Vox clamantis in deserto

Posted by James Rainey - 09 December, 2014

My family and I attended an Advent service this past Sunday at an Episcopal church, and I happened to notice for the first time a subtle detail in an ancient text I had read countless times before – a text I thought I knew well. And it got me thinking about Community Learning at Randolph.

The words in the lectionary were from the New Revised Standard translation of Isaiah 40:3, a verse in the Old Testament with particular significance to Christians who believe, per the opening lines of the Gospel of Mark, that it presages the arrival – literally the advent – not only of the Messiah but of his herald, John the Baptist:

"A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.'"NRSV

Yet compare this translation to that of the same verse in the earlier King James Bible:

"The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord."KJV

This is no trivial difference in grammar: the prepositional phrase "In the wilderness" modifies "prepare" in the New Revised Standard Version, but it modifies "crieth" in the King James Version. And whether the prophet speaks about the wilderness (per the New Revised Standard) or from the wilderness (per the King James) should be a crucial consideration for anyone inspired by this verse.

The composer George Frideric Handel was inspired by it. He placed Isaiah 40:3 at the beginning of his oratorical masterpiece, Messiah. Eleazar Wheelock was inspired by it, too. He founded Dartmouth College and inscribed the Latin translation of Isaiah 40:3 as the school's motto: Vox clamantis in deserto. Both men heard Isaiah as the King James translators heard him, crying in the wilderness. It's just that Handel's wilderness was still Isaiah's Babylon. Wheelock's wilderness was a fledgling America.

Community Learning at Randolph affirms "learning for the greater good," which our philosophy articulates as the School's commitments to "shared sacrifice," "nurturing all," and making the world "a better place for generations to come." To take inspiration from Isaiah 40:3 in pursuing these aims in our own America, our own world, does not require Judaic or Christian convictions. If "wilderness" is a metaphor for real-world struggling and suffering and "the way of the Lord" is a metaphor for justice, kindness, and humility, Isaiah 40:3 applies ecumenically.

crayonBut our work cannot be accomplished at a remove. In Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, high school students in an affluent New York City suburb regard a conversation about their adolescent counterparts in impoverished Camden, New Jersey, as "just a theoretical discussion." Kozol writes that questions of unfairness – what Langston Hughes might have called "a dream deferred" – "feel more like a geometric problem than a matter of humanity or conscience." Community Learning is one means by which we can inoculate our students at Randolph against such debilitating detachment from the wider world and the greater good.

My head knows that the New Revised Standard Version reads Isaiah well. Prophecy is often poetry, and Isaiah's intended parallelism is too clear: "in the wilderness… prepare… the way"; "in the desert… make straight… a highway." But my heart knows the King James Version reads him better. When we speak about the wilderness – the struggling, the suffering – it feels "more like a geometric problem than a matter of humanity." When we speak from the wilderness, notions like shared sacrifice, nurturing all, and making the world a better place become real. This is authentic Community Learning. May we ever welcome its advent in the lives of the children we serve.

Topics: community, mission, service, curiosity, philology, Community of Learners


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