I’ve published a new little book, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s an experiment both in reading Paul and in self-publishing.
My family and I were reading N. T. Wright’s “Kingdom Translation” of Romans and the kids were having a blast. Paul’s a great read in contemporary English. They loved, especially, Paul’s rhetorical questions (“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Certainly not!”) and I loved, especially, the force of the letter when read out loud.
I enjoyed it so much, I tried my own hand at it.
As a philosopher, both my doctoral dissertation and my first book featured work on Paul. And I’ve been chewing on Romans, in particular, for a long time.
Here’s a basic description of the book.
Romans is a rare thing in religion: an explanation.
Scripture is full of stories, visions, parables, proverbs, genealogies, poetry, prophecy, and even history. These are priceless. But beyond an occasional gloss, interpreted dream, or decoded parable, we’re never given anything like what Paul offers. We’re never given ten thousand words of raw explanation. With extraordinary insight and psychological precision, Paul lays bare the underlying logic of the gospel. He explains what sin is and why we choose it, the relationship between sin and grace, how sin abuses God’s law and subverts religion, how Jesus saves us from death and sin, and what a new life in Christ looks like, both individually and collectively.
The view is staggering. But it’s hard to keep the big picture in focus. This has partly to do with the quirks and conventions of Paul’s writing—but only partly. A lot of it is us, not him. The King James Version, for instance, renders Paul’s letter with uncanny beauty but is opaque as an argument. Modern translations tend to have the same problem. Their overriding concern is with the letter of the text, not with its logic. As a result, Paul’s forest is always getting sacrificed for the sake of his trees. But Paul’s work is too important, his good news too urgent, to leave so much of him locked in the first century. We need our renderings to do more than mimic the original, we need them to bleed and breathe.
What follows is not a translation in the ordinary sense of the word. It’s more like a paraphrase. Rather than worry over the letter of the text, my goal has been to illuminate the large scale patterns that structure it. With little hesitation, I’ve sacrificed some concern for details to a more urgent need for persuasion and clarity. At several points, I’ve cut some details for the sake of fluidity. At other points, I’ve expanded the material with additional explanation. Overall, I’ve purposely adopted a brisk, contemporary idiom. Rather than aiming for a respectable English version of Paul’s winding Greek syntax, I’ve aimed for a forceful presentation of Paul’s good news.
In all this, I’ve worked more like a sound engineer than a translator. Take Paul’s letter as an old analog recording, full of background noise, suffering from distortion and disrepair. The older it gets and the more times it’s copied, the fainter Paul’s voice becomes. I’ve remastered the recording, cleaned up the sound, dropped the background noise, foregrounded the melody, added a beat, clarified the transitions, and looped some elements for emphasis and effect. What results is a kind of Pauline house mix.
I have not, to be sure, produced the one true translation of Romans. I’m aware as anyone that some things have been lost along the way. But in itself, this is no objection. This is always true. And it would be just as true if I had, instead, chosen to be respectable. The question is never whether something was lost. The question is always what was lost. I’ve lost some fidelity to the letter of the text and, with respect to history, some verisimilitude. But I hope my live rendering of the Christian life Paul so boldly describes will cover some of the cost.