Bible study night. Groan. "Let us try to express the passage in our own words", suggests the meeting leader, helpfully. But what am I supposed to do with 'iniquities', 'apostle', 'gentiles', 'rebuke' or even 'Lord'?!
If we are honest, even though many Christians find parts of God’s word to be powerful, the Bible itself seems to need constant repackaging and reformulation to make sense to our ever changing world.
With declining interest in the Christian message, today's Bible translators have a tough job on their hands. How can the Bible rebrand itself, not just as yet another attempt to be more modern, but as a collection of life-changing texts that is available for all humans, wherever they are at, whatever language they speak and even whatever their religious affiliation?
The problem is not with our scriptures. What we call 'the Bible' has all the power it needs already, but a wake-up call is being rung about the religious language we use to express it. For a spiritually thirsty generation that is allergic to religious vocabulary, I fear that sticking to our guns on words like 'merciful' and 'rebuke' and 'Lord' will distance Christianity further and further from where people are at, both inside and outside the Church. Literally, shockingly, sadly and ironically: separating people from God.
It is exceedingly difficult to imagine Christian faith and practice without lordship language featuring strongly. We find "the Lord" throughout the Bible. It's in our worship songs, Sunday school classes and devotional resources. The term utterly dominates anglophone Christianity. But today, the main ways in which "Lord" is used are actually pretty negative, often providing the titles of villains in children’s fiction: Lord of the Rings, Lord Vader, Lord Business (Lego Movie) and of course the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter's nemesis.
Real-life figures do not really endear us to "the Lord" either, with warlords, overlords and drug lords (landlords anyone?!). And thanking someone else by means of an old expression of deference - "thank you, my lord" - appears very odd to most people, even to Christians.
We may soon (but gradually) start to bid a grateful farewell to the English term "Lord" that has served the Church well for over 600 years. I believe we can begin to foster acceptance within the translation community and beyond that we need to harness meaningful and contextualized alternative terms of deference.
Hang on a second, are you suggesting we play fast and loose with God’s holy word? The opposite! One problem we have with religious lingo is a misunderstanding of how accuracy plays out. Accuracy is sometimes described as "getting as close to the original text as possible" (NIV). But what if the original words at the time were not religious? What if the wording was contemporary? Would translating the texts religiously and archaically not actually be introducing a measure of distortion and distance to today’s readership?
Some of the vocabulary we've become used to needs to be dropped if we are to remain truly accurate. But other expressions need welcoming to the fold. We have a profoundly developed and rich understanding of fundamental aspects of being human, yet some of this language is acutely under-represented in the timeless word of God. You almost certainly don't come across the following words and phrases when you read the Bible: responsibility, empowerment, commitment, authenticity, ecology, reality, manipulation, brokenness, confusion, the planet, universe, sorry, or thank you.
Bible translation committees are to be thanked for their incredible work. We have come so far! But please, let's not stop now. The finishing line is retreating before us. I for one do not wish 'the saints' to keep 'stumbling', 'under a yolk', of false 'iniquity' and fear of 'the Lord’s' terrible 'rebuke'. Rather, please empower God’s people and all humans with words that help us connect to God, to others and to ourselves.
John T. Bainbridge is a Bible translation consultant who has published various articles on the theme of translating biblical authority. He is also a presenter at the Wycliffe/SIL translation conference. He lives in the South of France, is the father of two wonderful kids and is passionate about distance running and good beer.
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