The Wordsmith's Forge
“In our Church, nobody is required to believe anything. You can choose what you believe about God.” So said a young man of my acquaintance. He was very happy with his Church, and by what he was saying probably felt very empowered that he could choose what he would believe without being made to fit into somebody else’s mold. He reminded me of a time years ago when “writing your own personal Creed” was a common exercise in confirmation classes. And what’s wrong with that?
Well, let’s be clear. You can believe what you want, but beliefs are not just ideas, they are commitments. Commitments are actions of the soul, and actions have consequences. Let’s say that you’ve won a ride on a rocket ship. There are several rockets being built right now for contest winners, and you get to choose which one you’ll blast off on.
The first rocket ship was designed by physicists and built by engineers. This team has built successful rockets before. The second rocket ship was designed by a successful race car team and built by auto mechanics. Their previous attempts have all crashed, but they’re working on their guidance system, and they’re sure that by the time you get on board, they’ll have the bugs worked out. The third rocket ship was designed by someone who has made an extensive study of “ancient astronauts” and built by a guy who has twenty years’ worth of old Popular Mechanics magazines in his garage. Their model is all ready to go, but they haven’t attempted a test flight yet.
All three teams of builders are using the same 150,000 lbs of liquid oxygen to fuel their rockets. Once you’re strapped into the seat on top of the engine, they're going to ignite all that high explosive and send you on your way. Which team do you want to fly to the heavens with?
The point of the Creeds or the Articles of Religion is not to put people into some kind of headlock and require them to sign on the dotted line in order to belong. The point of the Creeds is to demonstrate that we know what we’re doing. Our team has built these things before, and there are those who have made the trip who report that they reached their destination safely. You don’t have to understand how it works — that is, you don’t have to be a physicist or a theologian (mixing my illustrations here) yourself, but at some point you’re going to have to decide if what they’re telling you is reliable.
Of course, you could just make it up. Who’s to say that your idea of God isn’t a wonderful idea? Make up your own doctrine, and your own way to heaven. Sounds wonderful, inspiring even. But the question is, will your jury-rigged rocket get you there or blow up on the launching pad?
Every time we stand up to recite, “I believe . . .” we’re saying we’ve chosen one particular design team to guide us to heaven. Their model rests upon truths that have stood the test of time and has shown that it works. But, hey, believe what you want. I hear those cool fins on the third model make all the difference.
I've been reading The Lord of the Rings in German. It's something I've done for several years now when I'm bored, or don't have any other books to read. Lately, I've been buckling down and making better progress, though. I've finished The Two Towers and am well into The Return of the King.
I started doing this long ago to refresh my German in order to pass a language proficiency exam when I started my doctorate. Since I know the text of LOTR so well, if I get bogged down in the German, I can recall the English almost word-for-word and figure out what's going on. My German vocabulary is improved thereby, but also my knowledge of sentence construction and idioms auf Deutsch.
And I notice another benefit. In reading the descriptions and dialogue surrounding Gandalf and Denethor, both characters emerge more powerfully. Denethor is much more the great lord, and Gandalf's personality is equal to the Steward's. The fine shades of language in their verbal fencing comes through, perhaps because I'm paying more attention to the actual words used.
Tolkien was a master of using English to portray variations in age, status, culture, education, and even species. But to an English reader, especially one who started reading LOTR so young, some of this goes right past one; some of the higher status characters begin to sound alike, and we miss the cues that distinguish (for instance) the very ancient Elrond from the merely old Theoden and the prematurely aged Denethor. Somehow, I notice all this more in German. Not because German is a more flexible language, though certainly it retains a lot more of the antique forms than English does. I think it's just because I'm paying closer attention.
No doubt if I were talking to Germans about reading LOTR, I'd be saying that you really can't "know" the work unless you meet it in its original language -- an argument that Tolkien made concerning Beowulf, for instance, and that others have made about Homer and Virgil and Dante. But that doesn't mean that a translation isn't sometimes very good and brings you pretty close to the living spirit of the original author.