From Darkness to Light? The Trouble with Contemporary Translations

Advocates of new, contemporary “translations,” or rather, more often, paraphrases of the Bible insist that Scripture must speak with a fresh and authentic voice to each generation, in plain language readily understandable to its readers. After all, they point out, when the Bible was originally written, it was written in a contemporary idiom, in the way that normal people would’ve written and spoken in its time.  It wasn’t written, we are told, in a deliberately grand, archaic, dignified style that would make it feel more “holy” and Word-of-God-ish, which, frankly, is part of the appeal of the widespread enduring appeal of the KJV.  Indeed, such stilted language blunts the force of Scripture, lolling us into a sort of false comfort with the familiar rhythms and lofty-sounding thoughts, instead of allowing ourselves be jolted awake by its uncomfortable, real-world message.  

Now the fact is that these arguments, at least when applied to many parts of Scripture, have real force.  When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he spoke using normal vocabulary and idioms, the normal patterns of everyday speech.  He didn’t adopt a style that was four centuries old, or intone as if he was dictating a theological tome.  But many of us, I think, have trouble taking these arguments seriously, and tend to harbor a deep bias against any translation that adopts more contemporary language or a more paraphrasing approach–at any rate, I generally have.  The following passage, I think, encapsulates why many serious Bible-readers recoil from the very thought of a “contemporary translation”:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

For those who lived in a land of deep shadows— light! sunbursts of light!

You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy.

Oh, they’re so glad in your presence!  Festival joy!

The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.

The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—all their whips and cudgels and curses—

Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian.

The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,

Will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days!

For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us!

He’ll take over the running of the world.

His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.

His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.

He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom.

He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going

With fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.

The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies will do all this.

This is surely a travesty if there ever was one.  At the beginning, it’s almost tolerable, though “sunbursts of light!” certainly strikes a bad note.  But once you get to “He’ll take over the running of the world” in place of “and the government shall be upon his shoulder” and “He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living” in place of “to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness,” it’s hard not to be writhing in aesthetic agony.  


The problem here of course is that it’s not true that the whole Bible is written at the level of plain speech–far from it.  Much is written at the level of high poetry, and Isaiah is among some of the richest and highest of all.  I suppose that someone determined to translate Scripture into contemporary idiom, so that it would strike us the way it struck the Hebrews, might attempt to render Isaiah in the form of really excellent contemporary poetic style, but I guarantee you that whatever that style might look like, this is not it.  The form as well as the content of Scripture matters, and indeed, this is the strongest argument in favor of a more contemporary translation–the argument that the “form” of overly formal, archaic speech betrays those parts of Scripture that are written in pedestrian, almost conversational prose.  But here, the form of high poetry is utterly dissolved into the anti-rhythms of casual speech.  

In the process, words that are to our cultural consciousness pregnant with meaning (indeed, meaning in many cases largely given to them by centuries of being steeped in their Scriptural usage), are chucked out the window in favor of vapid and banal pseudo-equivalents.  E.g. “fair dealing” in place of “justice”; “right living” in place of “righteousness” and “keep it going” in place of “uphold.”  In one case, Peterson has attempted to actually capture richer shades of meaning in his word choice, attempting to be more faithful to the Hebrew original—in his translation of shalom as “wholeness.”  But how is this an improvement on “peace”?  Even in contemporary usage, “peace” has not quite become a flat term; it is still imbued with great depths of longing and hope, a term onto which we project all kinds of ideals.  In its canonical context, the resonances are profound.  “Wholeness” might possibly, in terms of pure denotation, capture more, but it certainly cannot in terms of connotation.


While The Message might be enough to turn off even an advocate of contemporary translations, N.T. Wright’s recent The New Testament for Everyone (or, in North America, The Kingdom New Testament), is enough to win over its staunchest opponents.  For Wright is committed to working with the grain of the text—that is to say, adopting casual and pedestrian speech when the original Greek would’ve been casual and pedestrian to its original hearers—not forcing lofty language down to the lowest common denominator.  The result is that the words of Jesus spring to life in delightfully fresh new ways—suddenly we hear the voice of a man, of one of us, and are struck as his original hearers would’ve been with the incongruity between his appearance and the authority and profundity of what he had to say.  Wright is also committed of course to capturing the full theological nuance of the text, in a way that most contemporary translations rarely seem to be.  The following passage (chosen almost at random), Luke 12:22-32, highlights the virtues of Wright’s method: 

“So let me tell you this,” he said to the disciples.  “Don’t be anxious about your life—what you should eat; or about your body—what you should wear.  Life is more than food!  The body is more than clothing!  Think about the ravens: they don’t sow seed, they don’t gather harvests, they don’t have storehouses or barns; and God feeds them.  How much more will he feed you!  Think of the difference between yourselves and the birds! 

Which of you by being anxious can add a day to your lifetime?  So if you can’t even do a little thing like that, why worry about anything else?  Think about the lilies and the way they grow.  They don’t work hard, they don’t weave cloth; but, let me tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed up like one of them.  So if that’s how God clothes the grass in the field—here today, into the fire tomorrow—how much more will he clothe you, you little-faith lot!

So don’t you go hunting about for what to eat or what to drink, and don’t be anxious.  The nations of the world go searching for all that stuff, and your father knows you need it.  This is what you should search for: God’s kingdom!  Then all the rest will be given you as well.  Don’t be afraid, little flock.  Your father is delighted to give you the kingdom.”

It’s hard to see, really, what more an advocate of contemporary translations could ask for.  This is eminently clear and accessible, it’s fresh and authentic.  Jesus really comes to life in this version, but he still seems like Jesus, like a teacher who spoke as one having authority, and not like some dude off the streets.  And all of the theological content of his words is completely preserved, even amplified.  Contrast this again to The Message, which feels the need to go much further in its search for authenticity and accessibility, to the detriment of both in my opinion: 

“He continued this subject with his disciples. “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.”

Public Theology and the Bible as Gift

Last summer at the Winchester conference, Andrew Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, presented a brilliant paper entitled, “The Bible and Public Theology,” and was kind enough to send me a copy of the paper afterward (and permit me to share some of it here).  I have been intending, for the past four months, to post something here summarizing and reflecting on some of the most fruitful and provocative insights of the paper, and at last I am getting around to it.  


Bradstock began with the vexing questions that have lain at the heart of my own work for the past three years: “Is it appropriate to introduce the Bible into public debate and, if so, how, when and to what purpose? Is it sufficient . . . simply to quote texts and assume that that makes your point or ‘clinches’ the argument? Can we take it for granted that, because we may invest a degree of ‘authority’ in Scripture, others will too?”  As someone deeply engaged in the project of “public theology,” Bradstock is eager to put the Bible back at the centre of this project, while avoiding the pitfalls that accompany many naive attempts at Christian forays into the public square.   

What is “public theology,” though?  Bradstock offered the following definition: 

“public theology is concerned with bringing a theological perspective to bear upon contemporary debates in the public square, drawing upon the insights of the Christian faith and offering its contribution as ‘gift’ to the secular world.”

However, despite a widespread interest in making use of a “theological perspective” and the “insights of the Christian faith,” many public theologians, he said, had been reticent to say too very much about how the Bible relates to the public, perhaps because Scripture is rarely perceived as a “gift” by the secular world.  However, Bradstock argued forthrightly “that a genuine public theology must emerge from an honest and open engagement with Scripture” and that “it is surely difficult to define as authentically ‘Christian’ any form of theology which accords no significant place to the text held by all the main Christian traditions as to some degree authoritative with respect to faith and practice.”

This should not be difficult, Bradstock contended, since, as he quotes David Neville, “A collection of texts that begins with the creation of the cosmos and ends with its renewal in the form of a city can hardly be said to focus on the private, rather than public, sphere”–the Biblical narrative, and the kingdom that is established in the course of it, have profound and pervasive implications for political life.  


But having established all this, we are still left with the very difficult question of how a collection of texts written thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural and political context can have anything concrete to say to public issues in our own world today–either Scripture remains concrete and specific, and hence fails to correspond to anything within our own political lives, or else it is abstracted to such a level of generality that it becomes vacuous, and capable of supporting thoroughly contrary political programs.  

But perhaps our dilemma is not quite that insoluble: “what public theology will want to argue is that, while of course the specific contexts from which the Bible narratives emerged bear little or no resemblance to situations we encounter today, the essential nature of the world, and humanity, has not changed” and hence we will not need to look far to find analogies between problems our own world faces and problems addressed by the Biblical text.  The goal will then be not to try to “apply” Scripture “willy nilly to contemporary situations,” “but rather . . . to engage the two in a dialogic, conversational and altogether more ‘dynamic’ way.”

Such a dialectic, it seems, is necessary if Scripture is to genuinely become alive for our own world in our own day, but of course, it certainly risks privileging our own modern perspective in a way that silences the voice of the Biblical text.  I was particularly struck by this when Bradstock approvingly cited Bauckham, cautioning against arguing “that since education in biblical times was not a government responsibility it should nowadays be left purely to parental responsibility, as it was then, [which] makes no more sense than to argue that in accordance with biblical precedence governments should not legislate for road safety.”  

Of course, while I would tend to agree that in this particular example, the argument from Biblical precedent is illegitimate, I know a great many people who really do argue in this sort of way.  And the problem is that they do have a bit of a point.  How much can we really separate the form of Biblical political life from its content?  Can we take principles of justice for a decentralized, agrarian society and employ them in modern nation-states, while discarding the form of ancient political organization as entirely irrelevant?  Theonomists reject this form/content distinction, arguing, for instance, that it is not merely the list of crimes that is normative, but the penal code that addressed those crimes.  This is altogether too wooden, and yet one does not want to hastily cast out the idea that we can learn something about how a community should be organized and what sort of things a government should do by looking at the Biblical narrative.  For instance, can the Jubilee law simply be abstracted from its agrarian context into an ethical principle to be used in modern debt relief, or should we also be willing to consider the possibility that it has something to tell us about better forms of social organization–that perhaps we need to recover aspects of agrarian life?  If we are too careless with discarding the form in favor of the content, we risk “plundering the Old Testament ‘as though it were so much raw material to be consumed, in any order and in any variety of proportions, in the manufacture of [our] own theological artefact’” as Bradstock quotes O’Donovan warning.

Nonetheless, as Bradstock points out, “Scripture itself is subject to a constant process of reinterpretation and redefinition” and, again quoting David Neville, he says “within Scripture itself ‘traditions are often preserved while also being reinterpreted… the Bible itself witnesses to a process in which the preservation of tradition goes hand in hand with interpretative innovation.’”

In our own innovation, however, it is important that we be guided by a clear hermeneutic, one ruled by the texts’ own interior logic, if we are “to enable public theology to avoid simply choosing those parts of the Bible which suit its case.”  Bradstock does not want to rule out any sort of picking and choosing, however.  Rather, if public theology is to offer its contribution as “gift,” this will shape what resources of the text we decide to draw on.  “If an objective of public theology is to reflect the exhortation of the prophet Jeremiah (29.7) to the exiled community in Babylon to ‘seek the welfare of the city’, its choice of biblical resources will be shaped by that intent.” 

Here again I have some misgivings.  For although this text is frequently quoted, it is rarely observed that, though Jeremiah might advise this to the exiles in Babylon, he does not advise those in Jerusalem to seek the welfare of Jerusalem (at least, except in a very long-term sense), and he is certainly not seen by the authorities as interested in offering any kind of “gift” to the society.  Rather, his message is all one of pessimism and judgment.  Although this would probably not be a fair indictment of Bradstock’s own actual practice, I do worry that the principles he articulated could perhaps have a tendency to screen out the more unpleasant and challenging bits of Scripture and dwell too much on the more obviously appealing and “useful” bits.  There is a time to build up and a time to tear down, and the Scriptures have an essential role to play in both. 

In short, we must indeed offer the contributions of the Bible as “gift” to the secular world, but ever mindful that some of the truest gifts may seem painful and unwelcome at first.  


In any case, this reflection only skims the surface of Bradstock’s paper, and does not even touch on some of the richest insights of the latter part of his paper.  The full version will be appearing in the forthcoming The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society (the same volume as my essay “Sola Scriptura and the Public Square”), so I highly recommend checking it out there.

Documentary Round-Up Pt. 3: The War in Iraq and the KJB

The War You Don’t See (2011):

 Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Back when I was spewing venom about the obsequious media response to the prospective war in Libya, a friend recommended this documentary to me, and I finally got around to seeing it a couple weeks ago.  It’s made by John Pilger, a veteran English documentarian who has made a business of unmasking the powers that be for more than three decades (though this is the first film of his that I’ve seen).  Indeed, with his track record, it’s surprising that he was able to get any higher-ups to sit down and consent to an interview with him.  Many of them don’t come off looking very good at all, and Pilger has no hesitation in contradicting them to their faces when they try to BS their way through awkward questions.  Of course, being English, he’s still too polite to go for the kill and elicit the kind of angry outburst that Ferguson gets in Inside Job.  Also, the film appears to be on a considerably lower budget than Inside Job, and so isn’t quite as cinematically flawless; but it does pretty well considering.

The theme of this movie is the pervasive failure of the Western media (of course Pilger’s chief focus is on the British media, but the sins he uncovers there look like petty quibbles next to what many American networks are routinely guilty of) to offer a really honest and transparent account of Western military engagements.  Too often, they simply act as the public relations arm of the government, disseminating to the masses the official statements–often enough bald lies–of White House or Downing Street.  The official account is rarely subjected to any serious scrutiny, and independent reporting that calls it into question or unearths inconvenient facts is usually swept under the rug and not allowed to make it to press.

Unsurprisingly, Pilger devotes particularly blistering criticism to the way the major news sources handled the lead-up to the Iraq War, repeating without qualification the false information government sources fed them and tripping over themselves to flatter national leaders.  Once the war started, he shows how the media practice of “embedding”–getting military permission to have reporters stationed with certain units–meant that those reporters by and large only got to see what the military wanted them to see, and when they saw something different, they generally felt pressure not to report it so as not to lose their “embed” status.  The result is that viewers generally only get to see the war from the perspective of their own triumphant troops, not from the standpoint of the civilians who are suffering.  Pilger discusses how, even though civilian casualties are mentioned in the media, they are often understated and are given only as statistics–viewers are never invited to share the pain of the victims and their families.  And he cites one arresting statistic of his own–in WWI, civilians accounted for less than 30% of all casualties, in WWII around 50%, in Vietnam around 70%, and in the Iraq War over 90%!  All this time I had supposed that, however bad civilian casualty rates were now, at least we were getting better and better at minimizing them.  Apparently not, and no wonder, when a single US GI death brings as much public outcry as the deaths of 100 civilians.  

Pilger also looks at warped media coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this is in Britain, where I always thought they were remarkably pro-Palestinian!); and gives some interesting attention to the Wikileaks issue (including an interview with Julian Assange).


So why does this happen?  Here is where I thought Pilger’s film could’ve done rather more.  A lot of the answer that seems to come up in his interviews with people is that it’s the embedding phenomenon–in Washington and London as much as in the field.  To get a lot of information, reporters need to gain the favor of government officials, who will supply them with information.  But this means that they are limited to sharing the information that those officials want them to know and to pass on.  If they should ever do research on their own account that contradicts the official story, they’ll immediately be threatened with losing their special access.  And so the pressure to conform is tremendous.  

However, there’s another, deeper problem that emerges when Pilger is interviewing some particularly defensive media executives, which is a confusion about what it is that the news media are supposed to do–a false ideal of democracy.  Defending themselves against Pilger’s question, a couple of execs insist that they never told viewers that such-and-such official report was true, they simply passed it on as it was, and left it up to the viewer to decide about the truth of it.  Their job, they insist, is simply to be a conduit for facts and opinions that come to their attention; it is then up to ordinary citizens to decide what to make of these facts and opinions that are passed along to them.  Our society is frightened to death of elitism and paternalism, and idolizes least-common-denominator democracy; so the news media insist they must not take any responsibility for interpreting, investigating, and cross-examining information–that is the citizen’s job.  But of course, this ignores the fact that most ordinary citizens simply do not have the time and the means to properly investigate government claims and media reports–they must opt either to assume a perenially skeptical posture (as I do), or to presume that what the authorities tells them is usually true (which most still seem to do).  They rely on media to sort through things for them and get to the truth of the matter.  But the media (at least as represented by some of the people Pilger is interviewing) is busy trying to shove this responsibility off onto the government, which is hardly the most impartial source.  Pilger presses them a bit on this point, but not as strongly as he could have.

I also would’ve liked to see him talk about how part of the problem is the instinctive patriotism and war-lust that seems to so easily seduce all people, modern Western reporters as much as anyone.  So many of the people he talks to admit to just having gotten caught up in the excitement of it all and not wanting to ask any hard questions.


Needless to say, an illuminating, challenging, disturbing and sobering film all round.  Now I’m going to have to go check out some of Pilger’s other work.



KJB (2011): The Book that Changed the World

 Message: N/A
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Now for something completely different!  This is not a strict documentary at all, but a hybrid docu-drama, with a generous sampling of live action mixed throughout the documentary interviews and narration.  Although it’s very politically-charged in its own way, the politics in question happened four hundred years ago, so it doesn’t seem quite as controversial anymore–however, there’s still plenty of controversy to go around, at least for Presbyterians whose identity is dependent on a certain narration of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. 

This docu-drama, made in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, invites the viewer to experience the complex political and religious milieu of the late 16th and early 17th century in which the King James emerged.  By doing this, rather than simply focusing narrowly on the production of the translation, its merits, and its reception, the filmmakers succeed in recreating the original wonder and drama of the King James Bible, helping viewers to really feel what a monumental accomplishment it was.  In this, they are helped in no small way by the booming and melodramatic presence of John Rhys-Davies as narrator and presenter, roaming around old buildings and libraries and rapturously inhaling from the pages of archaic manuscripts.  The best scene of all is when Rhys-Davies, to demonstrate the auditory qualities of the translation, thunders forth favorite passages from a pulpit in an old stone church.  

But it was perhaps King James himself who stole the stage.  Although a no-name actor on a very rushed and under-budgeted production schedule, he (see, I still don’t even know his name) does a fine job of bringing this brilliant and enigmatic monarch to life.  The scene where he brazenly mocks both the reactionary Anglican clerics and the over-scrupulous Puritan protesters at Hampton Court is almost worth the price of the film (at least for me, though I know most people aren’t doing their dissertation on Anglican-Puritan disputes).  The film offers a much more sympathetic (and from what I can gather, historically accurate) take on King James than we–at any rate we in Presbyterian circles–have generally been exposed to.  (I grew up in a church where the pastor would not even call it the “King James Version” lest he show any respect to the monarch that commissioned it, always referring to it obliquely as the “Authorized Version.”)  He comes across as a incredibly educated and theologically aware ruler, headstrong and defensive but deeply conscious of his duty to his subjects and to Christ’s kingdom, as well as politically savvy.  In particular, I was surprised to learn in the film how closely he was involved with the commissioning and oversight of the translation, which I had always assumed simply bore his name because he was the king who officially signed off on it.


There are only two weaknesses in this film, that account for my giving it four rather than five stars.  The first I have already mentioned–this was filmed on quite a low budget, and so one should not expect the “drama” part to be top-quality, and it’s not.  That said, it’s much better than one might expect–the costumes, acting, sets etc. are all respectable and there are few if any moments that make you wince at their corny-ness.  A bit more irritating at times is Rhys-Davies’s melodrama–indeed, if it were anyone else but Rhys-Davies, it might be intolerable, but we expect no less of him, and he has the ethos to back it up most of the time.  But occasionally, it is a bit over the top.   

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to anyone–Christian or not–who wants to learn about this most remarkable contribution to our cultural heritage and this fascinating period in history.