The battle for the Bible

National | Zondervan, IBS claim concern over the "gender-accurate" Bible is merely a false alarm, but critics will not back down

Issue: "Donna Rice Hughes," April 19, 1997

Zondervan Publishing House has come a long way from its founding in 1931, when two brothers, Bernie and Pat Zondervan, decided to sell books from their mother's farmhouse in western Michigan. Now Zondervan is the largest publisher of Christian media products in the world.

The company's $13 million glass-enclosed headquarters is built on 20 scenic acres in Grand Rapids, Mich. Visitors to the 350,000-square-foot building are greeted by a life-size bronze sculpture in the building's lobby, depicting Jesus washing the apostle Peter's feet. Soaring two-story windows and skylights infuse the building's atrium and concourses with natural light. Zondervan says its sprawling headquarters required more than 16,000 square feet of windows, 10,000 square yards of carpet, and two miles of modular office partition walls.

Zondervan's 300 headquarters employees began enjoying the new facilities in 1992, 19 years after the company began publishing the New International Version Bible (NIV). A steady cash flow provided in part by that Bible made Zondervan an attractive takeover target. In 1988 HarperCollins bought Zondervan; HarperCollins is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's The News Corporation, which owns Fox Television, Twentieth Century Fox, TV Guide, and other media properties worldwide.

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And the NIV is not the only Bible Zondervan publishes. Many mainline churches prize Zondervan's New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), even though theological conservatives have expressed concern about both the translation of key passages concerning Christ's divinity and the NRSV's unisex language.

Appealing to both evangelicals and theological liberals, Zondervan has licked the platter clean: Zondervan notes that its NIV dominates the "top 10" best-selling list of Bibles--and that doesn't include sales of the NRSV.

Clearly Zondervan is proud of, and committed to defending, the reputation of the name NIV. When WORLD reported in its March 29 issue that the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)--the committee with exclusive authority over the NIV, and the group to which Zondervan is contractually bound--had decided to change the NIV to a unisex version, leading theologians and Zondervan both took notice.

Author J.I. Packer, after examining specific changes made by the CBT, stated that the "adjustments made by what I call the feminist edition are not made in the interests of legitimate translation procedure. These changes have been made to pander to a cultural prejudice that I hope will be short-lived."

Zondervan issued a statement that did not note any factual inaccuracies in WORLD's article but emphasized Zondervan's distinguished history, criticized WORLD's tone and methodology, and stated that "we intend in no way to advance a particular social agenda or stray from the original biblical texts" (see page 17).

WORLD called Jonathan Petersen, Zondervan's director of corporate affairs, to give him the opportunity to be specific about Zondervan's concerns:

nWhen asked to choose Zondervan's own name for the new version of the NIV--since Zondervan charged that the terms "inclusive," "unisex," and "gender-neutral" were unfair--Mr. Petersen said, "We would characterize it as the 'gender-accurate version.'" When asked whether calling the new version "gender-accurate" indicates that Zondervan's current translation is gender-inaccurate, Mr. Petersen said, "It's unfortunate that the English language is not as pinpoint as we'd like it to be."

nWhen asked whether publication of the new version was a done deal, Mr. Petersen said, "We don't have it in our production pipeline that we are coming out with a gender-accurate Bible." Generally, publishing industry production pipelines reflect books that are within a year of publication; the CBT doesn't expect its revision to be out for another three to four years.

nWhen asked whether that long-range decision had been made, Mr. Petersen said, "If the Bible scholars recommend that this whole gender issue needs to go in this direction, we will make a decision at that time." CBT members, however, have already made that recommendation--in 1992.

Although Zondervan has chosen not to say so publicly, at least three pieces of evidence suggest the company is philosophically committed to unisex language:

The first is Zondervan's editorial style sheet, part of which shows book authors how the publisher expects them to deal with language describing the sexes. When WORLD requested the style sheet, Mr. Petersen sent this one-sentence response: "Generally, masculine pronouns used by authors as generic placemarkers are suggested to be avoided whenever they are not specifically needed or germane to the author's content."

Yet, the section of the style sheet that deals with sex-specific language, which WORLD obtained from another source, begins with a statement about "the growing awareness of subtle sexist messages in language" and goes into three pages of dos and don'ts; for example, Zondervan writers are to use humanity, people, human beings, or humankind in place of man or mankind.


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