think about things, we can hardly expect Aristotelian non-ambiguity (however hypocritically espoused) to be a main goal of the Old Testament texts Jesus quoted, or of the New Testament texts he inspired.

So why should those apparently deliberate ambiguities now be cornered, tamed, trapped in a box, and used to serve male privilege? If a word can be read as meaning either males only, or males and females, then wouldn't it be best to translate as today's reader would best understand (such as "brothers and sisters") and if the translators aren't sure that "brothers only" might be meant in a certain place, simply put in a footnote? That way, the reader can see the ambiguity for him/herself (as well as any possible translator bias that results their thinking any passage referring to leadership/authority should mean "brothers only" while everything else can be "brothers and sisters")-- and the reader must think about it, just as Jesus appeared to want most often for his followers to do.

Kristen said...

PS. With regards to my comment above:

"Now you inform me that people like Grudem believe this is not about accuracy in translation at all, but rather about their definition of "gender-neutral" as "male-neutering." I find that very odd."

I have had a chance to read Grudem's essay, and it's clear that he at least thinks there are issues of accuracy here-- but what he considers an accurate translation seems to me to have a lot more to do with "the meaning of the text as I, Grudem, have always understood it" than "what the original writer may have intended to convey."

In any case, I find it dismaying that he believes that since I am female, Jesus, in "being made like" us humans, could not have been "made like" me, because apparently my femaleness is the most important thing about me, and it somehow trumps my actual humanity. Therefore, Jesus was made like his brothers only, and not his sisters. To which I can only say that though this appears to be the way Grudem has always understood that text, I have never understood it that way, and I find it dismaying that he understands it that way, because it so clearly excludes me from being one of those Jesus came to identify with. I can only ask, does Grudem believe I'm fully human, or not? I'd have to say, from that essay, probably not. . .

J. K. Gayle said...

the way Grudem has always understood that text, ... so clearly excludes me from being one of those Jesus came to identify with.

Thank you for sharing this so clearly. You've inspired me to write a post (soon) to show how Wayne Grudem's "understanding" is a misunderstanding of the text.