Read the Bible Like a Texan, Y’all

We’ve tried to tell y’all for a long time: everything is better in Texas… even the Bible.

In fact, in recent months I’ve repeatedly found myself giving the following advice:

to read the Bible faithfully, read it like a Texan.

Why, you ask, would anyone ever want to do that?  Because a deficiency in the English language, combined with an already-present tendency towards individualism, has created an unhealthy distortion of the Christian faith.  Luckily, Texans have already solved this problem with one of our favorite words: y’all.

You see, English has a pronoun problem.  The original languages of the Bible had specific forms for “you plural” (second person plural pronouns), but unfortunately modern English lacks such a distinction.  This is why many regions (not only Texas!) have attempted to fix this shortcoming in their own unique ways.  In fact, the New York Times recently came out with a fun interactive quiz on geographical dialects: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.

The result is that many times the word “you” in our English translations is not actually meant to refer to an individual, but to a local community of believers.  Texan John Dryer attracted attention this past summer for creating a “Texas Bible (plugin)” which converts all the instances of “you – plural” in the Bible into “y’all” (see the graphic below).  Dryer even did the math, concluding that “there are at least 4,720 verses (2,698 in the Hebrew Bible and 2,022 in the Greek) with you plural translated as English “you” which could lead a reader to think it is directed at him or her personally rather than the Church as a community.”

This becomes a problem for the many English readers of the Bible who have been trained in the radical individualism so common to Western culture.  For many, the idea that it might be vitally important to belong to a Christian community is simply incoherent.  Nicholas Perrin once correctly observed that far too many Christians see the church as an informal gathering of Jesus’ mutual Facebook friends – there is little that connects them beyond the coincidence that they happen to have a relationship with the same person.  But this “Jesus and Me” faith is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures, a truth which is better grasped when we pay closer attention to the use of plural pronouns.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 is a great example: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  At first glance, these verses seem to be emphasizing the individuality of the Christian faith.  I am where God dwells.  I am filled with the Holy Spirit.  But a translation sensitive to the original languages would note that these are plural pronouns that should read: “Don’t you all know that you all (plural) are God’s temple (singular) and that God’s Spirit dwells in you all (plural)… For God’s temple (singular) is holy, and you all (plural) are that temple (singular).”

This significantly impacts how we should interpret this verse.  As Richards & O’Brien point out in Chapter 4 (Captain of My Soul: Individualism and Collectivism) of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible:

“We typically understand the singulars and plurals in this verse backwards.  In the original Greek, the you is plural and temple is singular.  Paul is saying, “All of you together are a singular temple for the Holy Spirit.”  God doesn’t have millions of little temples scattered around.  Together we make the dwelling for the Spirit.”

It is a local community of believers where God is found and where His Spirit is available to experience.  We might not like it or understand it, but apparently the Church is God’s plan to mediate his power and presence to the world.  Frankly, it’s remarkable that Paul is so confident about this truth as he writes specifically to the Corinthian church.  The church in Corinth was “Church-Gone-Wild XXX”  – they were immersed in factions, debauchery, and sexual immorality.  Yet, warts and all, their community was where God had chosen to dwell in a powerful and immediate way.   What if we dared to believe that the same is true of our local faith-families?  You might not have always read the Bible as a Texan, but hopefully you’ll start as soon as you can.