I was trying to turn Psalm 1 into a singable song for the Bible club boys (6th grade on up) from the neighborhoods around my church. These were not young men with extensive church backgrounds and full-ride scholarships to elite Sunday schools. Their mastery of rap lyrics was, let’s say, somewhat superior to their knowledge of Scripture. But they had a capacity—and sometimes, I could swear, a desire—to learn.
So when I got to Psalm 1’s statement that the wicked are not like the righteous, “but are like the chaff that the wind drives away,” I balked. Randall, Jimenez, and Javante aren’t going to know what “chaff” is, I thought. They’re going to be distracted and put off from learning because of this word. So for the purposes of this kids club song, I changed “chaff” to “dust.” We sang,
The wicked are not so,
But are like the dust which the wind drives away.
I did this because I want people to understand the Bible. I agree with Augustine of Hippo:
What is the use of correct speech if it does not meet with the listener’s understanding? There is no point in speaking at all if our words are not understood by the people to whose understanding our words are directed. The teacher, then, will avoid all words that do not communicate; if, in their place, he can use other words which are intelligible. (On Christian Doctrine, 4.10.24, trans. Green)
It was part of my duty as an outreach worker, and as a servant of the Word and the people (in that order), to choose words which communicated the truth in intelligible language. I was proud of changing “chaff” to “dust” in the song, and I told my grad school friend, another seminary student, what I had done. I was expecting kudos.
Instead, I got that look. You know the one. The I-know-something-you-don’t-know-and-I’m-trying-to-decide-if-I-should-tell-you look.
Well, he decided. And I knew immediately that he was right and I was wrong: you can’t just change “chaff” to “dust.” Something essential is lost. In technical literary parlance, the “vehicle” of the chaff metaphor carries more than one “tenor.” The chaff metaphor points to at least two real-life truths, and I had summarily dropped the most important one. Here’s the one I kept:
1) Chaff is insubstantial and easily blown away.
That’s the part of the truth that made “dust” such an appealing substitute. If that’s all the meaning were going after, “dust” would be suitable—especially for my audience.
But then there’s the second part, the part that I omitted when I blithely let the word “chaff” float off on the breeze.
2) Chaff is commonly separated from wheat kernels in order to be discarded.
Chaff is a powerful image of judgment in Psalm 1 (and in some other passages such as Hos 13:3; Mat 3:12). Right after he compares the wicked to chaff, the psalmist says, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” Chaff is a powerful judgment image because the winnowing process leaves you with precisely two kinds of material: “saved” and “unsaved.” You hold on to the wheat kernels; you get rid of the husks. The chaff metaphor is like the sheep vs. goats metaphor of Matthew 25: you can change it to dogs vs. cats for a modern audience, but that would disconnect the statement from the rich sheep imagery in the rest of Scripture. And the cultural overtones would get muddy.
At a certain point, making the Bible easier to read can cause you to lose something essential. The Bible will never be so easy to understand that it places no burden on readers. The Bible itself says this: Peter speaks of things that Paul wrote that are “hard to understand.” And it is precisely the “unlearned” who, Peter says, “twist” these difficult things. The solution, then, is not to remove the difficulty but to learn the people, and learn ‘em good.
There is both a terrible literary beauty and a forceful theological verity in that little word “chaff.” “Dust” just won’t do. This is poetry, after all—“the art of charging words with their utmost meaning,” as the former poet laureate of the U.S., Dana Gioia, once said.
Explaining the context
I decided that I didn’t want to be guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations, that in this case, at least, I would try to raise the boys to the level of the poetry rather than assuming they couldn’t grasp such a high bar. So I did what teachers are supposed to do: I gave them a leg up. I put a picture on the Keynote slide used for the song, and I took a little time periodically (we sang the song on a regular basis) to explain the imagery:
I believe I was following Augustine’s dictum: he said I should avoid words that don’t communicate—and chaff is certainly one—if I have intelligible words available. And I didn’t. Only the word “chaff” can get across the full weight of the metaphor.
If you get in the habit of removing or altering biblical metaphors, you get yourself in a mess. Psalm 1’s “The wicked will not stand” is a metaphor, too. Its “tree planted by streams of water” is, too. Depending on how you count, I see about 11 metaphors in this brief psalm. Every one of them requires some measure of interpretive skill: walking in counsels, standing in ways, sitting in seats, trees, water, non-withering leaves. If people can’t understand metaphors, this psalm will be an impossible morass.
Should we dumb down the Bible if people don’t get it? No.
But come back next week for Yes.