Features

A radical proposal

National | Has the time come to place translations under denominational influence?

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

Personal computers run on software operating systems, and over the last decade the three predominant ones have been DOS, Windows, and the Macintosh OS. But today a fourth operating system is increasingly being installed on hard drives. It is not owned by marketing behemoths such as Microsoft and Apple; it is owned by no one, marketed by word-of-mouth, and distributed on the Internet at little or no cost.

The radical movement here is the Open Source Initiative; its most recognizable part is the Linux operating system. Open Source Initiative co-founder, Bruce Perens, describes open-source software as occupying "a middle ground between free software and rampant Microsoft-like commercialism."

Could it be that the open-source software movement has something to say to the Balkanized world of evangelical Bible publishing? May the time have arrived for Bible translations to be controlled not by publishers but by churches, and freely licensed to all who want them? After all, is not God their Author and has He not expressly commanded that we give His Word the broadest possible distribution?

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Shareholders of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which owns Zondervan) or Barnes and Noble (which is buying Ingram Books Group, which two years ago bought the Christian book distributor Spring Arbor) are looking for profit. That's fine; the profit motive is valuable and productive most of the time.

But isn't there something unseemly about the commodification of the Bible, with companies fighting over market share? Isn't it chastening to list the products of News Corp, which range from the innocuous (Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team) to the disturbing (the raunchy film The Full Monty, the raunchier Howard Stern biography), and to see, right smack dab in the middle of them all, the New International Version?

Zondervan's public-relations personnel would no doubt call this an exercise in guilt by association or religious McCarthyism; we must disagree. When the Bible is a profit center, pressure builds to provide niche versions of the Bible that conform to a variety of modern prejudices. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, those who stand up against such pressure need to be bold and courageous, especially when denominations that should be on guard have entered a laid-back, almost-anything-goes mode.

We like market systems, but there are exceptions, and here's one: The publication and distribution of God's Word ought not be driven by secular motives, niche-marketing ploys, and market-demand analyses. Rather, God's Word should be entrusted to the church since she alone is the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (1Timothy 3:15).

So here's a modest proposal for denominational leaders and new Bible translators:

First, denominations, not publishers, should fund and foster translations. Let the translation copyright be held by the church, where it belongs. Denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention could be stewards, guarding the integrity of distribution.

Second, take another lesson from the software world and release beta versions of a translation until you are satisfied with the text's accuracy-and commit yourself to leaving the text alone once it's been released.

Third, follow the example of the Net Bible and the open-source software movement and let a new translation be copied freely. Allow any book or software publisher to distribute the copyrighted text freely, as long as no changes are made.

Fourth, once you have it right, leave it alone for at least a century and let parents, children, and grandchildren memorize the same text.

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