The abolition of man

Books Special Report | "Pronoun envy" or just another weapon to fight the battle against the "subjugation of women"? The debate among publishers over inclusive language

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

C.S. Lewis was not a very "inclusive" writer. In fact, by today's standards, he was downright exclusive. Open Mere Christianity to any random page, and you're likely to find several uses of the generic pronouns he and man. The final chapter is even titled "The New Men."

Despite its politically incorrect language, Mere Christianity stands as one of the most influential books of the past 100 years for many Christians, especially evangelicals. It is a book that has led many skeptics-of both sexes-to faith in Christ. Which raises the question-has any honest reader ever come away from Mere Christianity with the impression that Lewis's version of Christianity is "guys only"?

In a recent essay for publication with InterVarsity Press, J.I. Packer wrote about the biblical concept of the new man. Shortly before the book was headed to press, an editor changed Packer's words-and the Apostle Paul's-to read, "a new human being." The editor's reasoning was that women are excluded by the phrase "new man." After Mr. Packer firmly objected to this tinkering with Paul's theology-where becoming a new man means being transformed into Christ, not having a sex-change operation-the original wording was restored.

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Since the name InterVarsity Press has been virtually synonymous with evangelical publishing, few readers would expect it to have a strict "inclusive-language" requirement. Yet the InterVarsity Press style guide, which is available publicly on the Internet, forbids the use of man, mankind, fireman, and just about every other man-based word (except woman).

In the ongoing debate over Bible translation, little mention has been made of the way new Christian books are written and edited. But, in actuality, de-manned Bibles are continuing a larger publishing trend.

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is one of the oldest theological publishers in America. Sprung from Dutch Reformed roots in Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdmans' crop of authors includes John Stott, Phillip Yancey, and Mark Noll.

Managing editor Charles Van Hof said that while Eerdmans has no hard rule on gender language, masculine pronouns are not welcome. "Our policy was implemented by consensus, and that was way back, probably in the 1970s," Mr. Van Hof explained. "Our reason was that we agreed that exclusively masculine pronouns privileged masculine gender and we understood that to continue to use exclusive language would cause offense to many of our readers."

When asked whether authors have ever objected to this policy, Van Hof replied, "We have had authors specifically ask that we not render their language gender inclusive, and since such requests generally came from scholars whose stature entitled them to impose their will, we almost always complied. But such requests are more and more infrequent. Most of our authors submit manuscripts using gender-inclusive language. When they don't and they don't evince a preference, we quietly and professionally edit it, usually without objection."

At Bethany House Publishers in Minneapolis, a similar unwritten policy is in force. "We ask our authors and editors to avoid gender-specific pronouns wherever it is appropriate and whenever it can be done with simplicity and grace," said editorial vice president Carol Johnson.

Ms. Johnson argued that inclusive language is important because traditional, generic-masculine pronouns are no longer understood by most readers. For an example of an "outdated" word, she chose mankind. For readers over age 50, she said, "mankind clearly means all people everywhere."

But for younger readers, she claimed, "It is a word they are not used to seeing, and it creates an unnecessary distance between the reader and the text.

"We encourage inclusive language because this is the direction English is going and because when all is said and done, it is more accurate." So far, Ms. Johnson said, no authors have objected to finding "creative alternatives" to this "surprising limitation in our language."

Brazos Press, a new imprint of Baker Books, received three of the top 10 awards in the 2002 Christianity Today Book Awards. "We do not have a stated policy on gender language," said Brazos editorial director Rodney Clapp. But, "In terms of gender language referring to human beings, we do encourage authors toward inclusivity."

When asked about the philosophy behind Brazos' approach to gender language, Mr. Clapp replied, "Editorially, we affirm women alongside men in church and family leadership positions .... We accept the concern that a constantly masculine language for positions of leadership and power really can and does constrict women and the exercise of their gifts."

Mr. Clapp drew a distinction between language for God and language for man. "We certainly privilege the traditional-and inevitably 'masculine'-name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," he said. "So would most or all of our authors. Beyond that, some are open to subordinate designations that might include some feminine language. Others are not."


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