Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Real Issue is Language

I read somewhere this week that a popular version of Scripture is going through another revision. It seems the NIV is going to tackle contemporary and inclusive language again. As soon as that announcement was made, the critics started lining up, claiming it was all an effort to be politically correct instead of textually sound and vowing to thwart the process. I'm as interested in textual accuracy in Scripture as anybody. I spent as much time in Scripture as most pastors do, and, even though the NIV is not my preferred translation, I know it is the one many people, including members of my own congregation, use. So I agree that it is important to preserve the purest form of the text we can render. But a real issue in rendering texts in English is one no one ever talks about--a fundamental shortcoming of our language lies in the way we deal with gender. I grew up and learned grammar in the day when the masculine gender for pronouns was always the one we used when we didn't know the gender or when we were referring to both. Those days are gone, and they're not coming back. The problem is that English pronouns are gender-based. I fail to see what harm gets done when we render what everyone used to agree was intended to men both men and women in a way that doesn't alienate some. I know that Scripture comes from cultures that were much less gender-inclusive than ours. But I also know that our goal as sharers of faith is to share faith with real people who live today, not people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. So if we can say brothers and sisters, when the text just really says something masculine, who gets hurt? The pronouns cause another whole set of problems, but there are ways around those issues, too, if we think about them. I rant all the time about language not being important enough to the communication process anymore, but I don't mean that language or even text is a god we ought to worship. Language is a tool to help us to communicate God's gracious inclination toward us. Some who know me will be surprised that I know anything about tools. (I'm reminded of Ryne Mantooth, a VBS participant twenty years ago who asked his mom who I was trying to kid when he saw me coming up the hall with the janitor's toolbox after VBS one day!) The first electric drill I ever owned had an orange cord dangling off it. It couldn't do half as much as the ones I see in Lowe's these days. Tools have a way of changing and adapting to serve the purpose for which they exist. If language is a tool, why can't we let it do the same thing? Whatever we can do to make the promises of Scripture more accessible to everyone is a good thing, right?
I won't be sitting in any of the editorial meetings that produce whatever the new NIV turns out to be. I hope those who will be will remember how important their work is and not be deterred by folks who have another whole agenda.

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