Illustration by Krieg Barrie

More unmerited mercy

Biography | Battling against ideologies that mistranslate the Bible, kill neighborhoods, and hurt students. Not so often battling against my own pride

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

Ten articles published in a WORLD series that concluded on Feb. 13, 2010, portrayed my movement from atheism (1968) to Communism (1972) to Christ (1976), and showed how God over the next two decades moved me into university teaching, WORLD editing, and welfare reform (worldmag.com/olaskyseries).

I kept writing those articles because subscribers kept asking what came next in my stumbling progress. During the past two years many have asked for a sequel. This seems a good time to write it, because 2012 is the 15th anniversary of a crisis that could have sunk WORLD but ended up strengthening commitment to the Bible-and the Bible is under attack once again, in different ways.

The crisis began in 1997 when a pastor called and said the translation committee responsible for the New International Version (NIV) was considering major revisions. He was right: The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) was quietly changing the NIV, at that time by far the best-selling English language Bible translation, one turned to and trusted by at least half of American evangelicals.

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When we delved, it became clear that feminist cultural trends, which had blown through liberal churches in the 1960s and '70s, were digging at the foundations of evangelical ones. The goal of the new translation, according to the NIV's British publisher, was "to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language."

That was startling: My wife Susan and I had always thought that the goal of translators was to make clear the meaning of the original, not mute it. Susan wrote a cover story that reported the CBT's wholesale revision not as a matter for publishers and clergy only but as something in which pew-sitters had a stake.

Since Zondervan and the International Bible Society (IBS), the American publishers, were planning to market the retranslation without announcing the changes, we called the new version a "stealth Bible." The story provoked an immediate reaction. Both Zondervan and the International Bible Society rejected the article's suggestion that ideology was the driving force behind the translation.

Their public-relations staffs also protested the high-profile way WORLD chose to report it. They said we were not only behind the times but divisive. They quoted the code of ethics of the Evangelical Press Association, which insisted that members-WORLD was one-not do or say anything that could hurt the brands of other members.

We pushed on, producing more articles in subsequent months. It was exciting. Not only was our upstart publication taking on behemoths, but the evangelical world had risen up and declared, "Don't mess with our Bible." The heat of battle, weekly deadlines, and my old tendencies toward intellectual pride made for a potent brew.

When theologians not tied to the CBT got their hands on the retranslation and analyzed it, they noted that thousands of verses were at stake. They found striking changes of meaning. For example, the new translation shifted Psalm 1's teaching about the godly individual sometimes standing alone-"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked ..."-to a collective: "Blessed are those who do not walk. ..."

Plus, many pastors have pointed out that only one person fully delighted in the law of the Lord and never sinned: Christ Himself. The change to "those" eliminated that reminder. It seemed to me that since God's inspired writers praised individual courage and pointed us to Christ, translators should not misdirect us.

While all this was going on, a battle closer to home was also teaching me about ideology undermining something good. My family and I lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood a dozen minutes from downtown Austin, Texas. Our University Hills neighbors-black, Hispanic, and white-said hello to each other. Our children hiked along a tiny creek that adjoined our backyard and emptied into a larger creek where they could wade and look for fossils.

University Hills was also one of those East Austin neighborhoods holding on by its fingernails as increasing crime and drug use threatened to drag it down into poverty and fear. In 1997 one neighbor, Alma Jean Ward, a 58-year-old deaf woman, walked out of a convenience store close to us. She could not hear the shouting between two rival gangs that preceded shooting. She walked into the crossfire and died.

At a quickly called neighborhood association meeting, residents asked, "How many tragedies will we have to endure before someone gets serious?" They said, "We need more police protection. We get ignored." Think of a Frank Capra movie or a Norman Rockwell painting, yet with faces of varied hues, and you can imagine how good it was, in times of racial bitterness, to see diversity becoming unity.


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