Tuesday, February 07, 2006

the cult of the modern in contemporary bible translation

Evangelicalism is dominated by the cult of the modern. The term 'modern' is not about history or time so much as quality, everything must be new, and simply because it is new it is immediately original, different and transcends all that was previous. Modernity tears itself from tradition and history and so is forever engaged in repeating itself. The cult of the modern produces a society of the spectacle because the craving for endless novelty is the same as the craving for the spectacular. In this evangelicalism simply mirrors and apes the corrupt mindset of western society.

When we understand what evangelicalism has done with the Bible in the light of this, it is clear that modern bible versions carry the labels 'new', 'contemporary' and 'modern' with very good reason. The fashion for speciality (consumer group pinpointed) Bibles, inclusive language Bibles or tabloid editions (that borrow the format and language of newspapers such as The Daily Mirror or The Sun) is an obvious demonstration of this. Slang paraphrases such as The Message also participate in this, especially in its replacing of New Testament terms and phrases with particularly New Age sounding vocabulary (Life-Light, God-Colors, God-Expression, true selves, child-of-God selves).

The cult of the modern runs much deeper, however. Since the cult of the modern rejects all that is previous, modern-minded translators have thrown out the principle of conservative progress. Robert Rollock, the Scottish Reformer, emphasised this principle in stating that, once a translation has been made into a language, no new translation needs to be made thereafter, only revisions: "the whole translation needs no renewing, but some words which haply [perhaps] are become obsolete and out of use". The translators of the Authorised Version saw themselves in the role of simply making previous English translations better, thus they retained an overwhelming identity with William Tyndale's translation. They said: "we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one but to make a good one better". In line with the principle of conservative progress there have also been modest, minor revisions of the Authorised Version since it was first translated.

Modern-minded translators, have, however, pretended that the Bible was never before translated into English, or that any attempt to connect with the heritage of translation into English is worthless. Thus they have consciously cut themselves adrift from this heritage. Gerald Hammond (former Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester) surveying this from expert understanding of Renaissance Bible translation, finds the arrogance of modern-minded Bible translators breathtaking, in that they have "unmade a Bible which took ninety years to make, and which held the imaginations and emotions of its readers for three hundred and fifty years" (The Making of the English Bible, p.13). The modern-minded translator pursues the goal of making the Bible to speak as much in modern idiom as if your next door neighbour had written it. This not only rejects the importance of history, but also any kind of English idiom other than that which can be called 'new' or 'modern'. Such supposedly contemporary idiom is actually artificial. It is manuafactured and constrained by the dominance of journalism and the popular media with their 'dumbing down' of the language through a preponderance of clich├ęs (see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death - Public Discourse in an Age of Showbusiness). In our day "the main source of popular superstition is radio and TV both using for the most part a language debased beyond anything publicly available in the past" (CH Sisson, Backgrounds for the Bible, p.91). These media are characterised by the cult of the instant; everything must be immediately available and accessible and no demands must be made upon the audience.

In their haste to force the Bible to speak in this idiom, modern-minded translators have forgotten that "the Bible is not a pulp novel but the Word of the living God. 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" (Robert P. Martin). The 'dynamic-equivalence' philosophy of translation which lies behind almost every modern version seeks to reproduce (what the translator believes to be) the original thought of the writer in modern idiom rather than seeking words that correspond directly to those that the author has used. Prof. Gerald Hammond contends that in rejecting the unfamiliar and replacing it with the familiar, modern versions have forfeited the right to be regarded as translations: "to translate meaning while ignoring the way that meaning has been articulated is no translation at all but merely replacement - murdering the original instead of recreating it". "While the Renaissance Bible translator saw half of his task as reshaping English so that it could adapt itself to Hebraic idiom, the modern translator wants to make no demands on the language he translates into".

The assumption with modern-minded translators is that "a modern Bible should aim not to tax its readers’ linguistic or interpretative abilities one bit. If this aim is to be achieved then it seems likely that a new Bible will have to be produced for every generation - each one probably moving us further away from the original text, now that the initial break has been made" (Hammond). Indeed this is the estimation of publishers of the modern versions, that translation will need to be revised in the light of modern language every 25-50 years. The cult of the modern ensures this. The current climate of thought and attitude that involves a rejection of authority, absolutes and history - generally summarised under the term 'postmodernism' may bear its influence in ways that we have failed to observe. "Nothing is more damaging to the authority of Scripture than for readers to think, "it is only a translation, tomorrow there will be a new one" (Jakob van Bruggen). As the sea of modern Bible versions continues to fill the versions compete with each other to achieve 'street-language'. The truth is that they are competing to go the furthest from the biblical text. The tide shows no signs of returning.

Is it really such a good thing to have as many translations as possible? Perhaps we ought to ask a different question in order to answer this. Why were the Scriptures given in writing? The puritan John Flavel answers this: "that the church to the end of the world might have a sure, known, standing -rule, to try and judge all things by, and not be left to the uncertainty of traditions, John 5:39". The Westminster Confession gives similar reasons: "for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world". Does the multiplication of widely varying translations increase or diminish uncertainty and the preservation of the truth?

In the present climate of consumer group pinpointed Bible versions, tradition governs the Word. These speciality Bibles are really commodity Bibles, to be bought simply because they look nice and appealing. They are targeted to men or women, couples or youth. For instance there is the "NIV Boys Bible: Your Ultimate Manual by Rick Osborne, At last-a Bible designed just for 8 to 12 year old boys! Special Features: Focusing on Luke 2:52, study tracks help young men grow 'Deeper, Smarter, Stronger, and Cooler' in the Lord etc. etc." Commercially, speciality Bibles are ideal since one product, the Bible, can have endless makeovers. It does not concern the publishers whether Bibles are more bought than read or whether saturation point is anything more than a marketing problem. That the authority of God's Word is weakened and cheapened is irrelevant to them. Few Christians indeed seem scandalised by such blasphemy as quoted above.

Clearly, publishers have everything to gain by commissioning a new English translation of the Bible. It is their royal road to getting a slice of the market for 'the world's best seller' and their only real way of impacting the market through a copyright monopoly on one particular version. "In the twentieth century our highest praise is to call the Bible 'The World's Best Seller'. And it has become more and more difficult to say whether we think it is a best seller because it is great, or vice versa" (Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or Whatever Happened to the American Dream, New York: Atheneum, 1962, p.121-122). The need to make the Bible breathlessly pursue whatever direction contemporary idiom is believed to have taken, or the perceived need to communicate, seems to have a happy and convenient marriage with the need (financially) to accumulate. Truth is up for grabs in the pluralist market of consumer choice.

The spiritual consequences of the cult of the modern are very serious in that it means that we cut ourselves off from a rich heritage. "Most of the pieties that made up traditional Protestant piety are now meaningless to the contemporary Christian. The language and vocabulary of such piety have become empty and hollow" (Edward Farly). Thus the biblical language of Christian doctrine with words such as justification, propitiation etc. has been discarded. A translation such as the Contemporary English Version has thrown out such 'biblical jargon' with alacrity. A passage such as Romans 3:24 becomes completely rewritten from "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" to "God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins". Strangely the word and theme "redemption" are not even paraphrased here.

In an age that cuts down all authority the authority of the Scriptures undoubtedly is at stake. The danger of paraphrases that borrow modern idiom is that the Scriptures become shaped surreptitiously into false expressions conveying entirely inaccurate concepts. The controversy over gender-neutral versions has exposed something of this. If the language is perceived to be shifting (or more importantly if perceived shifts in language are deemed to be commercially successful) then the Word of God must shift too and be forced into politically correct-speak. It must be doomed moreover to the transience of contemporary fads and whims.

Previously it was noted that the profiteering saturation of the market with endless new and different 'translations' by modern publishers undermines that authority. Authority can be diminished through inaccurate rendering also. Remember the Living Bible "wives, try to fit in with your husbands plans" (I Peter 3:1 "ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands")? According to Oliver O'Donovan, "An authority...is something which, by virtue of its kind, constitutes an immediate and sufficient ground for acting". It is not difficult to see the way in which the immediate and sufficient ground for ethical action is undermined in this instance, or indeed in the recent revision "accept the authority of your husbands" (New Living Translation), which is still far removed from "be in subjection to". It is the note of passivity that we find in modern 'translations', 1 Thessalonians 4:11 ought for instance to be translated "do your own business" and not the passive and misleading (since it draws upon a colloquial English retort) "mind your own business" which is found in most modern translations and paraphrases. It is clear that it leads on to the injunction to work with one's own hands. The force is taken out and the meaning completed misrepresented.

These translations are leaching the authority and spirituality from the Scriptures by such manhandling of its language. It is no surprise then that authority and spirituality are the two vital but absent realities presently lacking within evangelicalism. These realities come together in Paul's description of an undeniably powerful service of worship, particularly powerful for the unbeliever that comes in and is met with the force of divine revealed truth: "falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth" (1 Corinthians 14:25). Somehow 'seeker-friendly' dogma doesn't seem to emphasise this.

Paraphrases that restate the scriptures in terms of the spirit of the age are not in fact anything new, Edward Harwood produced one such in the eighteenth century. Forthwith the Scriptures are made to speak in pretentious, rationalistic discourse tending towards Unitarian or Deist philosophy, so that the 'Lord of Hosts' becomes 'the great governor and parent of universal Nature' He paraphrased Matthew 6:28 in the following way: "survey with attention the lilies of the field, and learn from them how unbecoming it is for rational creatures to cherish a solicitous passion for gaiety and dress". If modern evangelicals paid any attention to history they might understand the dangers of perverting the Scriptures by accomodating them to the spirit and language of the age.

William Gurnall once said: "Bless God for the translation of the Scriptures. The Word is our sword; by being translated, the sword is drawn out of its scabbard". The sad truth of modern-minded translators is that they are reshaping that sword into an altogether different and more blunt instrument on the anvil of carnal preference.