Thursday, June 2, 2016

An Emoji Bible and the Art of Biblical Interpretation

I wanted to dismiss this right out of the gate.

A Bible composed in Emojis is a little more than, say, a book of Bible stories for children or a comic book Bible. What might have seemed like a quaint Twitter project raises up very important considerations for biblical translation.

(Skip past the second line if you want to skip the historical and philosophical end of it)


The Bible is the product of oral transmission. The first recitations of Biblical passages by and to a congregation happens in the books of Deuteronomy. The words of the prophets come in the form of oracles spoken in the name of the LORD. Before the exile, the Judahite king Josiah reads the newly-found book of the Law (likely the book of Deuteronomy) to the people of Jerusalem as a precursor to the re-establishment of their Covenant with God that was ratified in a similar manner some 800 years before on the plains of Moab before entering the Promised Land (2 Kings 23:1ff, Deuteronomy 29:1ff). The reading of the law out loud to the returnees from the Babylonian Exile by the priest Ezra once again re-established the Covenant with God around the time their Temple was rebuilt and rededicated and their fortunes restored (Nehemiah 8:1ff). 

The New Testament emerged from the oral proclamation of Jesus' saving action for mankind: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The letters of St. Paul largely predate the final form of the Gospels and are themselves written exhortations, written in light of the Apostle's inability to be present among the community, and were meant to be read aloud (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27). The Gospels first found their form in the stories told about Jesus after his death and resurrection with most scholars accepting that it was his the spoken words remembered among the early Christian communities that were first collected. Afterwards, attempts at a complete narrative were also attempted (Luke 1:1-4, John 21:24-25).

The connection between what is written and what is read aloud cannot be severed without damaging the integrity of what was intended by those who composed the different books of the Bible. In written Hebrew, manuscripts were preserved without any markings for vowels until around the 6th century. Before that, the vowel sounds of certain Hebrew words were preserved here and there in transliterated form in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible, both of which had a vowel system.

How did readers know how the words were supposed to sound? Memory and the regular use of the language within a community. What was spoken, what was read, and what was heard were weaved into one another.

So what's the big deal of an Emoji Bible?

Think of what occurs when you read a word. Language itself is a system of symbols. We use them to approximate and organize certain concepts and they allow us to communicate with each other in a shared social arrangement. A word like "apple" invokes approximately the same image to anyone who speaks English. We associate the word "apple" with shape, colors, texture, etc. It is such a powerful word that if we are hungry then its very utterance can stoke hunger pangs. The word "apple" by itself is arbitrary but emerged from a long evolution of associating things with sounds in order to organize our understanding of reality and to communicate it with others. All of this is possible through our capacity to remember. We remember that certain words arranged in certain ways can mean certain things. Furthermore we have the ability to recall certain arrangements of words spoken by another, or to recall actions that have already passed in a narrative that describes what has already happened. 

So what is spoken both relies on memory and can itself be remembered. 

The written word adds an entirely different layer to the process.The word "apple" is an arrangement of 5 symbols that have been given a meaning as to reflect certain sounds in a firm but still somewhat flexible way. The written word is an extension of the concept of communication and, in particular, communication through speaking. Because of the more permanent nature of the written word, a concept can then be objectified and reflected upon in way that does not require a sustained attention span. The duration of its permanence determines its enduring value. Because more concepts, words, and actions can be reflected upon beyond the capacity of ordinary memory, new and deeper meanings can emerge.

It's something we take for granted but it's a big deal. With the Bible, an entire series of books are collected in one book that was itself dependent on the spoken, written, and conceptual language of the culture its writers emerged from. Its enduring value has been demonstrated in its continual transmission from an oral culture to a literate culture. The preservation of written documents and their continued propagation reflected its spreading influence and ability to transcend a particular culture (Israelite/Jewish) and its varying historical developments. The Hebrew Bible itself was a major contributor to the conceptual matrix of first century Palestine at the time of Jesus, along with several other historical, sociological, and religious considerations.


At the heart of an Emoji Bible is the relationship between the written and spoken word and how that corresponds to our reception, internalization and subsequent externalization of these forms. 

So check it out!

Psalm 19:14-20:3

Besides abbreviated words ("b" for "be", "&" for "and"), entire words (and concepts) are approximated in a symbol.

The shiny heart (💖) in 19:14 approximates the Hebrew word לֵב (leb). For a moment, let's ignore the surrounding English of the verse and see how well a 💖 approximates the Hebrew word and the corresponding concept standing behind it. 

The word leb is more than just the organ that pumps blood throughout the body and rarely is it used that way in the Hebrew Bible. It's an expression of our inner life and emotions. It reflects those unthematic and difficult to define aspects of our emotions and our deepest understandings. In fact, here it is clear that the word leb is very much something beyond words.

Here, what the Psalmist is presenting to God is their very self, that it is that self, in all of its undefinable dynamism, that is being submitted to God for acceptance. It would not be economical, never mind possible, to articulate the ever-constant nature of our deepest reflections: God here is my love, conflict, brokenness, awareness, understanding, convictions, righteous yearnings" - and so on. So much more would have to be left out than could ever be included.

Our shiny heart emoji is itself a curious translation of the Hebrew "leb". It is an interpretive choice, chosen above others: ❤️💛💚💙💜💔❣💕💞💓💗💘💝 . Would not one of these better encapsulate the meaning of leb here? I think that 💞 better expresses the dynamism of the human heart while 💗 captures the layers and depth of the human experience. In this regard, I would consider 💖 to be a weak translation. In emphasizing the inner depth of a person as sparkling, it seems strangely self-centered.

Yes if the twinkles of the 💖 are indicative of an impeccability, it would best express the desire of the Psalmist: to submit a righteous heart to God. The Psalmist may be saying that his heart is truly 💖 and that God will rightfully accept such a heart.

The verse itself is poetic and in Hebrew poetry a doublet within a verse is meant to support similar concepts: "the words of my mouth and the hegyon of my heart" (אִמְרֵי־פִ֡י וְהֶגְי֣וֹן לִבִּ֣י). The 💖 is expressed by the hegyon (וְהֶגְי֣וֹן), which in the above is translated as "meditation". הִגָּיוֹן/higgayon itself is a dynamic expression that perhaps could have been translated as 🙏, which denotes reflection or 😖 which can reflect difficult contemplation.👓 could denote clarity, which is how the acceptable heart perceives. But higgayon denotes the expression of an internal quality, and in some instances can be translated as "melody". An Emoji might better express the concept than the word "meditation".

In some ways, the image breaks down an otherwise unseen barrier created by our language, which can limit the possibility of the concept as it is expressed in its original language. Translation requires a great deal of consideration, one that is not unknown in choosing an Emoji in communication. Clearly, the "shiny heart" Emoji is not the simplest choice and, if chosen for reasons beyond the aesthetic appeal of a shiny heart, reflects how the translator internalized a profound concept.

So is Emoji a proper way of doing biblical translation? Our language is always changing, whether we like it or not. Every year, the Oxford Dictionary adds new words with recent additions being: manspreading, vacay, humblebrag, and tweetable...none of which register as correct within my web browser's spell check. It isn't absurd to think of Emoji not as an end to itself but as an indicator of a transition to a new symbol system. Languages with less words have to make do with ambiguity, where multivalence trumps a wide, nuanced vocabulary.

There's a great scene in the comic series "All-Star Superman" (written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely) that illustrates this in a stray communication from an imagined 24th century. A scientist from the future expresses his gratitude to Superman for something he did in his own time, using a version of the English language that is an evolution of the way many people communicate now in the use of symbol substitution, stylistic and alternate spellings, and invented onomatopoetics and slang that could be possible when the freedom to invent or modify language finds its way into spoken language (think of how words like "lulz" have found their way into everyday speech).

 It's good to remember that the King James Bible is a masterpiece of the English language because it walked the fine line between dynamic and formal equivalent translation methods: between being true to the perceived meaning of the text and being true to the more formal aspects of original word choice and syntax. The original languages let us work back to the original mode of expression in hope of finding the heart of what was being expressed. This hopefully leads to a participation of the original experience, one that is extended to us today and unites us not only to God but to every person who helped transmit that message to us as well, explaining and translating in ways they hoped would convey the heart of that message to us. When heart speaks to heart, it is hoped that lives are transformed and gladdened enough by that encounter that their heart can do no other than to sing.

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