Cover Story

October surprise

Eighteen months after the International Bible Society announced it had abandoned its "inclusive-language" Bible project, fresh supplies of the gender-neutral NIrV Bible are back in circulation. The new printing of the gender-neutral NIrV brings back old questions of commitment to faithful Bible translation.

Issue: "Bible translation blues," Nov. 21, 1998

& Susan Olasky in Colorado Springs - Early one morning last month a big semi backed into a receiving dock at International Bible Society (IBS) headquarters in Colorado Springs and unloaded its cargo of Scriptures and other printed materials. Among the books was a fresh supply of Bright Beginnings, a paperback edition of the gender-neutral New International Reader's Version (NIrV) New Testament for children, straight from a Bible printing firm in Tennessee. A new printing of gender-neutral Bibles? Something was wrong here. At the height of a highly publicized controversy last year involving an "inclusive" or "unisex" version of the bestselling New International Version (NIV) Bible, the IBS board announced it had abandoned all plans for gender-neutral editions of the NIV and its spin-offs (see WORLD, June 14-21, 1997). The board's statement, dated May 27, 1997, also said IBS (which owns rights to the NIV) "will begin immediately to revise the [NIrV] in a way that reflects the treatment of gender in the NIV." (The NIrV began life in 1994 as a "simplified" gender-neutral version based on the NIV.) IBS, the announcement said, was "directing the licensees who publish the current NIrV to publish only the revised NIrV edition as soon as it is ready." Publishers, including IBS, were permitted to keep selling old editions until stocks were depleted. The message seemed clear enough: No printing of new copies. The IBS board sent that message after suffering through a public-relations disaster. Last May, Focus on the Family president James Dobson was vigorously criticizing gender-neutral translations. Southern Baptists appeared ready to pass a resolution opposing the new translations at the denomination's annual meeting just a few weeks away. Southern Baptist Seminary president R. Albert Mohler was stating that the IBS was revising God's Word "to meet the demands of political correctness." If IBS had not declared a change of course, and if Focus on the Family followers and Southern Baptists had boycotted IBS products, the veteran agency would have been in enormous difficulty. But the IBS board did make its pledge-and, until now, IBS appears to have made good on it. A revised, non-politically correct text for the NIrV was ready by last fall. Zondervan, the main commercial licensee, has printed and marketed those revised versions of the NIrV since at least January. IBS itself began printing four revised editions of the NIrV New Testament in January, and so far has produced 340,000 copies of those editions, designed not for children but for adults who do not read well. So why did IBS-16 months after its public pledge-step out of bounds by sticking with the gender-neutral version of its Bright Beginnings NIrV for children? Why did it use the old printing plates for a September reprinting of 20,000 copies, some of which WORLD has obtained? IBS vice president and publisher Dean Merrill, interviewed twice by WORLD, said timing and format were key. He said supplies of the children's NIrV ran out in August, and orders-an average of 1,200-1,500 copies per month-were beginning to pile up. He said he planned a new children's edition, one that would be in a single-column format rather than the double-column format of other editions, and would include new artwork. But since that edition was not close to ready, Mr. Merrill said it would have cost $20,000 to make an interim typesetting of the revised NIrV so that it would fit the single-column Bright Beginnings-and he said he unilaterally decided to reprint the gender-neutral version instead. A bunch of questions pop up. Why didn't IBS simply borrow the typesetting from Zondervan? It "was not immediately available," Mr. Merrill said. Why, given his reputation for careful planning and organization, had not preparations for the replacement New Testament begun much earlier? Even though sales of the existing versions were fairly predictable, Mr. Merrill said he had only 60 days' notice before the old-edition stock ran out. Why was the new project still not on the IBS publishing schedule as of early this month? Mr. Merrill said there were delays in obtaining typesetting film. Although the board had said publicly, "IBS is directing the licensees who publish the current NIrV to publish only the revised NIrV as soon as it is ready," Mr. Merill said there was nothing in the board's instructions to staff forbidding his actions. Mr. Merrill, responding to WORLD's questioning, said a new children's NIrV will be ready by late winter. The gender-neutral version will continue to be sold until the 20,000 new ones are all gone. "Under the circumstances, I think I've done the responsible thing," Mr. Merrill said, adding that he acted on his own without consulting the IBS board or CEO. "No one here is intending to extend the old NIrV," he said. And yet, questions do remain about the future of the NIV and the NIrV. The IBS board in its May 1997 policy statement said it had abandoned all plans for gender-related changes in future editions of the NIV. It also declared, "There are no plans for a further revised edition." But did the board mean abandoned, period, or abandoned for an interim period? Did the board mean there are no plans today for a revised NIV but there may be plans tomorrow? No one on the board seems willing, or able, to elaborate. Last June, a National Public Radio interviewer asked Eugene Rubingh, IBS vice president for translations, whether IBS was scrapping its plans for a revised NIV altogether. He replied: "Well, we're abandoning the project at this time." In response to a follow-up question-"Will you tread more lightly in the future?"-Mr. Rubingh answered: "We'll tread more lightly. We will certainly listen to informed voices in the church who are now responding to us. And we're going to test carefully with our constituency before we proceed to print anything." That sounds like the kettle was moved to the back burner to simmer a while longer, not removed from the kitchen. And there's other evidence suggesting that last year's battle for the Bible is not yet over. The IBS's 15-member Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), which controls the language of the NIV, continues to meet. That's the group that sparked the original controversy by rushing to completion a gender-neutral edition of the NIV for Hodder & Stoughton, the NIV's British publisher, and also had added gender-neutral language in its proposed revisions for the U.S. NIV. One CBT member, Bruce Waltke, told WORLD it seems reasonable to assume that sooner or later the NIV revisions the CBT has been working on since 1983 indeed will be published. He predicted that as a result of last year's controversy, the revised NIV will "most certainly" have less emphasis on "gender inclusiveness." Mr. Rubingh did not return repeated calls to his office for comment on future plans for the NIV. (He did speak to WORLD earlier this year about a conference he was advocating; see page 20.) Meanwhile, nothing has changed concerning the gender-neutral NIV published on the other side of the Atlantic. The IBS board stated last year that "IBS will enter into negotiations with the publisher of the NIV in the U.K. on the matter of ceasing publication of its 'inclusive language edition' of the NIV." Top-level negotiations with Hodder & Stoughton to withdraw the NIVI, as per the IBS board's policy statement, have been fruitless, according to Mr. Merrill. He said the contract allowing Hodder to publish the NIVI does not expire until 2011. There is no evidence that Mr. Merrill acted in conjunction with IBS board members in ordering the NIrV reprinting. IBS chairman of the board Victor Oliver, head of Oliver-Nelson books, a Thomas Nelson affiliate in Atlanta, said early this month that he knew "nothing" about the reprinting and said he could not comment about it. He also declined to comment on other matters involving IBS and its Bible versions. Two other IBS board members would not comment on the new printing or the future of the translation. There has been tension between IBS and WORLD ever since March, 1997, when WORLD exposed a plan to make the NIV gender-neutral, suggested that feminist pressure was contributing to that decision, and charged that proposed changes blurred the meaning of Scripture. Indeed, IBS's then-president, Lars Dunberg, and two CBT members later were among signers of a statement on translation guidelines that acknowledged such blurring. The statement, released at a meeting in Colorado Springs the same day the IBS board released its new policy directives, agreed that in many cases gender-inclusive language has become "an instrument of distortion of the biblical text." Signers also agreed "many of the translation decisions" in the Hodder version "were not the wisest choices." The statement signed by Mr. Dunberg also noted it was "regrettable" that the NIrV "was released with a Preface which did not explicitly notify parents that gender-related changes" had been made. (The new 20,000-copy NIrV printing, like the previous printings, has no such preface, nor any notes or inserts informing buyers of the edition's gender-neutral language.) Other initial signers of the Colorado Springs accord included Zondervan's president, WORLD's publisher, seminary professors, and representatives of Focus of the Family and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Many evangelicals hailed the outcome as beneficial. Mr. Oliver, however, stated in a telephone interview earlier this month-his voice choking with emotion-that "WORLD caused us and the cause of Christ great hurt last year. We need to reach out to people for Jesus Christ." Whatever the hurt Mr. Oliver had in mind, it apparently was not financial. For its last fiscal year, which ended March 31, 1998, the non-profit IBS ministry reported $24.2 million in revenues and $22.9 million in expenses, not much different from a year earlier-and perhaps far different from what revenues would have been had the IBS board not stopped its public relations bleeding by announcing the abandonment of gender-neutral language. The revenues included $6.6 million in contributions, up from $4.9 million the preceding year. Royalties from licensees accounted for $5.6 million, down slightly from $5.8 million the year before.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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