Friday, May 25, 2012

When more can actually be less...

Read this very fine article from Touchstone in which David Lyle Jeffrey writes:  From the perspective of one who values freedom of choice, individualism, and the market, the proliferation of new translations and paraphrases of the Bible must seem, on the whole, a good thing. From a perspective that places a greater value on theological probity, spiritual understanding in the laity, and coherence in the witness of the Church, however, the plethora of English translations and the Babel-like confusion of tongues they create is arguably a calamity. While every new translation is evidently a “market opportunity” and may express in some way the particular slant or voice of individual denominations on certain doctrines, the dissonance and “white noise” of competing Bibles tends to confuse rather than clarify discussion across denominational boundaries. In fact, the “Babel effect” intensifies the confusion. 

Jeffrey also puts this plethora of translations and editions of the Bible into the perspective of capitalism:  All of these makeovers of Holy Scripture are—at least in part—market driven. It is clear that most of them make money, but it is much less clear that they serve to enrich, let alone unify, the Christian Church. Even less is it clear that they assist even the most forbearing reader in seeing in what sense the Scriptures are given as “one Word of God,” pointing to Christ and not to us, or, as St. Paul puts it to Timothy, “given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Many of the niche editions seem rather to be packaged in such a way as to justify, in some measure, current fashions and practices of the sub-groups to which they are directed. This makes them profitable for the publishers, but not so “profitable,” at least in the sense intended by the Apostle, for the Church.

I encourage you to read the whole article.  It is really quite good. The King James Bible endured for more than 300 years before any competition came along and it showed up in a slight revision of the KJV, the Revised Standard Version (1946, 1952).  As lacking as these may have been both in terms of manuscript source for the translation and the changes that too place in language since their publication, we have not profited mightily from the explosion of Bible versions and editions since the early 1970s.  Every Pastor knows how much time is spent in the distraction of those who say, "That's not what my Bible says..."  Plus the impression is given that no one really knows what the Bible says -- we all have our ideas or guesses that cannot be passed off as more than mere opinion.

Add to this, says George Weigel, "the hegemony of the historical-critical method of biblical study has taught two generations of Catholics that the Bible is too complicated for ordinary people to understand: So why read what only savants can grasp? Inept preaching, dissecting the biblical text with historical-critical scalpels or reducing Scripture to a psychology manual, has also been a turnoff to Bible study."  You can read it all here...   
We could argue all day about the value or ruination wrought by the historical-critical method but I think it is self-evident that one of the fruits of this methodology (intended or unintended) is to make us much less sure that we know what Scripture says or that anyone can know for sure what Scripture says.  As Brevard Childs has pointed out, the story of the text and what its hearers might have understood it to say or mean is all interesting and exciting but the Church must deal with the text at hand and preach from this canon.  The historical-critical method has not done much to help the Church in this regard and may have done great harm to the task of preaching by raising its questions about what we can know and how certain we can be about what we know of Scripture as text and kerygma.

I can only commend the whole thrust of both individuals in their quest for some commonality and confidence in the Biblical text proclaimed in worship on Sunday morning, used for study in the teaching ministries of the Church, and used for devotional use in the practice or piety of the faith at home.  Here again is Jeffrey:  Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation,” observed the tension with which all translators must wrestle: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible” he writes, “and moves the reader towards him; or, he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.” It will be obvious by now that I am among those who think that much of recent Bible translation has veered too far in the direction of leaving contemporary culture undisturbed. 

Jeffrey concludes:  There is a solution, problematic as the secularized language of the surrounding materialist culture may be as an impediment. It is to become one of those who recover and learn to speak with understanding the language of Holy Scripture at the heart of the Church, striving to teach patiently, at every opportunity, its richness and truth. This can be done, if we wish to, by a principled inclusion of accurate definitions of sacred terms in every homily and catechetical context. I think we must, as J. R. R. Tolkien once said, engage in a willed act of recovery of sacral language if the sacred sources themselves are not to be elided by cheap philological and symbolic facsimiles.
Just as we must recover from the historical-critical method's resulting confusion over which Scripture, what that Scripture might say or mean, and whether we can have confidence in that meaning, we must also recover a sense of the sacred in the language of those Scriptures.  In this result, clarity is certainly one important consideration in translation but not the only one.  Beauty and the spiritual sense or image of the words must also be taken into account.  Finally the primary place of Scripture has always been worship where it is more heard than read.  In contrast to this, we have made the Bible less the living voice that speaks to us as much as another ancient text to be deconstructed, deciphered, and demythologized.  So it is no wonder that the folks in the pew have gotten the idea that this hard book is best left to the critics and the best we can offer them is some market-driven edition with notes, helps, and commentary to fit every person, every need, and every theological perspective.  We all agree there are more Bibles on the bookshelves of the world than ever before but, in the case of America, that does not mean we have a better sense of what Scripture is or says or have any confidence that anyone can answer those questions.


Anonymous said...

Our youth in Sunday School and
Confirmation classes need a Bible
like the ESV for memory work. The
advantage of having one translation
for parish use is that everybody can
memorize the same Biblical texts.

Dick Wire said...

Thank you so much for citing the Jeffrey and Weigel articles and adding your own take on the Bible translation cacophony.

In a small Bible study it is useful to have several standard translations to refer to. An appointed (standard) translation is necessary for reading lessons in public worship, but in other settings it is easy for groupthink to take over and make a recommended translation the one to use in particular denominations or congregations.

Each translation has its pluses and minuses. I prefer the New Revised Standard Version and find it instructive to compare renderings with my LCMS church's English Standard Version. For instance, the ESV suffers somewhat when it replaces "parables" with "figures of speech" and "scattered" in the Babel account with "dispersed." More importantly, Paul's admonition that all Christians submit (or be subject) to one another becomes marginalized in the ESV when placed in a final phrase of an unrelated paragraph rather than the beginning of the paragraph spelling out more specific types of submission within the early Christian community.

Dick Wire

Anonymous said...

A real weakness of the ESV is
how they have made the Psalms
more stilted in style that is

The NIV does a good job on the
Psalms without losing the basic
meaning of the Hebrew.

David Gray said...

I must confess I'm not a big fan of the Not Inspired Version. All translation involves interpretation but it is the most egregious of the lot when it comes to modern translations.

Anonymous said...

The Public Relations hype for Bibles
is at an all-time high. We now have
specialized Bibles for fishermen,
single mothers, recovering drug
addicts. policemen, fathers who are
left-handed, factory workers on
furlough, secretarial and office help

There is a niche for every possible
person with special notes and graphs,
and photos. CPH is losing their
market share to this new fad.

Pastor Peters said...

The NIV has been displaced by the update which is a decidely poorer translation and one riddled with political correctness.

The ESV is not perfect, but it reads rather well and that is the unique concern for that translation used in the lectionary.

I grew up with the RSV and still hold a fondness for it (though an emotional bond with the KJV). But, alas, those days are gone...