The Word — The Logos: ‘The Atlantic’ Reviews David Bentley Hart’s ‘Mind-Bending’ Translation of the New Testament

David Bentley Hart’s text recaptures the awkward, multivoiced power of the original.

In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …”

It’s significant, this act of lexical surrender, because if you’d bet on anyone to come up with a fancy English word for Logos, it’d be David Bentley Hart. Vocabulary is not his problem, unless you think he has too much of it. A scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, Hart is also a stylist; or rather, the prickly and slightly preening polemical exhibition that is his style is indivisible from his role as a scholarly and theologically oriented cultural commentator. Like G. K. Chesterton, he has one essential argument: that God is the foundation of our being and that every human life therefore has its beginning and its end in eternity. He rehearses this argument in numberless witty variations against whichever non-God ideology happens to slouch beneath his pen: materialism, scientism, consumerism, pornographism … And he can sound a Chestertonian note. “My chief purpose,” he wrote in 2013’s The Experience of God, “is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.”

Unlike Chesterton—and this is how you know he’s an early-21st-century guy, someone with Wi-Fi—Hart is extremely rude. Richard Dawkins, “zoologist and tireless tractarian,” has “an embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning”; Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is “extravagantly callow”; and Dan Brown’s heretical The Da Vinci Code is “surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.” (All this from the first one and a half pages of 2009’s Atheist Delusions.) He once proposed, as a thought experiment, that bioethicists such as the late Joseph Fletcher (“almost comically vile”) be purged from the gene pool: “Academic ethicists … constitute perhaps the single most useless element in society. If reproduction is not a right but a social function, should any woman be allowed to bring such men into the world?”

So what has he done to the New Testament, this bristling one-man band of a Christian literatus? The surprising aim, Hart tells us in his introduction, was to be as bare-bones and—where appropriate—unsqueamishly prosaic as he can. The New Testament, after all, is not a store of ancient wonders like the Hebrew Bible. It’s a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event—namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that, says Hart, is what it should sound like. “Again and again,” he insists, “I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation … Where an author has written bad Greek … I have written bad English.” Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow.

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The Atlantic