One of the biggest perks of working in academia is access to an academic library. Don’t get me wrong: I deeply appreciate and regularly visit my local public libraries, and kiddo and I have made a couple of visits to her school’s summer library hours (which is an amazing idea). There’s something about the breadth of an academic library, though, that can really come in handy sometimes. For example, I was recently reading an article by Dan McClellan on Bible translation in Latter-day Saint contexts and noticed with interest his reference to David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I have access to that translation through JSTOR, and there’s now a PDF copy sitting on my phone that I’ve started making my way through.
Last night, I read through Hart’s introduction to his translation, and I was struck by his comments on how completing his own translation emphasized to him how radical early Christianity was. Here’s how he puts it:
What perhaps did impress itself upon me with an entirely unex- pected force was a new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning—by which I mean, precisely, its strange- ness in respect to the Christianity of later centuries. When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of “radicals” (for want of a better word), an association of men and women guided by faith in a world-altering revelation, and hence in values almost absolutely inverse to the recognized social, political, economic, and religious truths not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture.
Later on in the introduction, Hart elaborates:
This, in all likelihood, explains why the early Christians were (in the strictly technical sense) communists, as the book of Acts quite explicitly states. If these are indeed the Last Days, as James says—if every- thing is now seen in the light of final judgment—then storing up possessions for ourselves is the height of imprudence. And I imagine this is also why subsequent generations of Christians have not, as a rule, been communists: the Last Days in fact are taking quite some time to elapse, and we have families to raise in the meantime. But at the dawn of the faith little thought was given to providing a decent life in this world for the long term. Thus we are told the first converts in Jerusalem after the resurrection, as the price of becoming Christians, sold all their property and possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need, and then fed themselves by sharing their resources in common meals (Acts 2:43–46). Barnabas, on becoming a Christian, sold his field and handed over all the money to the Apostles (Acts 4:35)—though Ananias and Sapphira did not follow suit, with somewhat unfortunate consequences. To be a follower of “The Way” was to renounce every claim to pri- vate property and to consent to communal ownership of everything (Acts 4:32).
This morning, I spent time reading through the Sermon on the Mount over a bowl of homemade muesli and some delicious chocolate mint tea, and I found that Hart’s introduction was priming me to read familiar verses in new ways. Like a number of contemporary translations, Hart’s rendering of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 emphasizes asking for just enough material comfort to get through the immediate future:
11Give to us today bread for the day ahead
A few verses later come verses that are familiar to me but too uncomfortable to ever sit with for an extended period of time:
24No one can be a slave to two lords; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stand fast by the one and disdain the other. You cannot be a slave both to God and to Mammon. 25Therefore I say to you: Do not worry, regarding your soul, what you will eat; nor, re- garding your body, what you will wear. Is not your soul more than food and your body more than garments? 26See the birds of the sky—that they neither sow nor reap nor gather into granaries; and your heavenly Father feeds them; are you not more excellent than they? 27But who among you can, by worrying, lengthen the span of his life by a single cubit? 28And why do you worry over clothing? Look closely at the lilies of the field—how they grow; they neither labor nor spin; 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was garbed like one of them. 30But if God thus clothes the grass of the field, which exists for today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow, will he not much more clothe you, men of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What might we eat?’ or ‘What might we drink?’ or ‘What might we wear?
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how New Testament teachings like these stand in tension with the massive wealth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, purported to stand at $100 billion or more. When I think about these stories, I admit to being torn between sympathy for wanting to have a nest egg (my current church is worried about its own financial future, and it would be nice to have a billion or two in our reserves!) and anger that this money isn’t being put to better use than building temples and a rainy day fund. There’s a lot of people who could be fed and clothed with that much money. Even on my most sympathetic days, though, there’s simply no way to reconcile a 12-figure investment account with the radical attitude of the Sermon on the Mount (much less the harsher Sermon on the Plain in Luke).
Yet, while I think it’s fair to level this critique against Latter-day Saint leadership, the uncomfortable truth is that if we take these teachings at face value, I’m no less guilty. I’ve funnelled a lot of money into a retirement account for me and a college savings fund for kiddo. I can only do that because I enjoy a certain amount of financial stability, and I could at least help feed and clothe a number of people if I worried only about bread for the day ahead and embraced the radical message of early Christianity.
I think there’s something to learn from the radical message of early Christianity. I wrote several months ago about recognizing some of that radical hope in a Cory Doctorow novel, and reading the Sermon on the Mount makes me want to reread Walkaway again, in a weird way. Yet, the thing that stands out to me about Walkaway is that taking care of children is never really in the foreground of the story, and it’s hard to know how to act on Doctorow’s radical hope in the here and now—in the same way that I am just not (and may never be ready) to live like the lilies of the field. I’m also very aware that my present and past faith traditions (back when they were one, shared tradition) experimented with this radical communality and that it did not really go great.
So yes, I think there’s something to learn from all of this, but I want to spend some time figuring out what that something is. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading more of Hart’s translation and trying to better appreciate just how radical those early Christians were.
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