Ramblings of a Southern Christian Engineer

Religion in School

I read the “How Great Thou Art” bit in the news. The band at a high school was going to play a hymn at half time but they where stopped because it is religious. (I’m sure there are tons of other behind-the-scenes bit I don’t care about).

I love that hymn. If you haven’t heard Elvis singing it, I highly recommend it or maybe even one of the live versions in all his 70’s glory.

What confuses me about this issue is that people who seem to have good, normally functioning brains under other circumstances, fail here. They seem to insist that our religion should be a part of our school system. It is lost on them that the very founding of our country was by people (you can read about the Pilgrims here if you need to) who fled other governmentally supported Christians (the State Church of England) who were forcing their religion (Church of England: mother church of the Anglican Community) on others.

Our country is about freedom of religion, not freedom to be Christian. We don’t force any religious belief on our citizens here. We don’t do that in America. That’s for other countries. We let you choose here.

Christ did not want Christianity forced on others. We don’t do that in Christianity. That’s for other religions. We let you choose freely who you will serve.

Do unto others” applies here does it not? If the band were going to start up a Muslim worship song would we be okay with that? A Jewish worship song? A Buddhist chant? Would we not prefer they chant elsewhere? Would we insist on our rights?

Maybe we simply decide to be okay with “rendering onto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and leaving religion out of our schools. It’s what our founding fathers wanted for certain. It’s what Christ would have wanted based on what is written in the Bible.

I didn’t look at the details in the article, so I don’t know the people involved in this specific incident. I don’t mean to offend them and I don’t know them at all as far as I know. They are probably all well-meaning, charitable, loving, generous, kind, and righteous followers of Jesus who attend a church, help spread the faith, and constantly repent of sin and shun wickedness. I’m sure they tithe, give to the needy, and support missions. These good people should come to the understanding that we ought not be putting our religion in schools based on the evidence I’ve already provided.

But for those who talk loudly about the right to have their religion in school, and do not observe the actual Christian faith, I would suggest to them that: these things (the actual acts of Christianity) would be a better place to start acting like a real Christian than complaining loudly and publicly (like a Pharisee) about an issue that comes nowhere close to the impact that even one of those above would have if you did them.

Another Bible

Lately, I have been thinking a little about translation of the Bible and interpretation of the Bible. Translation should mean rendering the words of the Bible into another language. Interpretation of the Bible would mean rendering the meaning of the Bible into other words. People often talk as if translation can be done without interpretation. They also speak sometimes as if interpretation is opinion, and one person can interpret into one thing and another into yet another.

This is wrong. It is very hard to translate from any language into any other with a direct word-to-word conversion. In fact, the point of the most direct word-to-word translation would be to get a rendering into another language that is as close to the original author’s intended meaning as possible by using the same words. The problem is that language does not work like this. Change a word in English for the closest word in French can often end up with something that is not what the author intended.

Take, as an example, the word “another” in English and “autre” in French. A “direct” rendering of the English sentence, “I would like another cup of coffee” would go like:

“I would like another cup of coffee.” -> “Je voudrais une autre tasse de café.”

“another” -> “une autre”

But in French, when you ask for “another cup” it is like asking for “a different cup” in English. Instead of refilling your cup of coffee, the server will bring you a new cup, or maybe a different kind of coffee. In either case, the direct rendering was not what you wanted.

This is the simplest example I can think of right off. Many are complex and well beyond my understanding. But I know that Hebrew to English is much more complicated. French is grammatically just like English, with less verb tenses. Most of the words are the the same with slight changes in spelling and pronunciation. So a totally different language like Hebrew cannot even come close to a direct rendering and a direct rendering would be much further than the author’s meaning in many cases.

All translation from one language to another requires some interpretation on the part of the translator. When you read any rendering of the Bible into a language other than the original, you are read the interpretation of the translator. It is simply not possible to do it any other way.

The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is often though of as being special in some way. That is, some people seem to think that other translations are somehow less authoritative. There is no ground for this belief. This version was commissioned by King James of England and came after other Bibles had been rendered into English. In any case, the writers of the KJV were well aware that they were interpreting and written material survives from the period that shows this conclusively. In addition, there were many errors in the original KJV that were corrected in subsequent editions.

Would it not be better to read a Bible that was written to reflect as closely as possible the ideas that the original authors were attempting to convey? There have, of course, been Bibles written with this in mind. And new Bibles come out all the time. This is a good thing. There should be a complete retranslation of the Bible every so often to keep the language up to date for modern readers.

But there’s the rub. If each translation must be interpretation, then each edition is open to misinterpretation. (I believe this is one reason people like to think the KJV came from Heaven: the more translations that are done, the harder it is to think that there are no problems in them.) Each Bible also has the potential to be swayed, even slightly, toward one person’s thinking about the truth of what the author intended to communicate.

The other thing I hear a lot is that one can read the same sections of the Bible over and over and get a different understanding each time. I’m not sure this is what an author of the books ever intended. I’m sure this is supposed to be true of some books, like the books of poetry, but not of the historical books. I doubt if it is true even of Revelation, though I can’t say for sure. One can read a book from the Bible and see things they had missed before, having a clearer understanding, but if the meaning of the entire thing has changed then we should be thrilled to have discovered the truth, but this does not mean the earlier bits we had were also right. It means they were wrong and we know more now.

I don’t mean that there may not be layers of hidden meaning in places in the Bible. But I suspect this is less frequent than some seem to think. I also suspect that much of this would be lost in translation. Much of the “word play” and rhetorical devices that an author uses when writing to get subtle textural meaning vanishes when a translator rewrites the book. And let us not be confused: translation is a rewrite. The translator may get all of the correct meaning or may not, but unless the work is being rewritten by the original author, another person is writing another book from the first book.

If the writer of Job was using a pun, we wouldn’t know. I suspect that all of the humor in the original Bible would be lost since one must have context to understand humor. If I made a joke about being glad it is Friday (the end of the work week) and someone read this a thousand years later, the meaning of Friday in that culture may have lost that meaning entirely and the reading would marvel that I could be excited about an arbitrary day. I can’t imagine all the other kinds of things.

So, what’s to be done about it? Well, in the past, when the Bible was being translated, people used to keep multiple versions around for reference. I like this model myself. I have a phone with Bible apps. I use this to hop back and forth between translations. I read in whichever version I like and if I see something that I think may turn on how the wording is set up, I look at different translation. Sometimes I read a few. Sometimes I dig out the Hebrew words and look them up.

In the end, there’s little to be done about it. We can only read, try to understand, and use our brains. One thing to remember is that pulling out a section, even a large section with some context, can end up getting you to a place you didn’t mean to go. It is the best policy to consider the work as a whole, each book as a book, and so forth. If we have a firm understanding of what a book is about, who wrote, it, the time they wrote it in, and other contextual material, we are more likely to understand what we are supposed to understand.

Of course, if we, like I have heard others do, go looking for something we want to find in the Bible, if we read long enough and are flexible enough in our own understanding, we can find it, whatever it is.

Save the Internet

I’ve been around the Internet for a long time. In truth, I was in college when the Internet became a real thing for everyone. In a flash, BBS’s and the various iterations of CompuServe and AOL withered as the educated elite began to discover EMail, IRC, FTP, Archie, Gopher, and all the rest of the bunch. But then came the World Wide Web and the signal to noise ratio has never been the same.

Normal people started popping up all over. There was little we geeks could do to stop them. We hid Mosaic from them but they found Netscape. The web was just too easily accessed by them with all the pictures and blinking lights.

So we can’t go back now. Pandora’s Box is open. The genie won’t go back in the bottle. There’s no use crying over spilled bits. Or bytes. Or whatever.

But it’s not too late. We can still save the global information network. The solution is right there in front of our faces: a license to use the Internet.

That’s right. Just like driving a car. One license to read things and another to put things up that others can read. The posting license would be like a CDL with a complicated test and not a lot of people would have one. Kids could get a permit and only use the Internet with a licensed user handling the web browser.

I hear talk about licensing for all firearms but any moron at any age can shout loudly to the entire world. This is lunacy. The Internet is much more dangerous than a pistol but instead of keep mental patients and felons from using the Internet we encourage it by providing them with advertising and an audience of children and like-minded adults.

The test would simple enough. We would, of course, put it on the Internet. A licensed user would accompany you to the web site, where you would then be allowed to prove you could use the Internet responsibly.

Ironically, there will people who read the above and completely miss the satire. They are exactly the people who should not be using the Internet. Of course, I would go stark raving nuts if someone actually wanted to limit the use of the Internet to any group of people. My “civil liberties” warning buzzer is going off just thinking about it.

So therein lies the rub. I don’t want the Internet to be censored at all, so I end up having to read bad writing, see things I didn’t want to see, and deal with false information that was passed on to the people around me. By providing the masses with a tool that allows them to organize and revolt against an oppressive government, we have also provided a tool that hate groups can use to coordinate attacks on that very freedom. To get Wikipedia, we have to put up thousands of web sites telling me about FEMA camps and killer asteroids.

That is the cost of allowing everyone to use something. It’s like a public bathroom I suppose. One would like to think that everyone will clean up after themselves but the list of stunning ways a person can foul up a restroom is apparently unlimited. And so goes the Internet.

I’m curious what the effect on civilization will have been in 100 years. Regardless of what Aubrey de Grey may think, I have no expectation that I’ll be around for it. With great power comes great responsibility. The Internet provides great power with no responsibility at all.

The Republic

I remember talking to friends in college once about representative government and polling. We were talking about the job of a politician in the United States in general and comparing the idea of polling the people to decide how to vote on an issue versus simply voting based on one’s own convictions about something. Some of the viewpoints we discussed are still in my recollection.

Since most issues of consequence have more than one valid way they can be looked at, and the people you represent are going to be on different sides, so no matter which way you vote on an issue, the people you represent are going to be angry and happy. In any case, their say in the matter may not have any real impact. The majority of the people you represent are unlikely to have a complete understanding of the issue, so why would you listen to them anyway? Most of the time these days when I talk to someone about an issue of importance all I really learn is which news program they watch on TV anyway. They just repeat what they have heard or, worse still, read on Facebook.

Then there is the problem of what is good for my people, moral in general, and good for the larger country. Sometimes a thing may seem good or lucrative for the people I represent but I feel it may be immoral based on my personal beliefs. What about a thing that I know to be best for my country but bad for the people I represent? What if I have a chance to do something as a representative of my own people that I know will be very good for them but will hurt someone else: in the next county; in another generation to come; in another part of the world?

I suppose here is where I have consider my own Christianity. Wouldn’t a good Christian who was a representative of a group of people find it unconscionable to vote for something that hurts others? Or would it be right (ethical?) for them to say, “I work for the people and regardless of my own opinion, I have to do what they want.” Is it a simple matter of doing what one thinks Christ would have done if He were voting, or it is a matter of doing a job well and deciding that one’s job is to do the will of the people?

I know that when I’m developing software I never ask myself, “what code would Jesus write?” Christianity does not work that way. So, is a politician the same in that regard? Can they consider themselves simply “at work” and make their decisions based on what any good politician would do, or must they, in recognition of the fact that their job will have an impact on the lives of people that other jobs will not, consider their own personal morality on each decision and therefore each vote?

Maybe it is more complex even than all this. Maybe there are numerous other parts of this puzzle that I have not considered since I’ve never been in any public office. Nevertheless, I can see that it really is not so simple as just deciding a thing one way or the other, even if a person tries to truly uphold their Christian morals as a representative of the people.

Hello world!

The WordPress site put this post here by default when it set things up. The “Hello World” phrase for the first output of a thing has a deep tradition in computer science.

It is generally attributed Brian Kernighan (who created the C programming language along with Dennis Richie) and the original looked something like:

main( ) {
  printf("hello, world");