Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Word of the Lord: Now in 31 Flavors!

If Martin Luther could see us now.

The strongest catalyst for Scriptural and ecclesiastical reform, Luther (with the help of Gutenburg’s mildly useful invention, the printing press) popularized the idea that the people in the pews could and should be allowed to read the Bible in their own native languages. Luther himself walked the walk by eagerly translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into his native German some 75 or so years before the English church produced the immortal King James Version.

Leave it to us Americans, though, to take English translations of Scripture and cause them to multiply like proverbial rabbits. There are, to my knowledge, at least 36 English translations of the Bible produced during the 20th century, and already in the 12-year-old 21st century, at least 13 more English translations have been undertaken.

We can now add The Voice as the 14th translation to that list—a new, dynamic equivalence (meaning it tries to approximate the tone and feel of Scripture rather than create an exact, word-for-word translation) translation that is being released this month. While I do not know very much about the academics who worked on the translation, I am a fan of a number of folks on their creative team, from Brian McLaren to Phyllis Tickle and from Kristin Swenson to Matthew Paul Turner.

But it is still hard for me, a self-confessed Bible geek, to get especially excited this time around because I am still exploring and wrestling with my newest Bible version, the Common English Bible, which was just released last year (and before that, I was working with the Today's New International Version (TNIV) translation). The translations are coming too quickly for me to do justice to in my treatments of them. I like being able to return to passages and see something new in them, and that sort of exegesis is dependent upon lots of time—which necessarily limits my ability to digest new, cutting-edge translations.

And if it is too much for a pastor—someone who is bizarre enough to want to live and breathe Scripture for a living—I can so relate to the sense of being overwhelmed that other folks may feel at the sheer amount of choice there now is in picking a Bible. How do you keep up with it?

I honestly feel a little bit the same about one of the same things that Martin Luther helped give us—church affiliation. It used to be there were the Reformed churches begun by Luther, Calvin, et al, plus Henry VIII’s Church of England, plus the Roman Catholic Church itself. Then along from the Church of England came the Methodists, and along from the Presbyterians came us (the Disciples of Christ), to say nothing of the many Baptist movements, the United Church of Christ, or the various strands of Lutheranism, Pentecostalism, Mormonism, the Quakers, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

But all of those choices were not enough, so American churches began ministering as denominations unto themselves—non-denominational churches thrived and flourished, and with each one marching to the beat of its own drummer, there are still more choices for the American consumer of Christianity (for, when we commonly throw around terms like “church shopping,” what else could the American Christian be to us as pastors except a consumer? Le sigh).

The funny thing is—Luther did not originally set out to split off from the Catholic Church—he tried to reform it! Similarly, I don’t think he translated Scripture for the sake of it; he did so for a specific purpose—so that people not fluent in Latin could read the Word of God for themselves.

I can only wonder what Luther would think of all the choices that abound today…when it seems like every week another church says, “All my predecessors haven’t gotten it right, but I have!” and splits off, it seems like every year another Bible translation also says, “All my predecessors haven’t gotten it right, but I have!” (I realize that, given that my own church was founded by leaders who felt the Presbyterians hadn’t gotten it right, this criticism is perhaps hypocritical.)

Don’t get me wrong—diversity, choice, these are all good things in Christianity. Necessary things, even. And this is certainly not me trying to be lazy or anti-intellectual, either. And it isn’t The Voice’s fault—I’ll be picking up a copy of The Voice for myself in the not-too-distant future, and I expect it to have a lot of strengths as a translation. But I worry that by the time I am able to get around to it and do The Voice justice, it will have already been rendered obsolete--witness the discontinuation of the TNIV, which was announced in 2009, only four years after it was first released. Oof.

Really, after a certain point, aren’t we all on the same team? Eventually, don’t you reach a level of diminishing returns on the differences between denominations or translations? There are definitely times when a new church, a new translation--a new way of approaching God--is absolutely called for. But are we doing this so frequently that we're overextending ourselves and missing the forest for the trees?

In other words…at what point does, say, choosing between Bible translations basically become the same as choosing between French fries and onion rings?

Yours in Christ,

PS: Speaking of Luther...if you want a good chuckle or two, try having him insult you at your whim here!

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