My mom had her friend Charlotte on speaker phone again. The voice blaring across the living room was buoyant and smooth. Last time they chatted, the voice was low and halting, bearing no resemblance to the current speaker. In fact, each time they talk, Charlotte has a different voice—the appointed interpreter’s. Charlotte is Deaf.
Charlotte, like others in the Deaf community, uses a telecommunication relay service to keep in contact with hearing friends and family members. Over a video call and on the fly, the interpreter verbalizes her signed sentences and then renders the audible equivalent back into sign language. Real-time translation is indeed a precarious endeavor. A minor slip of the tongue or hand can communicate something unintended. Sometimes, my mom hears about Charlotte’s son, who lives miles away, when she meant her daughter, who lives directly beside her.
Even without the inevitable mix-ups, it can be confusing to have the personality and background of another filtering Charlotte’s words. The emotion, intonation, diction—all the characteristics that would single someone out—readily shift. Yet both callers know who is on the other side, including the interpreter in the middle.
A Chorus of Voices
In some ways, remote communication between the Deaf and the hearing parallels how readers encounter God in his word. Without scouring their quirks and context, God moved forty or so writers to pen sixty-six books. The layer of authorial voices over scripture somehow does not obstruct but rather enriches the text. As readers, we can’t help but notice the mystery of this dynamic.
The four Gospel accounts show the value in a chorus compiling scripture. Why didn’t God condense them into a single account by the most eloquent or accurate of the four? They repeat some of the same parables and outline some of the same events. However, John approaches Christ’s ministry from a separate vantage point than Mark. Matthew carries distinct themes and observations that Luke does not. We must simultaneously consider God’s voice, present through breathed inspiration and bodily in the Messiah, driving the four-part narrative.
Christian thinkers over the ages have marveled at human involvement in God’s word. Scholars have distilled scripture’s formation into concepts like “mechanical dictation” or “verbal plenary inspiration.” These theories tug back and forth at the nature of God’s supervision and humanity’s reception of truths, themes, or exact verbiage. A lurch one way favors a heavier human hand, and a yank another way negates distinctive writing styles. Fixations and even rivalries have arisen from these debates. In all the parsing of scripture, Charlotte comes to mind again.
New Hues and Patterns
Charlotte and her various interpreters have a common goal: sustaining Charlotte’s conversation. And her phone calls have a common source: Charlotte. In the Bible, God remains the authoritative source, the voice behind canonical voices, executing his will.
What happens between Charlotte, her interpreter, and the other person on the phone differs from what happens between God, the writers, and the readers of the Bible. God’s use of varied human perspectives was not simply a reluctant resort to overcome a communication barrier. It was a deliberate decision. The humans chosen as biblical authors may distract us from time to time, but their experiences with the Lord reveal facets of God's character and fill out our understanding of the divine. Like twisting a kaleidoscope, each book reveals new hues and patterns to history’s redemptive chronicles and our redeemer.
My mom can’t always distinguish where the interpreter’s qualities cut in and where Charlotte’s cut out. She can only crease her brows, ask questions, and faithfully continue calling her friend. And she does. Almost every day, my mom and Charlotte speak, no matter the difficulty.
Just like my mom, all we can do is return and listen to the complex, holistic product God has communicated.