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Monday, June 3, 2013

Trying to Read Tone in the Text

In my sermon last Sunday (I didn’t post the manuscript here because in all honesty I’m terrible at manuscripting a sermon and didn’t write one) I hinted at my use of Scripture as I mature in the faith. I avoided the words “inerrant” and “infallible” because those terms are so loaded and misused that they had no meaning for me at the time. Instead, I tried to lead my congregation to see that the Gospel permeates even the awful, terrible, bloodthirsty passages of the Old Testament in hopes that they would see the beauty of God’s redemptive plan.

However we treat the Scriptures, there is one thing that cannot be interpreted away or perfectly resolved regardless of our syntactical skill or hermeneutical expertise: we cannot perfectly recreate the tone of voice used in the text. I realize that this is a prima face assumption of any textural interpretation, but in our use of Scripture we are at a loss when it comes to the tone of voice Paul or Moses or Jesus would have used were they speaking the words attributed to them. One principal example will serve to illustrate this: my life would be made considerably better if I could have heard Jesus say those words recoded in Mark 7:25-30/Matthew 15:21-28. How did he actually say “καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτῇ, Ἄφες πρῶτον χορτασθῆναι τὰ τέκνα, οὐ γάρ ἐστιν καλὸν λαβεῖν τὸν ἄρτον τῶν τέκνων καὶ τοῖς κυναρίοις βαλεῖν.”[1]

The tone of voice, the facial expressions, the mountain of information that exists just out of sight in the text would all make such passages less troublesome. Alas, such context is absent. Thanks be to God that minds much sharper than mine and souls much more faithful than mine can help to make that context a little less murky.

In Galatians 1:24 I find another passage of such toneless-ness. After Paul’s lengthy autobiographical piece earlier in the chapter we find him coming full stop with the phrase “and they glorified God because of me.” There are so many ways one could say that simple sentence, each changing the meaning and emphasizing a different intention on the part of the writer. Consider just two of those options.

First, let’s assume that Paul is concluding an argument through which he wishes to convey his spiritual authority to the churches in Galatia. Much as in his Philippian correspondence he could be demonstrating his insufficiency to the task to which he has been set.[2] In Philippians he counts all of his accomplishments as “rubbish,” clinging only to the glory of Christ as his validation. In this introduction in Galatians, Paul seems to brag that he received no assistance in his preparation and early days of ministry. “and they glorified God because of me” could be read, then, as braggadocio-cum-humility. The tone of Paul’s voice as he dictated this sentence would tell us much about his intent.

Another alternative, though, is one of what I’d call surprised humility. By invoking the readers’ memories of his vicious persecution of the Church in years past (“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the Church of God and trying to destroy it.”) Paul reminds the readers of just the sort of man he used to be. He went through a drastic conversion and an even more drastic formation experience, intentionally avoiding the goings-on of the young Church headquartered in Jerusalem. What if this is a confession? What if Paul’s tone in all of this was apologetic?

Hear those words again – “…and they glorified God because of me.” Yes, this sounds so braggadocios as to turn the stomach. But emphasized in another tone, this short phrase tugs on my soul. Allow me to paraphrase – “in spite of all that I had done, in spite of my avoiding the Church in Jerusalem, in spite of being known by reputation alone as a troublemaker and persecutor, still they praised God.” Paul (even Paul!) could lead people to glorify the God who takes enemies and makes them allies.

Oh, the tone. The tone of my life and my words often undermines the grace that I’d hope to communicate to every person I meet. This simple phrase of a verse bothers me, probably because I want so badly for Paul to be standing before his skeptics and testifying that in spite of all the hell he put the Church through God still redeemed his past and negotiated his future for the good of the Kingdom. That’s the story I want to tell – that regardless of the times I got it wrong, God worked it for God’s glory. The tone of voice makes this and other phrases cut to the bone or lift our heads.

Say it: “…and they glorified God because of me.”

Not in arrogance, but in surprised humility: “…and they glorified God because of me.”

Not to curry favor or for self-righteousness, but in shock and amazement: “…and they glorified God because of me.”

The tone makes all the difference.

[1] First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." (NIV).
[2] Cf. Philippians 3:7-11.

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