Lead us not into Confusion - The Lord's Prayer in French

Writing the story of the Belgian dockworkers was like eating sand.
 Once upon a time he’d persuaded himself that technical facility was its own reward: a sentence singing hymns to the attainment of coal production norms in the Donets Basin was, nonetheless, a sentence, and could be well rendered. It was the writer’s responsibility in a progressive society to inform and uplift the toiling masses.”
Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

I have my favorites. Writers whose work I turn to for enjoyment, inspiration and to steal phrases. The American spy-thriller novelist Alan Furst is a craftsman and storyteller whose work with each re-reading offers different insights into the human experience. It is fun, too.

For an article to break free from the pack of mind-numbing junk that overwhelms journalism, the writer must have a sense of the background to the subject.

The passage above from Dark Star illuminates the mental processes of reporting. For every exclusive or breaking story, for every fascinating glimpse or profound discussion of life, God, or the world - come hundreds of other pieces reporting on committee meetings, speeches and conventions. The eating sand imagery is quite real to me, as is the sense of pride and pleasure of mastering a craft.

Technical ability - things such as cleverness of language or an edgy tone - are welcome but cannot make a story great. For an article to break free from the pack of mind numbing junk that overwhelms journalism, the writer must have technical facility but also a sense of the background to the subject. Knowing why the story matters moves it beyond being merely amusing.

The Times story of November 17, 2017, entitled: “Revised Lord’s Prayer delivers French from confusion” is technically proficient, but dull. The author recites but he does not report.

The lede states:

God will no longer be asked to do the Devil’s work in a revised version of the Lord’s Prayer that has been adopted by the French Catholic Church.

That is nicely done in terms of the clarity, clever tone and aesthetic qualities of the prose. As are the explanatory paragraphs that follow:

The Conference of Bishops has attempted to remove a misunderstanding that arose from the modern French version of Notre Père, which was produced in 1966 after the reformist Vatican II council.
Using the 1966 translation, French worshippers have been asking the Lord: “Do not submit us to temptation: (Ne nous soumets pas à la dentition).
This is puzzling for some of the congregation because God does not set traps for mankind, and He cannot be the author of evil in Christian doctrine. The Lord is asked to deliver us from evil in the next line of the prayer.
The new version beseeches God: “Do not let us enter into temptation” (Ne nous laisse pas entrer en dentition).

(Note the capitalized “H” in “He” in the third paragraph - this is a traditional form of identifying God, which is not seen in The Times’ religion news stories.)

The article then offers details of when the changes are to take effect (December 3) and for whom (French Catholic and Protestant churches), also noting the Francophone churches in Africa and Belgium adopted the changes in June. A comment from a French bishop is offered as well as a report on the health of the French church (poor). And that is it.

Had the author been able to combine his natural writing and language skills with knowledge of the subject matter, he could have had a great story. What comes across in this story is the author’s boredom. He is doing his job reporting on coal production in the Donets Basin or French liturgical reform until something better opens up at The Times.

Which is a shame because the backstory is there to have made this more appealing to the editors at The Times (moving it from the back pages next to the holiday adverts) and into the serious news sections.

A google search would have let the author know that this was the second iteration of this issue. In 2013, the French bishops began discussing changing the text of the Lord’s Prayer. The Telegraph’s story, “'Blasphemous' Lord's Prayer corrected by France's Catholic Church” opened with:

France's Catholic Church has finally corrected a "blasphemous" error that crept into the Gallic version of The Lord's prayer half a century ago.  After a 17-year debate, theologians and writers concluded that the French equivalent of "And lead us not into temptation" implied that God Himself could lead us astray, rather than help us keep on the straight and narrow, and thus had "blasphemous" overtones.  The French line before read: "And don't submit us to temptation". It now reads: "And don't let us enter into temptation".

The Telegraph story noted that the change, which was agreed in 1964 and adopted in 1966, had prompted anger at the time for the reasons raised by the French bishops in 2013.

The Times story’s pursuit of cleverness would have been improved upon by reaching back to the 2013 blasphemy quote noted by the Telegraph. However, it also neglected to ask the question: Is this new translation more faithful to scripture than the 1966 rendering?

The answer is no. The new French version changes the words of Christ as received by the universal church in the Scriptures to say something different. The Greek text states: καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν; which in English means "and do not lead us into temptation". A literal French translation from the Greek would be “et ne nous guides pas à la tentation”. The new French version of “and let us not enter into temptation” states something different than what appears in the Greek as there is no connotation of “letting”.

Wouldn't this story be better if the issue of the French Episcopal Conference improving on the words of Christ to make them more palatable to modern sensibilities were examined?

Would this story not have been helped by also having a comment from a New Testament scholar or English cleric who would explain why the Lord’s Prayer recited in English Catholic Churches is a different Lord’s Prayer than that recited in French Catholic Churches?

A deeper knowledge of contemporary Catholicism would also introduce the controversies surrounding the Lefebvre affair, the traditionalists led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St Pius X, which rejected the interpretations given by progressive French Catholic bishops on the work of the second Vatican Council - including the French language Notre Père.

And what of Magnum Principium, Pope Francis’ motu proprio that places translations of the novus ordo (the liturgy) into the hands of bishops conferences instead of under the authority of the Apostolic See? Will that process follow the Lord’s Prayer process - with local language variants of the Greek and Latin texts translating things with different meanings for different language groups?

What is happening in this story is a report that the Catholic church is moving away from being a catholic church and the author does not see what is happening.

I conceded that it is unfair to criticize an article for what it is not. The Times piece is well written, but pedestrian. There is no sense of the wider story, no understanding of the currents pulling at the foundations of the Catholic Church such as common prayers that have different official theological interpretations. The author of the this article has the skills and talent to produce a great article - he just needs to understand what he is looking at.

If you approach an article on liturgical reform as an exercise akin to eating sand, then the result may be technically proficient but it will not serve the cause of journalism to educate, enlighten and inform.