To Force a Nightingale to Imitate a Cuckoo
I’ve been trolling the Lutheran blogs lately. This morning before going to church I looked in on Lutheran Confessions. His post on using the Common English Bible as the Bible in his services was quite the topic of discussion at brunch. I asked my partner to write something for me to post. Here’s what Mark Schultz has to say:
“When God began to create the heavens and the earth—”
Genesis 1:1, Common English Bible
I was recently introduced to the Common English Bible (CEB). I have to confess that I’m not generally a fan of contemporary translations of the Bible, not so much because I’m an old fuddy-duddy—which, okay, if I’m honest with myself, I kind of am—but because I’m conscious that a translation, any translation, is burdened by its translators’ various biases, be they academic or theological. Tyndale’s 16th Century English translation of the Bible was scandalous to many of the “Old Religion” because he refused to translate ekklesia as “church,” insisting on “congregation,” and rendered presbyteros as “elder” rather than “priest,” flying in the face of the traditional understanding of the word at the time. These may seem like little things to us, but in the age of the Reformation, an age of not inconsiderable religious turmoil in England and on the Continent, reform-minded Christians could easily point to those passages of Tyndale’s translation and say to their Catholic brothers and sisters, “There’s no authority in scripture for a universal “church” institution beyond the fellowship of individual Christians and their congregations, and there’s nothing in scripture which authorizes a Christian “priesthood.” So we can do without your Pope and your big big church very well, thank you.” Not surprisingly, when King James commissioned what would become the Authorized Version of the Bible, we find the word “church” and “priest” appearing in the text. Why? In part, he didn’t want the Puritans using Scripture to undermine the authority of the established church and its hierarchy.
There is a very old Christian principle: lex orandi, lex credendi—what we pray determines what we believe. As an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, lacking a Book of Concord, a magisterium or an 800+ page lengthily-explicated catechism, the rites and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer are, quite literally, both my rule of prayer and my rule of doctrine. But the principle is broadly applicable beyond the confines of Anglicansim writ large. The language we use to pray, to worship, to talk about the Holy—this language forms our beliefs. It forms our Christian identity.
So I was recently introduced to the Common English Bible. And this was fortuitous in some ways. I had recently read some fantastic fragments of an unfinished essay on the six days of creation—Tom Davidson’s “The Days of Creation” which can be found here—so I thought to myself, “I wonder how the CEB translates Genesis 1:1.” And I was a bit dismayed. Most English translations of the Bible that I know of have “In the beginning” as their first words. The CEB has (as quoted above), “When God began” as its incipit.
What does this mean, when we apply our lex orandi, lex credendi principle? What are we invited to believe when we read and pray this scripture? Let’s begin by looking at what it is not asking us to believe. Because there are some very good and important reasons for sticking with “in the beginning.” The Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek undertaken and finished by rabbis in the few centuries leading up to the common era, translated the Hebrew bereishit as en arche. Jerome continued the precedent in his Latin Vulgate translation by using in principio. Both the Greek and the Latin eschew words that actually mean “to start” or “to begin” and go for words which (and I am indebted to Davidson’s article for this) mean something more akin to The Principle. Which is to say that we could translate the Hebrew as “In The Principle.” What does this mean? It means that we’re not talking about time—we’re talking about something more akin to Meister Eckhart’s concept of Gottheit: God in Godself, the Incomprehensible, the Great Mystery which conditions all things but is itself unconditioned by anything, God before there is anything or anyone apart from himself to which God could reveal himself as God, God transcending all the things we think of when we think of God. This is what is meant by The Principle. This is what “In the beginning” means: that all of creation arises first from the depthless depths, the blindingly radiant darkness of God’s transcendent Godness before coming to be in space and time.
Moreover, when St. John tells us of the Eternal Word, he quotes Genesis, saying en arche en o logos—in the beginning was the Word. John’s hymn to the Eternal Word which begins his Gospel tells us not only about the identity of the Word with God, but also of the relationship between the Word and all of Creation by linking his hymn to Genesis.
So what, then, does the CEB invite us to believe? That at a specific point in time (presumably time’s start, though that’s not particularly clear in the translation), God made stuff. Out of curiosity, I looked at the CEB’s translation of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. It begins, “In the beginning.” So John, in the CEB, is not referencing Genesis. For John in the CEB, the Word was in the beginning and everything was made by it, but the Word doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Genesis account of creation…which is weird, no?
If the rest of the CEB is anything like it’s Genesis translation, it seems particularly theologically impoverished.
So I was recently introduced to the Common English Bible, the website for which has this to say about it:
It’s easier than any other Bible translation to read and understand. English words that were once readily understood by Bible readers even ten years ago, today may not carry the same meaning or context. Words such as “alas,” “alien,” and “ephod,” are more quickly grasped in the 21st century when they become “oh my!,” “immigrant,” and “priestly vest.” The Common English Bible is the only translation using terms you naturally speak—a common language.
There are a couple things I’d like to quickly bring up here:
1—Reading and understanding are both incredibly valuable. But so too is struggling with a text, particularly a sacred text, prayerfully wrestling with a word or passage of Scripture in order to better understand it. “Ease” is inimical to this important struggle. “Ease” is no virtue that I can think of, particularly not in a faith that is characterized by St. Paul as an athletic contest. Our Lord’s yoke is easy and his burden is light, but taking up the cross and following Christ in the way of radical love and self-sacrifice is not a walk in the park. A Christianity which sees easiness as a potential selling-point is either selling its traditions and its theology way too short, doesn’t understand what walking the Way of the Cross means, or is just plain lazy.
2—Whether or not I know what an “ephod” is, I have no clue what a “priestly vest” is. Is it underwear for priests after the British usage of “vest?” Is it a bedazzled waistcoat? I don’t know.
3—I’m not sure of the value of a translation which uses terms I naturally speak, a translation that is indistinguishable from everyday (presumably American) English parlance. Many Orthodox Churches still use Old Slavonic as a ritual language. Latin is once more being heard with greater frequency in Roman Catholic Churches thanks to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 “Summorum Pontificum.” Elizabethan English is used in many Episcopal and Anglican Churches. Why are Latin and Old Slavonic and Elizabethan English important? Because they are precisely not what we speak in everyday parlance. Because making a distinction between the sacred and the profane is important. Why? The word “sacred” carries with it a sense of something that has been “set apart.” If everything is set part, nothing is set apart. But we recognize the set-apartness of what is sacred so that we can familiarize ourselves with it, commune with it on its own terms, in its own place. Having done so, we can, by grace, become so attuned to the sacred that we begin to discover it in other places: in our homes, in our loved ones, in our jobs, in our neighbors, in places where we would least expect it. We may eventually come to understand the whole of life and the universe as an expression of the sacred, as intimately informed by the reality of the sacred. But in doing so, we situate the sacred as the “still point of the turning world,” to use a phrase of Eliot’s, as that which gives the whole of life and the universe its fundamental meaning, its beautiful burning brilliance. Without the distinction between the sacred and the profane, we can never rapturously affirm, with Ginsberg, the holiness of all things. Why? Because we would not understand what holiness is to begin with.
Applying the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, what we have here is a Bible that can be used to form a particular Christian identity: Christianity is easy and must be theologically impoverished in order to be understood; dictionaries are hard; anything that isn’t contemporary is unfathomable; and an experience of the radically intimate Otherness of the Holy is not particularly important. To me, that’s a rather odd Christian identity to have.
So I was recently introduced to the Common English Bible. I have to say, I prefer to pray the KJV and the Coverdale Psalter. I can’t say that Coverdale’s psalter is particularly scholarly—it’s not, really. There are more accurate translations of the psalms out there (the KJV Psalms are more scholarly, the Psalms of the Jerusalem Bible are particularly observant of Hebrew poetic idioms and expressions it seems), but the Coverdale is, to my mind, the most beautiful of all the available translations. I fear that we often forget that beauty is one way, and a very important way, of apprehending and understanding the holy. In Psalm 96, we are invited to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
If we’re wondering where the artists and musicians are in our churches, we can point to a disconcerting tendency in what I’ll call the “Contemporary Christian Movement” (of which the Common English Bible is clearly a product) to remove the beautiful from it’s churches. Contemporary language may help us understand scripture in a contemporary idiom, but it won’t necessarily help us understand it as beauty or as beautiful. And if we do all in our power to make things contemporary in an effort to make them more readily comprehensible, we will eventually find that we can do without beauty, without the rough magic of poetry and myth. We’ll make for ourselves a religion without all those things that embarrass us about religion. But we’ll have something aerodynamic. Very sleek. No rough edges. Everything clear. The spiritual equivalent of an iPad. The only beauty that we’ll recognize in it is the beautiful ease with which we can use it, the ease with which we can make it serve us (a la the Prosperity Gospel so popular these days). Easy religion.
So I wasn’t too surprised to find the CEB’s psalter a bit sad. It begins (in Psalm 1:1) by adopting the shrill voice of a wretched, moralizing school marm: “The truly happy person / doesn’t follow wicked advice, / doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, / and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.” Ugh. Compare it with Coverdale’s version: “Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners : and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful.” I’m so thankful for Coverdale’s ear for poetry, especially, in this instance, his skillful use of alliteration (stood, sinners, sat, seat scornful), which adds so much to the experience of reading this Psalm aloud.
In Psalm 92:8-9, Coverdale’s version reads: “For lo, thine enemies, O Lord, lo, thine enemies shall perish : and all the workers of wickedness shall be destroyed. / But mine horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn : for I am anointed with fresh oil. / Mine eye also shall see his lust of mine enemies : and mine ear shall hear his desire of the wicked that arise up against me.” The CEB has: “Look at your enemies, LORD! / Look at how your enemies die, / how all evildoers are scattered abroad! / But you’ve made me / as strong as a wild ox. / I’m soaked in precious ointment. / My eyes have seen my enemies’ defeat; / my ears have heard / the downfall of my evil foes.” The CEB seems, to my eye and ear, a bit paltry in comparison.
Given that the Psalter is a compendium of prayers, perhaps the CEB is teaching us that it’s okay to pray to God in our own contemporary language, that it’s okay to eschew beauty and poetry once in a while when we cry to our Heavenly Abba. True enough! But let us learn from Coverdale that God speaks to us in the beauty of holiness, that in worship that is characterized by beauty, we can experience the beauty of the presence of God and be inspired by that beauty to offer beautiful gifts to the All-Beautiful One.
So I was recently introduced to the Common English Bible. I can’t say I would recommend it to anyone for worship or study. I can’t say that it expresses to me what it means to be a Christian as completely as other translations have and do. But, to be honest, it’s a sight better than The Message. Oof.
By Mark Schultz
God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations.
On a related note, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair on the importance of the King James Bible: When the King Saved God.
If that wasn’t enough here‘s a list of 122 every day phrases you can find in the King James Bible.