Friday 15 January 2010

Dumbing down the Good Book

Concordia Publishing House executive Paul McCain tries to convince disgruntled Missouri Synod members that the ESV is easier to read than the NIV in a recent posting. This may indicate that at least some of the normally docile sheep are less than happy with the choice of the ESV (a revision of the old RSV that's been tarted up for the conservative market) for Concordia's new Study Bible.

The assumption behind the post seems to be that easy-to-read English bibles are good. So what if translators themselves sometimes have no idea what an expression, or even a whole passage means? Dumb that sucker down anyway, and while you're at it, make sure it's skewed to put our church's theology (whatever that might be) in the best light.

A link on the McCain blog caught my eye. The nice people at Zondervan (owned by Rupert Murdoch) have provided "reading levels" for various translations.

The Message 4.3
Good News 6.0
New Living 6.3
NAB (Catholic) 6.6
NIV 7.8
ESV 8.0
NKJV 8.0
NRSV 10.4
NASB 11.0
KJV 12.0

I'm not sure how McCain deduces from this that "The publishers of the New International Version have issued their own “readility” [sic] analysis, and the ESV beats the NIV here too!" McCain continues: "There is some misinformation on the web that places the ESV on a 10th grade reading level. That may be a case of misunderstanding or of someone trying to shore up the NIV’s market position, which has been badly damaged by their decision to use gender inclusive language and by competition with the ESV."

These guys hate inclusive language. Why? And why assume that bible readers in the vacuous category of "laity" are all as dumb as a brick? On the inclusive language issue, here are some wise words from translator Nicholas King:

"Throughout this translation we have adopted the policy of using inclusive language, that is to say, not speaking of 'man' or 'men' or 'the sons of men' when referring to all members of the human race. This has the undoubted benefit of making it clear that the particular text does not restrict itself to just one gender. It brings with it two difficulties, however. First, it obscures the fact that the society that produced these texts was a patriarchal one, that is to say it was run by the (male) head of the household, and that its texts are androcentric, that is to say, written from an exclusively male point of view. The second difficulty is that using inclusive language can sometimes make for very awkward English; but it is a price worth paying to avoid the appearance of excluding half the human race from God's sphere of attention."

As for the one-eyed pointscoring between the ESV and NIV, it has all the charm of Coke vs. Pepsi.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Camping it up in Chronicles

Following a provocative link from the Dunedin School blog, I landed upon a contribution by Ocker academic Roland Boer in the online Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. After quickly running through the obligatory series of Tim the Toolman grunts, I girded my loins and began reading.

Boer unleashes himself upon the books of Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible with the observation that "this phallic world [of Chronicles] is not as firm as it seems." Chronicles portrays a utopian (or uchronian if you prefer) retelling of Israelite history from the standpoint of the Levites.

And what an interesting bunch these lads were according to Boer.

First, the dimensions of the temple recorded in 2 Chronicles (which differ from 1 Kings) indicate "a massive phallic tower."

Second, there are those "begats" which chart the exclusively male lineages. No mention of the role of women here. "The genealogies become a huge story from the beginning of time of pregnant men, waddling about, belly-buttons popped out, waiting for the birth of yet another son from their own bodies."

Third, there is "an extraordinary concern with interior design; and an intense emphasis on those crucial cultic items such as utensils, incense, spices and freshly baked bread." Don't be fooled by those butch passages where the mighty men wield "swords and massive spears as though they were prosthetic penises (see 1 Chronicles 11:10–47)." Those mighty men of 1 Chronicles 11 for example - the ones who ran off to get water for their thirsty king - turn out, on closer inspection, to be more like the Three Stooges.

Fourth, there's the floor show:

"[T]owards the end of the second book of Chronicles we meet King Jehoshaphat, face to face with the marauding army of the Ammonites, Moabites and men of Mount Seir. Unfazed, Jehoshaphat asks God what he should do (2 Chronicles 20:1—17). The answer: sing! Forget complex maneuvers like ambushes, pincers or disciplined advances under cover of the archers. No, faced with the enemy, Jehoshaphat ‘appointed those who were to sing to Yahweh and praise him in holy array’ (2 Chronicles 20: 21)... Battle as a musical..."

Then there's the interior decorator motif:

It begins with David, who is no hack when it comes to interior design, and then that organizational skill passes (genetically?) on to Solomon. David leaves Solomon a detailed shopping list for an exclusive home furnishings store (see 1 Chronicles 28:15-18 and 29:3)...

Once the temple was up and running, what was the function of the Levites?

What do real men do in Chronicles? They concern themselves with crockery and cutlery, furniture, fine flour, wine, oil, incense, spices, flat cakes and showbread. Everywhere we find the singers; released from any other service, they were rostered on to sing day and night (1 Chronicles 9: 33). Picture the scene: the men in the temple, finely dressed and perfumed, mix the spices, cook the flat cakes, arrange the furniture, ensure that the holy crockery and cutlery are correctly ordered; as they go about their tasks, they are surrounded by groups of singers and choristers who launch into song 24/7. A musical? An early version of piped music? Masculine?

Boer concludes: "It is a text full of queers doing their thing, whether in the genealogies of men begetting men, in the comic machismo of the ‘mighty men’, in the interior design of the temple, or in the attention to the finest detail of temple organization and decoration."

I really have no idea how serious Boer is. Is this meant to reshape our understanding of Chronicles, or is it a clever piece for those "in the trade" to chortle over, beer in hand (or perhaps a nicely chilled Chardonney), on a Friday night? The man himself cheerfully states: "I like speaking my mind, being misinterpreted, and scaring the shit out of good, upright and conservative citizens."

If you want to tackle the full article, be aware that it's couched in academic-speak designed to swat away the casual reader, so perseverence may be required.

One thing I do know, I'll never be able to think of the books of Chronicles in quite the same way again!