Posted on October 23, 2009 at 7:49 am by Dr. Jim
It’s been around the blogosphere ten times already, but what the hell, being late for the party is better than staying home.
The Conservative Bible Project is an attempt to produce a Bible for Conservative (i.e., very far right wing) American Christians. It is championed by Andrew Schafly, the bright light behind Conservapedia.
The idea is to rid the Christian scriptures of foreign “liberal bias” according to ten Conservative guidelines:
- Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
- Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
- Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level.
- Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent; Defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words that have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
- Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
- Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
- Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
- Exclude Later-Inserted Inauthentic Passages: excluding the interpolated passages that liberals commonly put their own spin on, such as the adulteress story
- Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
- Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”
Needless to say, professional biblical scholars, translators, committed Christians, bloggers and many more think the whole project is, well, stupid. Or evil. Or both.
For example, Jim West writes on “Bastardizing the Bible: Dilettantism at its Worst” Steve Wiggins says “We Don’ Need another Bible”.
Wiggins has a podcast about it and you can listen in to see how good his Tina Turner impression is.
James McGrath gets it right (except for a wee little bit, but that can wait for a few paragraphs).
Don’t get me wrong: “rewriting” the Bible has a long and illustrious heritage. Chronicles retelling the story in the Former Prophets (or Deuteronomistic History, if you prefer). One Gospel retelling the story found in another. Midrashes and commentaries and Diatessarons and Targums and all sorts of other things. The only thing that bothers me is when people set about to rewrite the Bible but call it translation, or deny that rewriting the Bible is what they are really doing.
Beyond McGrath’s point about translation, I don’t have a quibble with the CBP. Not even ateensy little quibble. And even then, I’m not sure it is a quibble at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the one hand, as a liberal secularist who would hate to live under a CBP theocracy, one might think I would be worried about this project. But I’m not. I don’t really care one way or the other if the Conservapeople actually manage to pull this “translation” scheme off or not. Despite the huge Left-Right polarization in America (and increasingly in Canada), I don’t thing the CBP will be able to capture and retain a huge segment of the Christian Bible market.
Maybe I’m a bit of a naive optimist, but I think too many Christians across most of the theological spectrum of Christendom would not want to lose their church’s teachings on social justice that would be among the first things the CBP tries to excise. It’s not that all of the meek and the downtrodden will finally inherit the earth or find lasting comfort, but the message that people should work towards that ideal is not likely to die. And I’m happy about that. It’s a good ideal, regardless of where it comes from. In the end the CPB will fizzle although a relatively small group might canonize their Bible. And that is the interesting thing and brings us to the other hand.
Let me just say here that I think the Conservative Bible Project is wonderful from a purely academic standpoint. It is a great object lesson in how flexible a fixed canon actually can be to some people, and how revisionist programs are understood by their proponents as restorative actions. I assume the heroes of the “Conservative Reformation” actually believe in what they are doing, just as Martin Luther did when he wanted some slight emendations to the canon list of the church he “restored” to its original pristine purity. He apparently wanted Esther removed from the Old Testament and the Epistle of James from the New. He didn’t get his way but he tried.
As someone very interested in the hows and whys behind writings that become sacred, the CBP is a fascinating example of tendentious redaction (or is it “reduction”?). If my area of expertise was the history of modern biblical interoperation or modern religious/political discourses, I would be in the market for a new anthropologist’s hat and sending letters to the Project’s managers asking if I could sit in on their board meetings, just to see the process in action.
For as much as people want to discount and discredit the project (and on purely academic grounds as a scholarly “translation” it can be critiqued any which way you like), as an exercise in religious thought and action it stands above academic judgments of professional translators and scholars.
I think for Schafly and his people “translate” is as much a symbolic, mystified, religious concept as it is a purely linguistic one. Outsiders should not take its use in this context quite so literally, and this is my little wee quibble with McGrath. “Translation” for the CBP is the cargo-cultish production of an effigy bible intended to provide legitimacy for a religious viewpoint on the defensive by attempting to “fight fire with fire”. For the true believers, the end result will be regarded as faithful English rendition of what this group thinks are the authentic biblical texts. In that sense, it will be a translation to them, and not an emended KJV.
The project’s planners have a right to their religion, and scholars seeking to understand the religions that exist in the world have no right to tell these people what their religion should be.
“Sacred” texts have human origins, just like any other text. “Sacred” is a quality given by a person or a community to a book or other item. It is not a quality intrinsic to and inseparable from those objects. For thousands of years people have been inventing and reinventing religions, gods, myths and “sacred” writings. This is no different, except it is happening before our eyes. Cool.
What is going through Schafly’s head? Well, what was going through Joseph Smith’s head when he was “translating” the Book of Mormon? Can a secular scholar think anything other than Smith’s efforts bear a striking resemblance to “composition”? So how aware was Smith of the deceptions he was weaving as to the book’s purported miraculous origins? Did he come to believe his own story? I don’t know, but I suspect Schafly truly believes that he is restoring and not rewriting. And that is how scholars should approach the project. How much do political agendas influence religious belief? Apparently quite a lot in some cases.
Is religion really a phenomenon separate from politics? Many people would say that ideally it should be. But historically, it has not been and that, I think, is not likely to change any time soon.
It is easy to denounce the deliberate production of purportedly sacred or inspired documents, but let’s face it, the ancient literature now contained the various bibles of Christendom and Judaism probably had as mundane of origins. People just writing what they believed or what they wanted others to believe. Some were great poet, some were boring hacks and some may well have been total jerks.
Many biblical scholars maintain that the book of Jeremiah was once edited by people with an pronounced ideological affection for the ideas and terminology found in the book of Deuteronomy. If this so-called “deuteronomistic redaction” occurred it changed the overall character of the book of Jeremiah which would be, in a number of sections, rather different if those allegedly “dtr” passages are excised. If Schafly is a crackpot, then why not the “deuteronomists”?
How do human made books (the only kind there is) get canonized? There is often no evidence. But will Schafly manage to get his Bible canonized (in some sense) in some churches? Perhaps. But will it be because of intrinsic qualities of the product or the sales job its producers undertake? Were there dtr spin doctors and pitch men?
Religions are always innovating, changing and evolving (I just had to get that word in!). Humans create them, consume then and then fiddle with them to make them better suited to their changing needs. Yet, religions are often portrayed as timeless. A novelty quickly becomes the way one has always done things. Innovate like hell and do it conservatively. Nothing unusual there, Mr. Schafly. Carry on.
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