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Adam Miller’s Paraphrases – renewing old scriptures

June 8, 2016

Adam Miller

Adam Miller is filling up my book list. I have already read his “Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” but since then, he’s come out with several other works, such as The Gospel According to David Foster WallaceNothing New Under the Sun: A Blunt Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, and Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology.

There is a common theme I’ve noticed in Adam’s works (at least, from the reviews and what little I’ve read directly of him) — and I suspect that reading Future Mormon will confirm my thoughts.

Adam takes scriptures, concepts, theologies that we normally view as well established and set in stone…and then he retranslates them for a modern audience, often in unexpected ways. I have been reading posts on Making Sense of Christianity about viewing Christianity as an antifragile heuristic rather than as a fragile set of theories, and I wanted to write a post about whether Mormonism has “antifragile” elements (especially since the growing number of online communities dedicated to faith crises suggest that there’s definitely fragile elements to the religion.) That post has been on hold because I wanted to have some concrete “heuristics” for an anti-fragile Mormonism. (It would be easy to conclude that Mormonism just is fragile, but I didn’t want to go for the easy route.)

I’ll have to read to confirm, but I suspect that Adam’s growing body of work is honing on on one possible heuristic: translation.

Mormonism’s history with translation

It might seem strange to propose “translation” as an antifragile heuristic for Mormonism. After all, translation is often one of the most fragile points for many people undergoing faith crisis with the religion. After all, who has seen an image like this one only to learn that that’s probably not how the translation process went?

Joseph Smith Translating the golden plates

There is, of course, a more substantive concern with translation in the Mormon context for many disaffected members: what we now refer to as translation probably wasn’t what was occurring with Joseph.

Translation as a modern, secular concept relies on taking words or concepts from one language and then converting it into another language. Certainly, there are different philosophies about translation — is it more important to have fidelity to the sorts of words used, or is it more important to capture a general concept, even if some liberties must be taken?

But the basic idea is that the words of the past are set in stone. Our job is just to accurate portray them in languages we understand now. And any way you look at it, a lot of members undergoing faith crisis just aren’t going to think that Joseph Smith accomplished that.

Does that inevitably defeat Mormonism, though?

One idea I’ve heard a bit that has intrigued me is the idea of Joseph Smith as receiving inspiration about the Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham. In this sense, translation cannot be viewed simply as a mundane process, but is intrinsically a claim of faith — the question of whether you believe Joseph Smith was in communication with God is a fundamentally different question than whether you believe the Book of Mormon is an accurate translation of Reformed Egyptian.

Although a lot of people still won’t buy that narrative (especially since the church doesn’t seem to institutionally want to go that route), I tend to think that this sort of model of translation is at least a better direction or a better way at looking at things. It reinforces that that “old” things can be renewed to become relevant to “new” people (or, if you’re a bit more skeptical, that “new” things can be tied into “old” narratives.) But more importantly, it allows us to break our devotion to literal fidelity to the past, and look at scriptures as living things that must be renewed and rewritten and retranslated for our day. The fact that the Book of Mormon (seemingly conveniently) addresses so many 19th century theological concerns can be a feature, rather than a bug!

Tie-ins to other Mormon Concepts

One major critique of most alternative models of Mormonism is that they often don’t seem Mormon enough. People might say: well, what Adam Miller says or what Terryl and Fiona Givens say are nice things, but they just aren’t Mormonism. (Although there have been responses to that, as well.)

But I can say that this way of thinking about things appeals to me because it seems genuinely Mormon. That is to say, it’s easy to harmonize the idea of ever-renewing scripture with concepts like continuing revelation, personal revelation, the scriptures being written “for our day,” and so on.

Who knows what the institution will do, but it seems like this approach works well internally with Mormonism’s system.

Adam Miller’s paraphrase as translation

In Grace is not God’s backup plan and Nothing New under the Sun, Adam subtitles these work as paraphrases — the former as an “urgent” one, and the latter as a “blunt” one. (I wonder what sort of paraphrase the next book of scripture will be!) Adam goes through some care to point out that he does not see himself as really translating, but one commenter (Nate) on Hawkgrrrl’s review of Nothing New Under the Sun didn’t buy that distinction:

Adam Miller’s paraphrase is actually just a translation, in the tradition of the more colloquial translations of the Bible like the Good News translation:

 

(comparison of KJV, Good News, and Nothing New for a passage)

By calling it a “paraphrase,” Adam gets around the LDS complex over “translations” and fills a desperately needed void. Many scriptures are too opaque to be useful. Paraphrases could be a way to bring new light into stagnant scriptural understandings.

I think there is something to this as well — Adam avoids the term “translation” to avoid the hangups we have (as mentioned before), but really, his paraphrase approach takes “old” texts and imbues them with “new” ideas (even if those ideas are still old…there’s nothing new under the sun, after all). This shakes us from our comfortable interpretations and forces us to think about meaning — whether we agree or disagree with Miller, if we have to think carefully, then his job is done.

I think that the significance of this paraphrase/translation approach is something that Miller writes more about in Future Mormon. As Walker Wright summarizes at Worlds Without End:

Miller’s Future Mormon: Essays in Mormon Theology is an attempt at “a future tense apologetics” that models “a thoughtful and creative engagement with Mormon ideas while sketching, without obligation, possible directions for future thinking” (pg. xii).

…Whether you agree with everything (or anything) in Future Mormon is beside the point. Miller wants you to wrestle with these ideas. Having reread the last few paragraphs, I realize that this sounds less like a review and more like my own personal theologizing of Miller’s ideas. However, this is the best way I can think to represent exactly what Miller’s book does: it starts conversations, gets the mental wheels turning, and begins to transform the reader into a theologian. Miller’s book is the very world-building and alliance-making he describes. In it, he helps lay the foundation for a more thoughtful, earthy, and creative Mormonism; all while extending his hand to readers as an invitation to join him in the process.

I can say that, even though my book list is getting longer and longer, I’m OK with having Adam Miller be such a large part of it.

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6 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    ‘It reinforces that that “old” things can be renewed to become relevant to “new” people (or, if you’re a bit more skeptical, that “new” things can be tied into “old” narratives.) But more importantly, it allows us to break our devotion to literal fidelity to the past, and look at scriptures as living things that must be renewed and rewritten and retranslated for our day.’

    Admittedly I’m responding to your point only tangentially, but it’s been my observation that breaking fidelity with the literal meaning of the scriptures, and retranslating or reinterpreting them to make them more “relevant” to our modern-day lives, rather than renewing churches, instead causes them to stagnate and decay. Liberal churches for the most part don’t thrive.

    I realize that you’re not talking about liberalism/conservatism per se, I just feel that a liberalizing trend is implied in what you say.

    That being said, it’s certainly possible that a re-translation can help to re-focus your attention on what is actually being said in the scriptures. My favorite in this regard is the Ronald Knox translation.

    • Agellius,

      I definitely predicted that there would be some push back toward that particular idea.

      However, to some extent, doesnt even the early church processing of scripture reflect a reinterpretation of things. In other words, even someone like, say, Aquinas is bringing in his own interpretive framework to the equation. And even if people today are learning a Thomistic framework, the church must apply that framework to modern day scenarios – even if people consider today’s issues to be reiterations of issues in the past in new expression

      • Agellius permalink

        The Modernist heresy is described, not as heresies are usually described, as a specific error in doctrine, but rather, as the attempt to use traditional terms while changing the meanings of those terms. This enables Modernists to evade detection, since when called on to explain, they can always claim that they intended nothing more than the traditional teaching.

        Addressing your comment with that in mind, what do we mean by “reinterpretation”? If you’re talking about applying traditional standards and concepts to modern situations, there is no problem at all. What you’re doing in that case is viewing modern scenarios through the traditional Christian lens. This must be done in every age. But if you’re talking about inserting modern standards and concepts into the ancient scriptures, where they were never found before, then I think there’s a problem. What you’re doing in that case is viewing ancient things through the modern lens.

        Doctrine can develop; the ancient can intrude itself into the modern; but it can’t turn around and go backwards.

        Aquinas changed the terms of the discussion in a sense. That is, he worked to reconcile traditional Christian belief with the “new” (to them) philosophical system of Aristotle. But at each step of the way, he made sure that his new expressions of the faith were reconcilable with the expressions of the Church Fathers, who he used as authoritative sources to back up his new explanations. In other words, he was working to advance our understanding of authentic Christianity, using new tools but advancing along the same well-worn paths. This way you knew he was talking about the same things that the ancients were talking about, and with the same meaning and intention, even if expressed in newfangled ways.

    • Also, I’m going to preemptively respond to my own comment by saying that I have a problem of confusing Augustine with Aquinas. My “early church” sentence was probably meant to refer to someone like Augustine, but I think that raises another point — between Augustine and Aquinas (and certainly other things), you have people remixing, interpreting, borrowing, etc.,

      Also, checked out a few verses from Knox translation…definitely liked what I read.

  2. Agellius permalink

    Yeah, I thought to myself that Aquinas is not really “early church”, but that was neither here nor there since it didn’t affect the point you were making.

    I think you are talking about what they call “development of doctrine”, and you’re absolutely right that it happens. But as I said before, development can only happen in a forward direction. It can’t reverse course, it can only add to what was already there. You may not be advocating that it reverse course, but a lot of people who argue for “reinterpreting” the Gospel for our times, mean exactly that: overturning longstanding doctrines and prohibitions, as though we living 2000 years later understand what Jesus meant better than those who lived closer to his time.

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