Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Looking Through the Salidor

For years I wondered what a salidor was. 

Or rather I didn’t really wonder, so much as take it on best authority – that of my elementary school peers –  that there was such a thing. It was from a sing-song rhyme, the kind that little girls sing together with increasingly intricate hand-clapping patterns on the schoolyard at recess.

I didn’t know what a salidor was, but (1) I wasn’t going to show my ignorance by asking, and (2) I knew it was something you got to after sliding or climbing down a rainbarrow… or some such – may as well use “rainbow”, since that makes more sense, right? At any rate, it obviously had to do with friends coming over to play.  Obviously. I may have been corrected once or twice on the finer points, but I’m sure I would hear none of it; I was RIGHT (just ask my 7-year-old self), and that’s just what it was. Sometimes there were words we didn’t understand, but as long as you sounded like you got it, it was OK – sing it with confidence! At any rate, for some reason I woke up with this rhyme in my head the other day and it made me think of how songs and stories get passed down through oral tradition.

If you’ve ever played a game of “Telephone” at camp or in school, or sung nursery rhymes or children's songs that someone else learned from someone else… you’ll get the idea. Things change over time and over distance as they get handed down and passed around. Things, for example, like what a teacher said.

There was this interesting experiment I remember hearing about in an introductory Sociology class when I was first in college: A class was in session (high school? I can’t recall), and suddenly someone burst into the room, late. He had an altercation with the teacher involving the student swearing and possibly threatening the teacher and was finally told or made to leave – I don’t remember all the details. Once he was gone and the disruption over, the teacher asked the class to please write down what had just happened, in case it was needed later. The students wrote their papers and handed them in as they left. A few days later, the principal (or other authority figure) came in and explained that there might be a disciplinary case around this and it was important that they understand what happened and who was at fault. He asked the class to please write down again what had happened. The principal took these papers and left. A week or so later, the class’ teacher explained that something had happened to the original papers and they were missing – he apologized and asked the students to please try to recall as much of the incident as they could and to please re-write their observations for him, which they did.

This had actually been an experiment, the scene planned out ahead of time. The papers had all been saved and when compared, each person’s re-telling of the account varied – sometimes hugely – both from what actually happened and from the same person’s other accounts. Papers from the same person also differed depending upon whom they had been written for – the teacher or the principal/authority figure. I was fascinated by this. The experiment looked at how events are (1) observed by different people, (2) recorded, (3) changed over time if asked to re-record them and (4) altered depending upon whom they were written for or trying to appease or impress.

I may not be recalling the story of this process completely accurately – I intentionally didn’t look it up before writing this, because it addresses my point. If you'd asked me 10 years ago... or right after I'd taken the class... I'm sure I'd have a better and more accurate memory of the details.

You can probably see where this is going.

The most frustrating thing for me and I think for many, in studying scripture, is trying to figure out what may actually have happened and what might actually have been said. Much is allegorical, parable, bigger Truths explained in story; but someone had to have said and  done at least some of these things, or they wouldn’t have been recorded.

The Bible is a collection of stories, accounts and observances. For the sake of paring it down a bit, I’m just looking at the New Testament right now. Let’s call it given that a man named Jesus lived. He was a traveling rabbi, a Jewish teacher, and taught what seemed to many a new and interesting message about God. This teacher said exciting and subversive things! He questioned the status quo, spoke out against rules that were in place and enforced for their own sake, that were “of man” rather than “of God”; he spoke with authority, as if he had first-hand knowledge, and took the titles of the Roman emperor, the ruling power of the day, for himself: Prince of Peace, Anointed One, Son of God. He healed people on any day of the week (including the Sabbath, when one was not supposed to do any work), shared meals with outcasts and pariahs, called priests in the Temple “thieves” or “robbers” for charging people money to come pray and offer sacrifices and he taught that following strict laws about what one can or can’t eat was not nearly as important as what was in a person’s heart and how one acted in the world.

We know about this rabbi named Jesus because there were crowds of people who listened to him and followed him, and some of them told what they’d heard to others, who in turn passed it on. To make it even more confusing, some of what was written had to do with what Jesus and others did, and some of it was about parables – made up stories that carry and exemplify truths about the world and how we are in it – that the rabbi told. From playing Telephone, I’ve heard what a simple sentence can sound like just 10 people and 3 minutes later; “Hi, I’m Jack Robinson – tell what you know” can easily turn into, “Hire Jack Robbins and Tellie wants snow” – or something even less coherent than that. If a story or an occurrence (or a song, or a joke) is told several times a day to different people, and each of them passes it on… speaking it many times and over a period of many years, to many more people… what will it sound like 40 to 60 years later, when it finally gets written down? Or even if some of the writers were students of people who followed this rabbi, putting to paper what they’d been orally taught… you’re still looking at second-generation (at best) re-telling of events that someone is pulling up from memory.

Now wait for over 1000 years or so, read these many-times-told stories and accounts that are in an ancient language and written in and for an entirely different time and social structure; translate them into Latin and marinate for a few hundred more years, then translate the messages and teachings again into another language – this time commonly spoken (16th century English, for example), so that even more people can understand. Once that is done, allow scholars from different parts of the world to have access to these several-times-translated stories and accounts, and assume that each translates these into their own language – or the same language through different perspectives or understanding of the original text - each using the accepted norms of the day and place they’re in, and/or that translator’s personal biases. Shake and stir. Go back to the oldest translation you can find, learn the language it’s in and try to read it. Then re-translate it all over again. Telephone.

Can you pull the really important bits out of what you now have? Will you worry over whether there were 12 or 13 apostles? Just men or women as well? Whether Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey or a horse (or both)? Why different gospels tell the same story slightly differently? Or will you look for what the point of it all was, try to understand the meanings underneath, look for what's relevant and ascertain how these might be helpful to you in living day-to-day?

Many years after learning the rhyme – many years and experiences later – when the tune came to mind, I was able to re-fit the sounds I remembered into actual words and speech patterns. It made me smile:

            Say, say, oh playmate, come out and play with me
            And bring your dollies three, climb up my apple tree
            Climb down my rain barrel, into my cellar door

  And we’ll be jolly friends forever more!


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