William Tyndale (1494–1536) was the first person to translate the Bible directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts into English. His translation also formed the basis for the King James version, completed roughly 80 years later by multiple committees of translators. It’s been estimated that over 80% of the KJV New Testament is from Tyndale, and over 70% of the Old Testament. And since the King James Bible has been such an incomparably massive influence on the English language (almost a center of gravity since its publication) you could make the argument that no single individual has had more influence on the English language than William Tyndale. For his efforts, he was burned at the stake, as making the Bible available in the language of the common people was not a healthy occupation to be engaged in at the time. (Some may well be wondering whether it will be déjà vu all over again before very long, but that’s an altogether different kettle of fish.)
If Tyndale had set out to have an impact on the English language for centuries to come, he doubtless would have had no idea how to achieve it, and perhaps would have sat frozen at his desk, quill in hand, until his landlady threw him out on the street for being behind on his rent. No one could achieve a task so great by deliberately attempting it. The task he took on was monumental in itself, but at least specific: to put the Holy Scriptures into words that any English speaking person could understand. By performing this task to such a high standard, he simultaneously achieved things of which he couldn’t possibly have conceived.
It’s just a pity he missed out on all the royalties.
Tyndale’s original translations are available in the public domain, but the different spellings in common usage at that time make them laborious for the modern reader to get through. Fortunately, a scholar named David Daniell completed modern spelling editions of Tyndale’s Old and New Testaments some years ago, and here is a passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter twenty-four:
On the morrow after the sabbath, early in the morning, they came unto the tomb and brought the odours which they had prepared and other women with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre, and went in: but found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were amazed thereat, behold two men stood by them in shining vestures. And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said to them: why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here: but is risen. Remember how he spake unto you, when he was yet with you in Galilee, saying: that the son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
And they remembered his words, and returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the remnant. It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary Jacobi, and other that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles, and their words seemed unto them feigned things, neither believed they them. Then arose Peter and ran unto the sepulchre, and stooped in and saw the linen clothes laid by themself, and departed wondering in himself at that which had happened.
The Phillipsburg Board of Education has refused to release full details on the case, but multiple reports in the media tell the story this way: The teacher, Walter Tutka, had remarked to a student who was last in line when leaving a classroom, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The student asked him where that saying was from, and Tutka told him that it was from the Bible, but he couldn’t recall the exact passage. The student asked him several more times, and finally, during a lunch-break, Tutka pulled out his own copy of the New Testament and found the quote for the student. The student said he didn’t have any Bible of his own, and so Tutka gave him his own copy. It’s not clear how the interaction came to the attention of the powers-that-be, but the student did apparently return that copy of the New Testament to the teacher at a later time.
Based on the outline above, it looks like a pretty good case of zero tolerance for Christianity. The initial remark about the first being last and the last being first seems far more jocular in nature than proselytory, given the context. It happened to stimulate this student’s curiosity. If Walter Tutka had attributed the quote to Bob Dylan, and brought in a copy of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (a song which does include that line) then there no doubt would have been no problem. The Bible is indeed a book of Jewish and Christian Scripture, but it is also literature, and quotes of that kind are at least as important to be familiar with as great quotes from Shakespeare. They are infused in our culture and themselves inspire more literature, poetry and music. Is the original source to be banned from being viewed or mentioned in schools? Well, I ask the question, but I know that it’s rather like asking whether we should consider maybe pushing the barn door closed after the horse has already run down the road and gotten hit by a truck. Continue reading The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey→
You see these kinds of stories all the time, with schools or teachers running afoul of what is characterized as “the separation of church and state” (which is a phrase some people mistakenly believe resides in the U.S. Constitution, but no matter that now). God doesn’t belong in a public school classroom, we are told, and that goes double for the Bible, which is a manifestation of that specific Judeo-Christian God.
Although I’m not personally an advocate of this idea of actively expunging religious concepts from the natural life and thought that would take place in schools, I do understand the concept. It’s why, when passing a public school in my New York City neighborhood, I’ve raised my eyebrow at a sign that has long hung over the main entrance. It says: “Robert F. Kennedy Students Have KARMA.” That’s PS 169, of the New York City Public School system.
The students have KARMA? I think most of us know what the word means, but let’s go to Merriam-Webster for an official definition: It is “the force generated by a person’s actions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.”
PS 169 is neither a Hindu nor a Buddhist school, but is, as mentioned, a New York City public school. So this is why my eyebrow was raised. Still and all, you see a lot of things in New York City, and you learn to keep walking. It was only one poster.
Recently, however, I had occasion to visit the same school on other business (voting). Walking through the lobby and hallways, I couldn’t help but notice that this “KARMA” concept was repeated. Again and again. It seemed to be all over the place, in fact, and in a myriad of different incarnations.
One posting says “GOOD KARMA,” with a picture of a scale, and the exhortation, “BALANCE OUT THOSE NEGATIVE VIBES.” We’re assured that “P169 HAS GOOD KARMA.”
Another (my favorite) says that “STUDENTS WITH KARMA REMOVE HATS GIVE ALL CELLPHONES, IPODS, ETC. TO MR. REEVES.”
Another sign—this one quite elaborately constructed in three dimensions—presents each letter of KARMA as the first letter of another word: Kind, Appropriate, Responsible, Mature, Accountable. There’s a big smiling sun perched alongside.
So, that’s the root of this. Further research found evaluations of the school on an official New York City government website, and documentation regarding the “KARMA” behavior modification program, which has apparently been in place since at least 2006. As in this report (.pdf):
The school’s philosophy is that achievement is inextricably linked to behavior, so to that end the school has implemented the ‘KARMA’ initiative in school, standing for kindness, appropriacy, responsibility, maturity, accountability. All activity in the school is linked to ‘KARMA,’ from clarity about which behaviors are expected in which location in the school, to a rewards and sanctions system, in which students can “buy” such things as leisure time on the computer, book bags and pencils with the rewards of good behavior. This is reinforced in every lesson, every classroom and by every member of staff.
“KARMA” is an acronym for these behaviors and attitudes that the school wishes to encourage. Clearly, though, the use of the term also plays on the original Hindu/Buddhist concept of consequences for ethical choices. In all, it’s really very clever.
However, imagine if instead of “Robert F. Kennedy students have KARMA,” the signs said, “Robert F. Kennedy students are filled with the Holy Spirit.” Maybe someone could come up with qualities worth promoting which corresponded with those letters; let me see … HOLY: Happiness; Orderliness; Levelheadedness; Youthfulness; SPIRIT: Sensitivity; Patience; Irony; Readiness; Imperturbability; Tolerance. (I make no claim to be an expert at this but you can get one for the right price.)
Or imagine if the signs said (God forbid!): “Robert F. Kennedy students follow the Ten Commandments.” Think of the heads that would explode. Picture, if you will, the ACLU helicopters swooping in to rescue the students before their helpless and innocent minds could be contaminated by such thoughts.
KARMA is assuredly a concept that has entered the common lingo, especially since John Lennon’s big hit record, but the same can certainly be said of concepts like the Holy Spirit and the Ten Commandments, which have been around for 2000 years and more. “Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Yet these words are proscribed in the public schools, while KARMA may be promoted?
It also needs to be noted that to the same degree as KARMA is a concept born of Hinduism and Buddhism it conflicts with Judeo-Christian beliefs. KARMA presumes a cycle of existence, of incarnation and reincarnation, that just doesn’t square with the Judeo-Christian belief in reckoning and justice from a particular God: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God Jesus called “Father.” The idea of reincarnation and KARMA appeals to New-Agey kinds of Westerners who are more comfortable worshiping an impersonal creation rather than a personal Creator, but for believing Christians and Jews it is plainly unbiblical.
Therefore plastering the idea of KARMA all over a public school is not a neutral act. It displaces Judeo-Christian thought and symbology (although those thoughts and symbols have already effectively been banned).
So, where does this all lead? Am I writing this because I want KARMA stripped from this school and any other school that might use it? No. Personally, I’m not greatly incensed by the cutesy use of this term in a program intended to improve student behavior. Maybe the program works. It’s not the use of the Hindu/Buddhist concept that bothers me, but rather the zero tolerance afforded to the Judeo-Christian God and related concepts. It’s the double-standard.
Another posting I came across in the school was a quote from Malcolm X: “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”
No big argument here. But it also brought to my mind another old aphorism (often attributed to G.K. Chesterton but apparently from a Belgian writer named Emile Cammaerts):
“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.”
It’s merely my fantasy, of-course but I sure would like to see that posted prominently in the school. I think it might balance out a little of their KARMA.
Man had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden; he had to witness the murder of half of the human species by Cain out of envy; experience the catastrophe of the Flood; the confusion of the languages; slavery in Egypt and the wonder of the Exodus, to be ready to accept the law.
Into his studies of the Bible the modern scholar brings his total personality, his increased knowledge of the ancient Near East, his power of analysis, his historic sense, his honest commitment to truth—as well as inherent skepticism of biblical claims and tradition. In consequence, we have so much to say about the Bible that we are not prepared to hear what the Bible has to say about us. We are not in love with the Bible; we are in love with our own power of critical acumen, with our theories about the Bible. Intellectual narcissism is a disease to which some of us are not always immune. The sense of the mystery and transcendence of what is at stake in the Bible is lost in the process of analysis. As a result, we have brought about the desanctification of the Bible.
Similar things have no doubt been said in many different ways, but I think that is extraordinarily well put. Those words were written in 1963. They struck me when I read them more on a personal level than as a societal or institutional criticism, although the “desanctification” of the Bible surely has had plenty to do with the rotting away of the mainline Protestant churches in America. Continue reading Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Bible→
William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible directly from Hebrew and Greek texts into English, in the name of making Scripture available to the common folk. It was he who first looked at the Greek and rendered such ageless phrases as, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26); at the Hebrew and rendered, “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1). And likewise with so many other familiar and beloved phrases beyond listing. His translations of the Old and New Testaments are now estimated as forming the basis of about 80% of the later and greatly revered King James Bible. His work also formed the basis of the earlier Geneva Bible, which was the Bible in English that a fellow named William Shakespeare would have read. Continue reading Good Friday, via William Tyndale→
Pictured here is just another breathtaking image from the Hubble Space Telescope, recently released. It is of a region called N11 of the Large Magellanic Cloud. The sciences of physics and astronomy tell us that what we’re looking at is a nursery of stars. (More images and more details are at this link.) Gases are being compressed and compacted here and nuclear fusion is sparking and bringing forth bright new spheres of light and energy which will shine for billions of years, like our own Sun. What planets might they light, what frozen or perhaps boiling vistas on strange and beautiful worlds that human eyes will never see?
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers
the moon and stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?