Saturday, March 24, 2018

OF BIBLES AND DOUGHNUTS

Did you know that my first Krispy Kreme doughnut was neither crispy (thankfully) nor cream-filled (less of a good thing; I am partial to cream-filled pastries)? Pressing past those unreasonable expectations set by the name, I remember my first bite of a Krispy Kreme doughnut being transcendent. I was an instant fan!

In those days, though, the nearest Krispy Kreme store was a couple of hours away. It was years before I had my second taste of Krispy Kreme. Then little by little, stores opened up nearer to me. The next time I had one, it was just as good as I remembered. Then Krispy Kremes started popping up everywhere. Grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies started selling them. People brought them to meetings, church and school activities. And the most surprising thing happened: I got tired of Krispy Kremes. I’d eat one occasionally and enjoy it, but I stopped getting excited.


My journey with doughnuts loosely resembles my journey with the Bible. I’m certainly not claiming that Krispy Kremes are divinely inspired. I’m saying that at one point, every truth in the Bible was as yet unexplored by me. Now, after four years of seminary and another four years of ministry jobs—not to mention fifteen plus years of sermons, Sunday school, Bible studies, small groups, youth camps, etc.—I have more than a passing familiarity with it.

I remember a professor from my first year of seminary talking about how it was hard for him to read the Bible devotionally. He has spent decades studying, writing about and teaching the Bible for his work, and he often struggled to see what new thing the Bible had to say to his life on a given day. I have not studied the Bible as long or as intensely as my professor did, and I haven’t gone nearly as far as he has toward plumbing the depths of devotional truths from the Bible, but I can relate to his struggle. I do believe that familiarity with the Bible can sometimes make it hard to see with fresh eyes how the Spirit wants to use God’s word to shape us.

For me, I recently received those eyes from an unexpected source: reading the Bible in Khmer. I had some anxiety about how difficult it would be to read the Bible in Khmer, and it is certainly challenging. But it’s also been rewarding.

When reading the Khmer Bible for the first time, the first thing you notice is that there are many words that are different from everyday Khmer. That’s because Khmer uses a completely different vocabulary when talking about royalty. Not only does that apply to the many kings and queens of the Bible, but the most widely used translation applies the royal vocabulary to God and Jesus. It can be hard to read all the unfamiliar royal vocabulary, but it does make it easier to remember that Jesus came to earth to do more than be my friend. He came to establish a kingdom.

For example, consider the phrase from John 3:16 (I give credit to Lauren for this example): “God gave his one and only Son.” In America, I usually hear this verse preached in the context of the warm feelings that parents have for their children. In this reading, God’s plan is risky because it puts God’s only son, for whom he must have great affection, at risk. But Khmer uses the royal word for son here. The word could also mean prince or royal heir. The emphasis in the Khmer Bible is that God gave his only heir, the one who is supposed to carry on the royal line. God’s plan is risky because it puts the whole kingdom at risk.

Both American and Khmer cultures offer valid insights, but I would argue that this royal reading of John 3:16 probably offers more insight into the cultural context of the verse’s original audience. It is valuable to read these verses through the eyes of people more influenced by royal dynasties than by helicopter parenting.

In Cambodia, widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor still need protection. The spirit world is an everyday preoccupation. There are temples in every neighborhood, and most people make frequent offerings to stone idols. Daily bread (or in most cases, rice) is not at all a given. All of these things are major concerns of the Bible, but in the US, we usually either gloss over these passages or spend a lot of time contextualizing them to something that makes sense to us. But in Cambodia, many of these passages apply directly to the lives of Cambodians with little explanation needed. By reading the Bible in Khmer alongside Cambodians, I see significant themes in the Bible that are very hard to notice in an American context.

New words, interesting translation choices, and different grammar help me see things I’ve never noticed before in the Bible. In fact, just the act of having to read so much more slowly than I do in English, laboring over every word and trying to work out each phrase, helps me see new things.

You may not be able to learn a new language just for reading the Bible, but I encourage you to think about how you can find ways to see the Bible with fresh eyes. Try studying the Bible with someone of a different culture, perhaps by volunteering at a ministry that works with international populations. Ask people how their Bible translates certain words and what certain verses mean in their culture. You could experiment with reading a different English translation. This might make you slow down a bit and process what you are reading. Finally, as you shift into new seasons of your life, ask how old passages might have new relevance.

About a year or so after we moved to Cambodia, Krispy Kreme opened its first store here. I may have gotten tired of it in the US, but it was a sight for sore eyes in my new home. It had some new flavors that you won’t find in an American store (I’m looking at you, butter cheese doughnut; and don’t get me started on the pork floss doughnuts they sell at Dunkin’ Donuts in Vietnam; I could write a whole different blog post on that monstrosity), making it both new and familiar at the same time, and I could appreciate it in a new way in a new country. And most importantly, they have cream-filled doughnuts that aren’t crispy.

I pray blessings on your journey to find a perspective from which to read the Bible that lets it be both new and familiar to you.