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Perhaps in Vanity Fair there are no better satires than letters. Take a bundle of your dear friend's of ten years back—your dear friend whom you hate now. Look at a file of your sister's! how you clung to each other till you quarrelled about the twenty-pound legacy! Get down the round-hand scrawls of your son who has half broken your heart with selfish undutifulness since; or a parcel of your own, breathing endless ardour and love eternal, which were sent back by your mistress when she married the Nabob—your mistress for whom you now care no more than for Queen Elizabeth. Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while! There ought to be a law in Vanity Fair ordering the destruction of every written document (except receipted tradesmen's bills) after a certain brief and proper interval. Those quacks and misanthropes who advertise indelible Japan ink should be made to perish along with their wicked discoveries. The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else. (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, Chapter XIX, 1848) 
Some months back, I wrote about my dismay on hearing that the editors of my go-to Bible translation, the English Standard Version (ESV), had changed the wording of Genesis 3:16 to more strongly support their beliefs about hierarchical gender relationships. Particularly upsetting at the time was the announcement that they were now so perfectly satisfied with the version they had produced that it would henceforth and forever remain unchanging.

I was far from alone in the frustration I felt. Even scholars who broadly shared the gender role convictions of the ESV committee questioned the liberties taken by the so-called "essentially literal" translators with this particular verse. And many felt betrayed by the fact that they had snuck in the change to coincide with their "finalisation" of the whole – a decision that was subsequently, in fact, reversed.

But the good news that they are now, after all, remaining open to future reconsiderations and advances in understanding is not enough to undo the disruption the episode wrought on my relationship with the Bible. The rude reminder of the presence of middle-men in my reading of it tangibly shook the joyful sense I'd long had of accessing a rich, complex, love-filled, challenge-setting, God-given account of His interaction with humankind; all of a sudden I felt like I was looking for that account amid the (trustworthy or untrustworthy?) decisions of human interpreters. I found myself increasingly comparing multiple versions, trying to make amateur sense of online interlinear Greek and Hebrew resources, and exploring the possibility of learning the ancient languages for myself, however long that might take. All of which, I'm sure, are valuable practices and aspirations to acquire – but my suspicion and distraction had begun to eclipse the (perceived or actual) content of the text, and leaving me empty. If scripture is 'spiritual food', I was dissecting everything on the plate, checking the packaging for additives, losing my appetite after a few mouthfuls, and then puzzling over funny (real or imagined?) aftertastes.

Events in the US contributed to my (self-occupied, yes, I won't pretend otherwise) sense of betrayal and uncertainty. The complicity of the (white) evangelical church in the horrible, frightening outcome of the presidential election...just...there are no words, although I have tried previously to make some (who'd have thought I'd one day have enough 'Trump' posts to warrant a dedicated blogger label?) As it happens, the ESV's General Editor, Wayne Grudem, was among the high profile leaders most conspicuously outspoken in his recommendation that Christians get behind the racist, sexist, sexually abusive, capitalist-elitist, serially-dishonest president elect. This from a man who wants to tell me how to understand the Bible...? But if I now question whether I can trust Grudem to choose the most truthful renderings of difficult, distortable truths, who can I trust? More than one Christian helped to put a renowned hate-preaching liar in charge of the country with the largest (and I'm guessing the richest and most powerful) Christian population. Whatever the interpretive priorities that made Trump seem a "morally good choice" to so many, it seems unlikely that their influence is constrained to just one Bible translation. As for those experts with perspectives more consonant with mine ... well, I feel all the more in need of reassurance that they are not just willing but actually able to lay those perspectives aside in the pursuit of unbiased accuracy. In this 'post-truth' climate the last thing I want is a translation tuned to the acoustics of my echo chamber.

I felt stumped. The collected writings that had sustained and challenged me over many years ... that had revealed God and formed the basis for (and hope of) transformative reconciliation, making sense of reality and how to live in right relation to it ... These loved pages were in danger of becoming to me like the letters of Vanity Fair, tainted by the sense of broken trust I felt in relation to their human intermediaries.

Except, in the (continuing) escalation of the aftermath of the Trump victory – the exposure and endorsement of far right, sexist, white supremacist ideology in much of Europe as well as the US, the gleeful trashing of decades of slow progress in equality and human dignity as 'political correctness gone mad', the lies and power-mongering and absurd social media games and diversions, his frightening first actions and statements as president (e.g. w.r.t. immigration, healthcare, censorship, torture, nuclear weapons,...), the undisguised pandering of the UK government in desperate attempt to secure somebody's 'friendship' post-Brexit – the Bible began once more to shout out to me over the noise of my distracted translation-related anxieties. Because it speaks into so much of this ... this wrongness ... like nothing else. It calls it out; it says that God sees, that He cares; that His people should not be complicit or indifferent. And it says it so loudly and unambiguously and repeatedly that it'd take way more than a few subtly slanted word selections to smother it...
...“The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground”...“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry”...“The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night”...“there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you”...“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner”...“who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”...“For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them”...“Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer”...“he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap”...“with the purified you deal purely, and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous”...“Thus says the LORD, “Have you killed and also taken possession?””...“For he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD would not pardon”...“violent men shall waste them no more, as formerly”...“there is no injustice with the LORD our God, or partiality or taking bribes”...“I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy”...“we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves [...] it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards”...“Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him, Haman was filled with fury”...“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”...“you will incline your ear to do justice [...] so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more”...“for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them”...“On the side of their oppressors there was power”...“they beat me, they bruised me, [...] those watchmen of the walls”...“they speak lies, they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity”...“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice”...“To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth [...] the LORD does not approve”...“the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you”...“break off [...] your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed”...“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge”...“[they have] cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it”...“But let justice roll down like waters”...“The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock”...“call out against [Ninevah], for their evil has come up before me”...“Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies”...“Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder—no end to the prey!”...“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house”...“Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves”...“each of you busies himself with his own house”...“do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate”...“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”...“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”...“You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”...“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate”...“he knew all people [...] he himself knew what was in man”...“You have not lied to men but to God”...“Do not be conformed to this world”...“God chose [...] things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God”...“We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word”...“God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap”...“it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret”...“their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame”...“I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments”...“test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil”...“For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work”...“people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain”...“lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive”...“They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works”...“but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord”...“the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you”...“all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account”...“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”...“take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability”...“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”...“Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for”...“Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority”...“to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh”...“Come out of [Babylon], my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues”...  
[See Genesis 4:10, Exodus 3:7, Leviticus 19:13, Numbers 15:15, Deuteronomy 10:18, Joshua 24:17, Judges 2:18, Ruth 4:14, 1 Samuel 2:7-8, 2 Samuel 22:27, 1 Kings 21:19, 2 Kings 24:4, 1 Chronicles 17:9, 2 Chronicles 19:7, Ezra 8:21-23, Nehemiah 5:5, Esther 3:5, Job 38:2, Psalms 10:17-18, Proverbs 22:23, Ecclesiastes 4:1, Song of Solomon 5:7, Isaiah 59:4, Jeremiah 22:13, Lamentations 3:34-36, Ezekiel 22:7, Daniel 4:27, Hosea 4:6, Joel 3:2-3, Amos 5:24, Obadiah 1:3, Jonah 1:2, Micah 6:12, Nahum 3:1, Habakkuk 2:9, Zephaniah 3:3, Haggai 1:9, Zechariah 8:17, Malachi 3:2, Matthew 23:15, Mark 7:9, Luke 1:51-52, John 2:24-25, Acts 5:4, Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, 2 Corinthians 4:2, Galatians 6:7, Ephesians 5:12, Philippians 3:19, Colossians 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, 2 Thessalonians 2:7, 1 Timothy 6:5, 2 Timothy 3:2-4, Titus 1:16, Philemon 14, Hebrews 4:13, James 5:4, 1 Peter 5:5, 2 Peter 3:17, 1 John 1:8, 2 John 1:8, 3 John 1:9, Jude 1:23, Revelation 18:4. ESV.]
In fairness, these themes are more conspicuously fore-fronted in some parts of the Bible than others. [1] But they're plenty consistent enough (it seems to me) to severely disrupt any serious attempt to make a Biblical 'case for Trump' – even when those who would like to do so get to pick the wording. Similarly on questions of gender, where this whole debate started for me: I find so much in the Bible, ESV-rendered or otherwise, which affirms the worth of women and subverts patriarchal hierarchies in ways not recognised as 'Biblical' by its own translators. If they were trying (consciously or otherwise) to sway me away from scripturally-convicted feminism, it didn't work.

So in many ways, 'which version' doesn't matter. The Bible has much to say that can't be hidden in translation, even if it can be resisted or eschewed or coloured by our cultural lenses in the reading of it (I absolutely don't exempt myself from that charge).

In other ways, of course – complex, frequently conflicting ways – it does matter. For example, it matters if, by choosing translations that preserve the male-centric conventions of the original ancient languages, we fail to convey the intended gender-inclusive meaning to speakers of contemporary languages that are becoming increasingly gender-neutral (one reason to visit the NRSV more than I do). But it also matters if we weaken our attempts to challenge people who think differently to us by drawing on scholarship they do not feel obligated to take seriously (one reason I still rather like citing from the ESV). It matters whether such useful nuances as the difference between singular (‘thou’) and plural (‘ye’) second person pronouns remain transparent or have been lost in the evolution of our language (one reason I value the KJV as a parallel text). But it also matters if the language we are reading in is so unfamiliar to us that we feel bogged down by the effort and/or miss layers of meaning (one reason the KJV is seldom my first port-of-call).

It matters if those of us who claim to 'believe the Bible' are indifferent to these matters; if we are content with ignorance; if we have the time and capacity and opportunity to study (and I really do mean 'if', as most don't, and it is not to their discredit) and squander the privilege/shirk the responsibility. So I am trying to keep up the habits of more rigorous reading provoked by my recent bout of suspicion – keeping an eye on the alternatives, prodding carefully at online interlinear resources, planning to plan some language study. I don't feel a need to 'drop' the ESV as still, for the moment at least, my main go-to; apart from anything else, if bias is inevitable, I'd rather invite bias that challenges my current convictions as they stand than take refuge in bias that upholds them.

But lastly (for now), it also matters, I suggest, that would-be Bible readers not become discouraged by these matters. Perhaps my main takeaway from this particular season of frustration has been an enriched appreciation of the complex nature of the Bible. A large collection of ancient, surprising, paradoxical, controversial writings in a diversity of voices and literary styles spanning hundreds of years and transmitted to us today via a still growing assortment of archaeological sources of differing age and reliability and decipherability is always going to require (corporate, variously scholarly or otherwise, sometimes oppositional) grappling with. And actually, I like that fact; I like that it is given to us together to make sense of it. It invites relationship and dialogue with other people even as it invites relationship with God. It requires trust, patience, respect and forgiveness, personal discernment as well as humble openness to other people's expertise and God-given insight. However much I might sometimes think that I want an unambiguous manuscript downloaded directly from God without the contamination of human involvement, I am starting to take the hint that the far more challenging communication that we have instead is probably no accident. I am enjoying enjoying the Bible again ... and enjoying learning to enjoy rather than to fear the not always harmonious human processes present in my reading of it. It's messy, but it's part, I think, of what it is.

N.B. This post is the second in a sort-of series prompted by the latest edits to the ESV. See part 1 here and part 3 here.

[1] For example, while compiling the above, I noticed that many of the history books (Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah) quite strikingly emphasise the chosen-ness and (un)faithfulness of Israel in unique relationship to God over matters of inter-human justice and compassion – sometimes to the extent that "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" seems almost at the expense of "love your neighbour as yourself" (see Jesus' "two greatest commandments", Matthew 22:36-40). I can see how such texts become dangerous in the hands of those not committed to reading them in the context of the rest of the Bible.

[2] Whether or not a particular passage is addressed to an individual or a group can make all the difference in the interpretation and application.

[Thumbnail image cc. from EvelynGiggles on Flickr].


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