Friday, June 10, 2005

A secular Bible for a Secular Church – Bible versions in post-war Britain

It was shocking but not altogether surprising in 2004, when Archbishop Rowan Williams placed his seal on the new 'Bible version', ‘Good as New'. He welcomed what was a clear perversion of the truth and morality of the Scriptures, as a book of 'extraordinary power' which didn't use 'exclusive words'. He went on: 'Instead of being taken into a specialised religious frame of reference - as happens even with the most conscientious of formal modern translations - and being given a gospel addressed to specialised concerns … we have here a vehicle for thinking and worshiping that is fully earthed, recognizably about our humanity.' In other words the Scriptures have been rewritten by 'Good as New' to adapt to secular concerns and to become wholly secular themselves. It is significant that a church leader who has failed to approach and deal with the issue of homosexuality in a biblical way should be supporting a rewritten of the Scriptures which excludes any condemnation of homosexuality.

'Good as New' rewrites 'demon possession' as 'mental illness’, ‘Son of Man,' as 'the Complete Person', and salvation to become 'healing' or 'completeness'. Individuals in Scripture are renamed with modern nicknames: Peter becomes 'Rocky,' Mary Magdalene becomes 'Maggie,' Aaron becomes 'Ron,' etc. The secularism of this book is blasphemous in places, such as Mark 1:10-11 which is rendered: 'As he was climbing up the bank again, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. At the same time a pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God's spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, 'That's my boy! You're doing fine!' It is a 'version' of the Bible which even changes the canon to include Gnostic pseudo-gospels in the attempt to appeal to contemporary fascination with the exotic. It is a secular 'Bible' with secular morality and ideas written not simply for a secular society but for a secular Church, thus Williams hoped that 'Good as New' will spread 'in epidemic profusion through religious and irreligious alike'.

Inevitable Secularisation?
To some onlookers, these developments reflect the inevitable decline of religion through secularisation. In the process of secularisation, religion is said to become increasingly less important in the society and its institutions, while the social standing of religious roles and institutions themselves decline. Above all it is thought to be a steady decline in the numbers of people engaging in religious practices and displayng religious beliefs. Traditionally, secularisation has been seen as the inevitable result of enlightenment thinking together with the fact of modern nations becoming industrialised and more concentrated in cities.

The Sixties
Historians have generally assumed that Britain became gradually secular during the twentieth century rather than overnight. Recently, historian Prof Callum Brown (The Death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation 1800-2000, Callum G Brown, Routledge, 2001) has argued that there were three main periods of religious decline: the First World War, the Second World War and the period after 1963. In between the latter two periods of decline, however, the 1950s however represented a period of resurgence in religious adherence. Brown identifies the sixties as a period which introduced decline of a more permanent and more radical character. 'Britain in the 1960s experienced more secularisation than all the preceding four centuries put together. Never before had all of the numerical indicators of popular religiosity fallen simultaneously, and never before had their declension been so steep...What was different about the 1960s in the history of religion was not just the scale and suddenness of religious decline. The uniqueness of the sixties was that, firstly, for the first time, Christian religiosity underwent a common and virtually simultaneous change within nearly all countries in western Europe.' The period immediately before the sixties, i.e. between 1945 and 1958 reveals an upsurge of British church membership and Sunday school enrolment. The situation in the USA, Australia and the UK showed faster growth during this time than at any time since 1890. The Billy Graham crusades in the UK were highly attended, London 1954 was attended by 2 million (21.2 % of resident population) while 100, 000 packed Hampden Park in Glasgow 1955 (73.7% of the resident population).

Brown pinpoints the revolution in Britain's religious adherence. He believes that 'really quite suddenly in 1963, something very profound ruptured the character of the nation and its people, sending organised Christianity on a downward spiral to the margins of social significance.' It was something more fundamental that just falling church attendances. What happened in 1963? It was the year in which the book 'Honest to God' was published by the Bishop of Woolwich, JAT Robinson. This book amounted to a manifesto for the adoption of a secular theology and a secular morality within the Church and heralded a revolution in the moral identity of the nation. It was a significant moment, for while many resisted such an extreme position, the initiative to secularise had been grasped from within the Church .

Secular Theology
The book was promoted in advance by an article in The Observer headed ‘Our image of God must go’. Within three years the book had sold over 1 million copies and was to be translated into seventeen languages. Robinson's conviction was that the biblical imagery of God made him unreal to the modern secular scientific world and that the supernaturalism of Scripture was entirely mythological. The book opened up a Secular Theology which derived from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea of a 'religionless Christianity', the idea that the supernatural 'God is dead' and that God must instead be found in the here and now of secular societies. Later in the sixties, Harvey Cox published 'The Secular City' and in a similar vein Paul Van Buren also published 'The Secular Meaning of the Gospels'. Atheistic philosophers welcomed Robinson's ideas as identical to their own: Alasdair Maclntyre regarded Robinson as an atheist with a thin coating of religious verbiage and A. J. Ayer observed that Robinson 'is coming round to a position a number of us have held for some time.'

Secular Morality
Robinson had opened up the sixties with his advocation of the removal of censorship from the explicit novel by DH Lawrence 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' . He appeared in court in 1960 to defend the publication of the unexpurgated edition of the novel claiming that Lawrence ‘tried to portray this relationship as … an act of holy communion’. By the end of the decade censorship of the theatre had been opened up entirely. In 'Honest to God', Robinson championed the idea of permissive morality believing that 'the fact that the old landmarks are disappearing is not something simply to be deplored. If we have the courage it is something to be welcomed - as a challenge to Christian ethics to shake itself loose from the supports of supernatural legalism' (Honest to God, p.117). One of the book's chapters was entitled 'the new morality' while another was significantly headed 'worldly holiness'.

Secular Bible
A significant moment witnessed the outselling of the New English Bible (NEB) New Testament by Honest to God. Robinson had been on the New Testament panel of translators for the NEB, which had been published in 1961. It advanced a sea change in Bible translation by abandoning a conservative word-for-word approach to translation for a more loose thought-for-thought approach. The NEB was not simply a re-translation but a re-writing of the Scriptures through its free use of conjecture in reconstructing and rearranging the text. It trumpeted itself as a translation into 'the idiom of contemporary English', and liberally used crude colloquialisms and clichés such as 'money-grubbing', 'sponging', 'left in the lurch' 'feel the pinch' 'lazy rascal' - 'catch me out' 'gibberish' 'perfect pest'. JG Vos once spoke of ‘Secularism is like a chlorine bleach. It takes the real colour out of everything’ - this is clearly seen in the secularising of sacred Scripture.

In the NEB words such as sinners were frequently translated as simply 'bad characters'. The irony was that the translators mixed up together with the slang idiom many archaic and unfamiliar words such as 'bedizened', 'scion','inculcate', 'obdurate' and 'parricides'. This was intended to represent 'modern English' but whose modern English?

For the translators, the secularising impulse dovetailed perfectly with a bias towards liberal theology in seeking out new 'translations' of the Scriptures. Familiar renderings became almost unrecognisable such as Genesis 1:1 ' In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.' Isaiah 9:6 'For a boy has been born for us, a son given to us to bear the symbol of dominion on his shoulder; and he shall be called in purpose wonderful, in battle God-like, Father for all time [margin, 'of a wide realm'], Prince of peace'. The rendering of Exodus 34:6, 7 referred to the LORD as 'a god'.

The NEB pioneered the idea that the Bible was intelligible to the man on the street. If Robinson spoke of the 'death of God' in terms of what the traditional notion meant to the modern man, the NEB took as its leading principle the idea that 'the Bible was dead', in terms of its meaning to modern man. The Bible had to become relevant, part of modern vocabulary and the categories of thought of modern man - in short, secular. It was not that the Bible had become obsolete through changes in the English language (after all it had been accessible enough to Billy Graham's crowded crusades) but rather that society, attitudes and ideas had changed in the revolutionary ferment and discontent of the 1960s.

The translation philosophy behind the NEB was essentially secularising. Robinson's agenda in 'Honest to God' was primarily linguistic in promoting an instrumentalist view of religious language. The fundamental assumption was that traditional religious language is misleading rather than meaningful. Robinson believed that this could be addressed by changing the vocabulary of traditional religious language in order to describe more accessibly the spiritual realities that these terms pointed to. The idea here is that the labels for these spiritual realities can be changed without any loss of meaning. It should be obvious, however, that to “translate meaning while ignoring the way that meaning has been articulated is no translation at all but merely replacement” (Gerald Hammond). Access to the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ or to anything else of which Scripture speaks is mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

Evangelical Change
While evangelicals resisted the secular theology and secular morality championed by liberal theologians, they were increasingly attracted, as the sixties wore into the seventies, by the idea of relevance. They took the initiative to secularise. The Jesus People mimicked the hippy culture, adopting it with a Christian veneer, experimenting with folk-style choruses. The momentum was towards a 'relevant' message with a relevant Bible and relevant worship in order to evangelise effectively. Addressing God as 'Thee' and 'Thou' was replaced by reference to God as 'You', which was more accessible for the modern man (though not biblically accurate). The Bible had to be re translated and made relevant by means of the thought for thought approach adopted in the NEB. Robert P Martin has commented appropriately on such secularised translations: 'Unlike the modern newspaper, the Bible was never meant to yield the fullness of its message to those who are only willing to expend the absolute minimum of effort necessary'.

One of the principal translators of the 'New English Bible', Prof. Kenneth Grayston eptomised this attitude when he said: ‘Modern English, it seems to me, is slack instead of taut, verbose and not concise, infested with this month’s cliché…it seems to me a repository for the bad habits of foreigners speaking English. This is how we must speak if people are to listen and grasp what we say’. Some evangelical authors, in similarly stressing the need to be more contemporary in the style and language of their worship, seem to want to appeal to the decline of religion and diminishing importance of the church. The church must move the Scriptures along with the times, even if that is a downward spiral. At the same time the influence of modern idiom is thought to be a Midas touch that will transform the Church entirely. The great variety of modern idiom versions in existence, however, tells us that even this idea is not that uncomplicated but rather that there is significant difference of opinion over what modern English idiom actually constitutes.

After the sixties, Evangelicals bought into the idea of a secular Bible and the secularising of religion - but they did not buy (wholesale at least) secular theology or morality. Arguably, evangelicals on each side of the Atlantic have adapted even more than liberals to techniques with which to expand the church and to improve self-esteem that borrow mainly from business management and psychology. Recent developments, however, have witnessed a 'megashift' in evangelical theology which uses emotive arguments in seeking to change such things as the traditional doctrine of God, the atonement, and eternal punishment. Professing 'evangelicals' are now no longer entirely united in opposition to homosexuality. In relation to Bible translation, evangelicals are divided on the issue of 'gender neutral' translations. The latter is a clear instance of rewriting Scripture to make it align with changing social values (namely the success of the women's rights movement of the sixties) rather than changing language, despite arguments for the latter.

Secularisation is not only a trend in society but also a conscious decision taken within the Church to respond to perceived trends in society by seeking to keep up with changing cultural values. The British experience since the sixties demonstrates something of this. This is not to argue against change because it is change but on the contrary, to argue against change for change's sake. There is no obligation upon the Church to secularise. Secularisation is not absolutely a force outside of our control, the church has chosen to secularise itself. This is exemplified in the area of Bible translation: why was change required during the mid-late twentieth century? Why did translation start afresh rather than seek conservative revision? The answer is that the movement was prompted by cultural change and popular prejudices rather than genuine linguistic requirements. The very real danger is that a secular Bible speaks more loudly about a secular Church than it does into the secular society to whom it has conceded so much.