A response to Gilles Gravelle’s letter, Bible translators: Are we under construction?
This post was a guest blog for Letters to Bethel. First published on July 24th, 2016.
Truly to read is to re-read, over and over again—to keep rereading, until we can finally hear the word that is being spoken to us in what we read. To read in such a full-bodied way, we must chew on a text the way a cow chews on its cud, till we have gotten the last drop of juice out of it.
If we keep chewing that way on a text, it will begin to chew on us. The text we began by eating will start to eat us in turn. If that process is allowed to continue to its end, the text will wind up digesting us entirely, turning us into instances of its own substance.
Centuries of Christian monks in the cells, constantly repeating single scriptural verses, “meditating” on them in just that way, knew that eventually they would become the very word they had, like Jeremiah, been eating. Indeed, Feuerbach was right: we are what we eat—or at least we eventually become what we keep on eating.
So we need to be careful about what we eat, especially what we eat routinely, day after day after day after day. What we eat every day over days without end will sooner or later trade places with us, and eat us alive.
When we thus allow ourselves to be eaten alive by what we have eaten, our own lives end. We get wholly consumed. We henceforth live not our own lives, but the life of what so consumes us—as addicts confirm no less than holy monks in their cells.
What is more, so consumed, we become infectious with the new life that now lives in us, carriers who carry that life over to others by contact.
Through us, it is translated to them—literally “carried across” to them (from Latin trans-, across, and latus, past participle of ferre, to carry).
Eaten alive, we become dead translators, like it or not.
If those we infect with the new host we carry are hospitable hosts for it in turn, it will make itself a home in them, as it earlier did in us, its dead translators. They thereby become dead translators in their turn.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that we become what we love—which, as we say we “could just eat up,” which is exactly what we always do, one way or another, with what we love. Thus Bernard, that 12th century giant of Christian spirituality, and Feuerbach, that 19th century patron saint, so to speak, of modern atheist materialism, can be unexpectedly brought from superficial discord into underlying concord. When carried over to one another in the hearing of a universal ear—an ear “turned” (Latin versus) to hear the “one” (unus) that is common to countless many—what may to other ears sound sharply discordant, resounds in deep concord. Those two very different hearts (Latin for which is cor, the common root of both ‘discord’ and ‘concord’) start to beat as one.
Whether we want to or not, we are all destined to become dead translators. The only choice we have is at the level of what we will translate.
That is, we can make a choice at the level of our daily eating habits. If daily all we eat only what is already dead even before we eat it, we will become carriers of death. On the other hand, we may choose to habituate ourselves to a daily diet that includes healthy doses of what not only lives before we eat it, but comes ever more alive the more thoroughly it is digested. Then we will still become dead translators, but what we will carry will be ever alive, and bring life with it.
What has died can carry death, but it can also carry life. There are always translation choices to be made.
When first encountered, the expression “eaten alive” is probably taken only in a negative sense, as descriptive of a painful and horrifying end of life: eaten, while one is still alive. That sounds much more horrible to us than being eaten after we are already dead—though that is not itself a pleasant thought, of course.
However, the same phrase can also be heard positively, so that it would point to a process whereby, precisely in being eaten, painful as that process would no doubt remain, one is brought fully into life—brought fully alive.
If all that passes for living is just trying to survive one’s own life, to live “through” or “over” (sur) all the business of going from the cradle to the grave, then it may well be that only through giving up that life can we come truly alive.
Then to be eaten alive would mean, not to be eaten while alive, but to be eaten into living, and living truly.
May we all make food choices such that, when what we eat ends up eating us, it eats us alive that second way.