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Bible Translation as Political Power Move: Social Location and the ESV

I’m currently teaching a three-part seminar among the congregation I serve on biblical interpretation. This is my second time teaching it. This time around, I couldn’t resist adding a few new slides and pages to the introductory section on translation. The occasion for this revision are the recent decisions made by the translation committee of the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible. I find them to be incredibly serendipitous, since they afford me the opportunity to show participants a powerful and relevant example of how not to translate the Bible.

Back in August, the ESV translation committee issued a statement declaring that they had completed the task entrusted to them by God of translating the Bible. They announced that there would be no more changes made to the ESV, ever. They called this the “Permanent Text.” As you can imagine, in many people’s minds this decision sounded eerily familiar. Was the ESV translation committee pulling a King James?

“The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.

The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). […] Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord […]” (1)

I only learned of the ESV Permanent Text when a Christianity Today article was shared by a friend on Facebook. Since Facebook is an infamous venue for satirical articles like those from The Onion or the new Christian satire site The Babylon Bee, I read the article’s headline and laughed out loud. “Since when does Christianity Today write satirical pieces?” I thought. But the headline wasn’t a joke. “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.” (2) Here’s the humor: the word “translation” necessarily means that the product cannot be the unchanging word of God. So, even if inadvertent, the headline is incredibly ironic. And yet, what the article details is no laughing matter.

“One of the changes the ESV translation committee made, which they were making permanent, was a revision of Genesis 3.16. Christianity Today reported: “Genesis 3:16 was changed from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (3)

Scot McKnight was the first Evangelical theologian I read who addresses this translation choice.

“…in this final revision they have sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong. […] I refer to Genesis 3:16’s use of “contrary to” for the Hebrew el. In the Permanent ESV we have “contrary to” while in the Protestant-like Semper Reformanda ESV we had “for” with “and.” […] This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism. […] If I read the ESV aright, there is prescription here: women are at war with their men; men are to rule their wives. It is not description but prescription.” (4)

One of the things I teach in my seminar is that who is doing the translating matters. No one reads, interprets, or translates the Bible objectively. Each of us is necessarily and irrevocably subjective. Every person has a “Social Location.”

In my seminar, I projected a slide with photos of each member of the ESV translation committee and asked this question: Notice anything odd?

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How do you think the fact that every member of the translation committee is a white male Complementarian affects their translation choices? Their race, gender, and presuppositions about gender roles affects their translation of the Bible exactly as you’d expect it would.

A few scholars even found their entire sentiment regarding translation laughable and incredibly arrogant.

“Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.

It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.” (5)

Less than a month after issuing their statement that the ESV would never change again, the committee released a statement completely reversing their course. They apologized for the mistake of trying to make a “permanent text,” but they didn’t comment at all on the verses in question. They simply admitted that translation is a task that is never-ending.

“We have become convinced that this decision [to make the ESV Permanent Text] was a mistake. […] [our goal] …we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” (6)

Some Evangelical leaders have applauded the ESV translation committee for this reversal. I’m seeing a lot of that lately. A group of white men with horrible judgment defend their horrible decisions against all opposing opinions and when a critical mass of people are convinced they are wrong, they reverse their decision with a surface-level apology and people applaud them as if they are morally courageous.

Let me be clear: the ESV translation committee has done nothing worthy of praise. Nothing. They have horrible judgment and made a horrible decision and when they were sufficiently condemned and ridiculed for it, reversed their decision to what it should have been all along. That is the opposite of commendable; it’s shameful.

They have done nothing to date to address direct insights like those offered by McKnight that their translation is dangerously wrong. Nothing. Zero. Nada.

I refuse to applaud a bunch of white men who conspired to use their power and privilege to influence millions of American Christians toward their view of gender roles using their significant publishing resources and distribution networks, and when they were embarrassed, decided to walk it back …some. Nope. Not praiseworthy. Shameful.

The ESV is not an example of a pious offering of scholarship unto the Lord. The ESV is a political power move made by white men fighting the culture wars against their foes, the “progressives.”

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  1. ESV Translation Committee, “ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016)” (accessed August 20th, 2016)
    [ https://web.archive.org/web/20160820002244/http://www.esv.org/about/pt-changes ]
  2. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God,” Christianity Today (September 9th, 2016) [ http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/after-tweaking-29-verses-bible-esv-english-standard-version.html ]
  3. Ibid.
  4. Scot McKnight, “A New Stealth Translation: ESV,” Jesus Creed (September 12th, 2016) [ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/09/12/the-new-stealth-translation-esv ]
  5. Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon, “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible?
    They Must Be Joking,” Domain Thirty-Three (September 13th, 2016) [ https://domainthirtythree.com/2016/09/13/a-permanent-text-of-the-esv-bible-they-must-be-joking ]
  6. ESV Translation Committee, “Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text” (accessed September 12th) [ https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text ]
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The Bible is Not a Database: 
A Very Brief Reflection on Biblical Interpretation 
in the Digital Age

A few years back, I misplaced something, and instead of thinking, “Where did I last see it?” I unconsciously thought, “I’ll just run a Spotlight search for it” …as if every item in my house (and presumably the rest of my life) was indexed in Mac OS X. That was the moment I realized using computers had literally changed the way I think. Even though I’m the furthest thing from a luddite, I was forced to acknowledge that the affect technology was having on me (especially on how I think) was not entirely positive. I was becoming more aware of a specific example of how the practices in which we participate form the way we think. And this new way of thinking, in turn, affects all we think about—including the Bible.

When it comes to our understanding of Scripture, how we access the Bible matters a lot. Technological changes in the way we read and interact with Scripture change our conception of Scripture’s purpose.

“The medium is the message.”

For example, in the fifteenth century, a revolutionary new technology fundamentally changed the way people we able to engage with Scripture. The printing press made it possible for an individual to possess their own, personal copy of a Bible translation. This fundamentally shifted the way people interacted with Scripture. Scripture transitioned from being heard in corporate worship to being read in private. When that happened, our expectations of Scripture changed too. Rather than expecting the community to interpret the Text together, the new expectation that emerged was that the individual will interpret the Text, well, individually. This new expectation of private interpretation radically transformed the way we understand the Bible.

Today, another technological advancement is shifting our expectations of the Bible. And it’s just subtle enough that we may not notice it. Because of the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of web servers, we’ve now moved on from merely approaching the Bible as a book to be read (and therefore interpreted) privately, to approaching the Bible like a Database.

The database is a fixture of our digital lives, whether we realize it or not. It’s running in the background of all our most beloved online destinations. It powers our digital quests for both enlightenment and entertainment. This hidden dimension of the Web is what enables us to quickly access information that we would otherwise never unearth. We no longer have to read off long URLs when we want to direct people to a particular page of a website. We simply direct them to the site’s home page and recommend some concise keywords (e.g. “For more information, go to NPR.org keyword ‘Fresh Air’ ”). Many people don’t even bother using a website’s own search feature to find the information they’re looking for, they just use a search engine like Google. In fact, we no longer ‘search’ for pages on the Internet, we “google” them.

What formative power does this new practice (empowered by the database) have on our way of thinking?

For one thing, it makes us “queriers”.  When a person submits their keyword search into the search field of a database-driven website, they are “running a query.” The user has a question and the magical database elves run around finding the answer. You and I come to the Database with your questions, and we have faith that the Database has the answer.

This new way of thinking poses a serious problem for how we understand the purpose of the Bible. Approaching the Bible like a database fundamentally misunderstands Scripture’s nature. The Bible does not promise to answer our every question. In fact, the Bible has its own agenda and isn’t particularly interested in catering to our whims.

Imagine someone picking up a novel and looking for the search field. They then think to themselves, “I don’t want to read this whole book. I’m not interested in the plot, or the story the author is trying to tell. I just want to know the age of the main character. Why can’t I just ‘google’ the answer to my question?”

Well, the reason one cannot simply ‘google’ the answers to one’s Bible queries is because the Bible is a Story, with a plot, and the particular Story the Author is telling is what matters, not our questions. When we fail to recognize this, we will inevitably misuse the Bible.

To understand what the Bible teaches, one has to understand the Story the Bible is telling.

To know the answers the Bible supplies, one has to know the questions the Bible is addressing.

The Story of the Bible is about God and God’s Kingdom.

The Bible is the Story of how the Creator God is restoring the whole creation.

The Bible is the Story of the how the Rescuing God is redeeming all of humanity.

The Bible is the Story of the God of Israel’s relationship to a particular people (Israel+Church) in a particular time and place (the ancient Near East).

The Bible is NOT the story of modern, Western people.

The Bible is NOT the story of the material origins of the universe.

The Bible is NOT the story of human sexuality and its rules.

The Bible is NOT the story of the United States of America and its exceptionalism.

If you run queries like the Bible is a database, what will come back is: “no results found.”

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The Story that Subverts the Myth: A Review of Torn by Justin Lee

Torn_Justin_LeeAuthor: Justin Lee
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Jericho Books (2012)
Language: English
Pages:
ISBN: 9781455514304

Amazon

“For a gay guy, Justin Lee is incredibly straight-laced.” That’s what I kept thinking as I read Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. I realized about half way through the book, that I was waiting and looking for the “edge” that a gay Christian author is supposed to have. I expected him to be super-opinionated, angry, vitriolic even. Why is that? It quickly dawned on me that, even though I was reading this book from a place of openness, I was nevertheless projecting my own stereotypes of gay people onto Justin. Oh how wrong was I. Justin Lee is the nicest, ‘goodie-two-shoes’ you should ever expect to have written a book on such a controversial topic. He couldn’t have had more grace and nuance. He couldn’t have broken more molds.

Does that mean I agree with every conclusion at which Lee arrives? No, not necessarily. But what it does mean is that Torn is not a book that can be easily dismissed. Lee is careful to present his story and his perspective in a very winsome way. One of the reasons Lee’s story is so powerful is because of its clear ring of authenticity. Antagonistic readers will have a difficult time claiming Lee isn’t completely sincere. Lee doesn’t come across as “having an agenda”, like the common caricature of the homosexual community holds. And Lee professes devout faith in Jesus. That is why this book will challenge any reader who thinks their position on human sexuality is unshakable.

Hearing Lee’s Story

Torn is mostly Lee’s story, which I think is a brilliant way to present his perspective on a contentious topic. I’d suspect most of Lee’s audience haven’t heard the story of a gay Christian in its entirety. Chances are good they’ve met a gay person at one time, or have a gay acquaintance. But, for the vast majority of Lee’s readers, the idea of a gay Christian is probably an oxymoron. This is precisely the false dichotomy to which Lee points in his subtitle: the “Gays-vs.-Christians” debate. For most conservative Christians in the United States, the idea that a person cannot be gay and Christian is a foregone conclusion. Torn represents a significant challenge to that idea. For starters, Lee spends a good chunk of the book explaining and re-explaining (which is actually more necessary than you might think) that many conflicts over whether a person can be gay and Christian are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of definition. When Lee says he’s gay, he doesn’t mean that he practices homosexual sex, he means that he is attracted to other men. In other words, for Lee, being gay means that he is same-sex oriented. This is in contrast to so-called “ex-gay” ministries, that Lee spends a lot of time talking about. These ministries purport to “cure” homosexuality, by which they mean they teach people not to act on their attraction. However, they market themselves (or at least they did when Lee was involved) as curing same-sex attraction, orientation, altogether. This is shown to lead to their downfall, when many prominent leaders and “success stories” admit they continue to be attracted to the same sex. And many who thought they were “cured”, weren’t. So, for readers, one of the biggest take-aways is clarity around definition. This small distinction alone is a significant piece of the puzzle!

Lee’s story also breaks nearly all the stereotypes, which are a big part of the problem. For Lee, “misinformation” is the root cause of the “Gays-vs-Christian debate”. He believes, and I think rightly, that if Bible-believing Christians would simply hear his story with open minds and hearts, they would see that a lot of what they’ve believed has been incorrect. For example, Lee directly confronts the theories that homosexuality is a result of sexual abuse, distant fathers, overbearing mothers, sinful depravity, or any combination of these. He also attempts to show that there are very good reasons to believe that homosexuality is biologically hardwired from birth. One of greatest marks of Lee’s humility was when he admitted that the science is inconclusive—something that “ex-gay” theorists with far less data supporting their ideas have been reluctant to acknowledge. I found that to be a strong demonstration of Lee’s Christian character.

Lee’s story is not unlike the stories of many, many Evangelicals, who have grown up in suburban, Bible belt, U.S. culture. And in many ways his childhood was a lot more “normal” than many of them! As he recounted all the many privileges he enjoyed as a child, I tried to think of anyone I knew who had it as good as he did, but I could think of no one. The only difference that might exist between Lee’s and the stories of other Evangelicals, is that Lee discovered he was gay. Demolishing the stereotype that gay people “choose” to be gay, Lee walks readers though his agonizing journey to realizing his same-sex orientation. I can’t imagine any readers envying his predicament. And yet, no matter how dark it seemed at times (and for Lee it did get very dark), the one thing that sustained Lee, was his faith. It was perhaps his faith that saved his life!

The ‘Clobber Verses’

In Torn, Lee not only tackles the psychological misinformation and breaks common stereotypes about gay people, but he also the challenges the common understanding of the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to the biblical data on homosexuality. Some call these the “clobber verses” because these are the verses that are routinely trotted out as iron-clad evidence that homosexuality is a sin and against God’s will. In Lee’s own story, he recalls countless times, while he was still in deep inner turmoil over his newly-acknowledged same-sex attraction, when he was in desperate need for Christian love and support. But, instead, as soon as he told his friends and ministers that he was gay—out came the “clobber verses.”

There’s no doubt that the academic Evangelical community will rip Lee’s exegesis to shreds and re-affirm their traditional interpretation. There is no doubt they will say “Lee isn’t a trained exegete.” And they are right! However, that fact actually worked in reverse, much like how the perceived weakness of Jesus was actually his power. Because Lee isn’t a seminary-trained Bible scholar, readers can hear in his account of how he approaches these passages, his reverent fear, not scholastic hubris. In Lee’s section on the relevant Bible verses, I trust that the reader will be struck by the humble and sincere way that Lee approaches the Bible: as God’s word, to which he must submit and obey. Lee is not looking for “loopholes” or “excuses” to be gay. In fact, at one point, after fighting for many years not to be gay, but surrendering to the fact that he is regardless, Lee submits himself to God in prayer in a way that brought this reader to tears. I couldn’t help but think, “If I were gay, would I have the humility and reverent trust to submit myself to God like that?” Lee not only showed me how a gay person submits himself or herself to God, Lee showed me how a Christian submits himself or herself to God.

As you might expect, Lee discovers that the traditional interpretations of the common passages used to condemn homosexuality aren’t as clear cut or straight forward as they’ve been made out to be. This will likely not come as a surprise to anyone younger than 40. We who have developed Christian faith in a postmodern world, have already learned what so many in modernity failed to recognize: Everyone who reads the Bible, interprets the Bible. And our interpretations are always, necessarily, filtered through the lenses of our experiences, our social location, and our prior theological commitments. There is no avoiding this fact. Does that mean that the Bible can mean anything whatsoever? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that if you have never read or listened to the story of a gay Christian man like Justin Lee, you might project your stereotypes about gay people onto the Bible, just like I projected my stereotypes about gay people onto Lee as I began reading Torn.

Critique & Praise

Torn doesn’t end the discussion about homosexuality and Christianity, but I’m sure that wasn’t Lee’s intent. I’m confident Lee intended not to end the conversation, but to advance the conversation beyond empty rhetoric and misinformation. So, that isn’t really a critique. I will say this: I was disappointed in Lee’s reductionistic understanding of “the Gospel”. The few times he does attempt a description, it is apparent that he has fallen prey to a different type of misinformation. Lee’s “Gospel” is a gospel of personal forgiveness and a ticket to heaven. The gospel he articulates is what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel” which he and N. T. Wright have devastatingly opposed in many of their writings, not least of which is The King Jesus Gospel. This disappointment left me with a nagging question: How much more powerful would Lee’s testimony and perspective have been if this whole conversation had been couched in a more robust, theologically-rich understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God? Perhaps we’ll never know, or perhaps another will come along who will offer a perspective on living as a gay Christian with an eye toward the renewal of all things.

I was also a bit disappointed that Lee does not interact with the words of Jesus around sexuality and marriage. For me, Jesus’s words are of utmost importance, since they are the words which called forth the apostles who wrote the other passages Lee covers, and the words of the One who fulfilled the Old Testament. In particular, I would have liked to have heard Lee’s take on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seems to reaffirm the Old Testament assumption that marriage is between a man and a woman. That would have been nice.

Overall, I thought Torn was brilliantly subversive. Lee uses his own story: the story of a “normal” Evangelical, with all the trappings of that subculture, to show that gay men aren’t as other as they’re made out to be. And he uses his own journey of faith to challenge and subvert the myth that being gay and being Christian are antithetical. If anything, Lee demonstrates that as a gay man, he has had to trust in his relationship with God in many more moments of crises than most straight Evangelicals have had to. And as a gay man, Lee finds himself in beautiful solidarity with the Man who was despised and rejected, acquainted with sorrows. For Lee, being gay is an indispensable part of his faith journey because it is a part of that way God has shown himself faithful to Lee. This is a story that every Evangelical can celebrate and enter into.