SONY DSCThe appropriately massive memorial service for anti-apartheid activist and former South African president Nelson Mandela monopolized the news Dec. 10, as thousands gathered in a driving rain to hear an ark-load of speeches from political and religious leaders from around the world.

By the next day, attention had shifted from coverage of President Obama’s remarks (well-received by the crowd) and South African president Zuma’s speech (booed by many) to a man who stood just a few feet away from them as the official interpreter for the deaf.

It quickly became apparent — to deaf people, at least — that the man wasn’t actually using sign language and his constant gesticulating made no sense at all. The African National Congress then came under fire for hiring an apparent fraud and putting him in such close proximity to world leaders — especially since he has appeared at previous official occasions where he was criticized for incompetence.

Since then, the man in question has been identified and interviewed. His explanation? Thamsanqa Jantjie says he suffers from mental illness and had a schizophrenic episode during the event, hallucinating and hearing loud voices that distracted him and prevented him from interpreting accurately — but he didn’t leave the stage because it was such an important event that he thought it best to stay, even though he wasn’t actually interpreting.

I’m in no position to judge the man’s competence in sign language, his mental condition, or his motives (though he was well paid for the event). If I had to stand through a five-hour event trying to translate an interminable string of speeches, I’d probably have some sort of episode, too.

The occasion reminds me, though, that all types of interpreters bear a heavy responsibility to communicate the message they’ve been given with accuracy. This is particularly true for those who stand in pulpits and take on the task of interpreting “the word of God for the people of God,” as we often say in response to a reading of scripture.

Not all of the Bible is the direct “word of God,” of course: most of it consists of words about God, or about the people who have sought through the years to live in relationship with God and to understand God’s ways. This long story of spiritual struggle has such value to those who continue participating in the ongoing story of God and humankind, however, that we consider it to be sacred and look to it with reverence.

Those of us who are in a position to interpret the meaning of scripture have a responsibility to go beyond a mere surface or literalistic reading of a passage, and to interpret with sensitivity to the meaning of the text in its historical, cultural, and religious contexts. We must likewise consider the significance of any particular text within the larger message of scripture, always being aware of the old saw that “a text without a context is a pretext.”

When teachers or preachers fail to take the task of interpretation seriously, they run the risk of speaking for God in ways that are meaningless, meandering, or downright misleading. Perhaps the flap over incoherent interpretation at Mandela’s memorial can yet provide a usefeul service, reminding us that the message of scripture is too important to be interpreted in ways that amount to little more than a flapping of the hands by someone responding to loud voices that turn out to be his own.

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