Friday, June 22, 2012

The Bibles of Babel: 4 Guidelines For a New, Improved, American Bible

If you're one of the many who still think Catholics aren't Bible-Christians, you probably don't read Catholic blogs (except mine, of course, or you wouldn't be here.  Thank you - I'm honored.)  The Catholic blogosphere is loaded with converts from Fundamentalist and Evangelical faiths who've learned the opposite is true.  The Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite employs more Scripture, and a broader range of readings, than you'll find in any other denomination.

There's just one problem:  the versions of Scripture we use are all over the place.  Different prayer groups, Scripture classes, and books on Scripture use different translations, made on different principles:  We have the New American Bible (NAB), the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (RSV-CE, 1st & 2nd editions), the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, the Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, the Good News Bible, and so on.  Worse still, the version we use in the liturgy is . . .None of the above!  Will the real Word of God please stand up?

In an attempt to remedy this, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has ordered a new edition that they hope will be suitable for all and sundry.  I applaud the idea wholeheartedly, but I worry about the results.  The NAB is one of the worst, most useless translations of Scripture I know of.  One wants to ask its editors and translators just what the Bible did to them to make them hate it so.

Micah Murphy wrote a short but interesting blog on this.  Visit ye him, and take his poll.  I did, and when I was done commenting, I realized I had enough material for a post of my own.  "Blogger," said I, "blog thyself!"

So without further ado, here are four suggestions (since of course, the bishops hang on my every word, as well they should) for putting together a universal Catholic Bible in English.

1.  Vet Everyone Involved

I know, I know, background checks and loyalty oaths smack of totalitarianism.  Of course, the people you're looking to weed out already think the Church is a brutal dictatorship (except that you're not free to leave most brutal dictatorships any time you like).  I don't know how much may have changed in recent years, but back, say, in the '90s, a vast majority of Scripture scholars were de facto dissenters.  The notes and commentaries in most Bibles issued since the Council suffer from a bad case of Modernism.

Our first guideline, then, ought to be:  Don't let heterodox scholars anywhere near this project.  Everyone involved should be thoroughly grounded in, and consider himself bound to, the principles laid down in Dei Verbum and Divino Afflante Spiritu.  A working knowlegde of Pope Benedict's biblical theology wouldn't hurt, either.  Here's a simple test:  Get everybody together, then pass around a copy of the Catechism, blessed by a priest.  Make sure everyone touches it.  If any of the committee members burst into flames, crumble to dust, or exhibit signs of demonic possession as laid out in the Rituale Romanum, that's a good indicator you don't want them on your team. 

If the Bishops ask nicely, perhaps they could persuade Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch to let them peek at their notes for the new Ignatius Study Bible.  Once we have commentary that thinks with the Church, we can relax a little on some of the finer points of translation.  

Which leads me to:

2. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  

When we consider pastoral needs, we too often play to the lowest common denominator.  Note the arguments against the new translation of the Sacramentary, that Joe Pewsitter can't understand words like, "consubstantial."  This attitude, along with a little ivory tower arrogance, has led recent translations to abandon the traditional phrasing of well-known passages, either to simplify or clarify points which often aren't all that important.  Most parishioners hate change.  Ask any pastor:  Announce something different - however well-intended or necessary - and you'll smell the tar and feathers simmering away.  
Actually, all he said was, you can't self-intinct.
When my wife and I married, we pulled out a 1962 Missal and chose the prayers (in English) used in the Extraordinary Form (though neither the wedding nor the accompanying Mass were Extraordinary Form).  I said, "With this ring, I thee wed, and I plight unto thee my troth."  Why?  Because those are the words my father said in 1967, and his father said in 1936, and so on, back through history.  Doing something like that, realizing that, reminds you of the fact that there are no empty seats at Mass.  Any Mass.  Ever.  The saints, the angels, and our loved ones gone before are all there with us.

Small-"t" tradition has its claims.  Unless it actively hinders formation, leave it be.  Phrases like, "Hail, full of grace," "the gates of hell shall not prevail," etc. have the weight of tans-generational consistency.  Leave it to the catechists and homilists to explain, for example, that Jesus probably meant Sheol, rather than Gehenna.  In fact, we've all but eliminated the word, "hell" from our readings, which could lead folks to wonder whether we still believe in such a thing.  And that does hinder formation.

3. Stop neutering and watering down the language.  
Jesus warned about multiplying words; someone should warn translators about multiplying syllables, often in the name of mollifying sensibilities.  We see this constantly in public and political discourse.

Jesus Christ, however, didn't talk like other public figures (Matthew 7: 29).  Pope Benedict, in his Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, points out that rather than "astonished," the Greek says the people were "alarmed" at Christ's teaching.  Jesus does not mince words.  Jesus does not equivocate or euphemize.  Jesus is in.  Your.  Face.  

If He doesn't make you at least a little uncomfortable, chances are you're not getting the message.

4) Please, please, in the name of all that's holy, have somebody with an ear not made of tin READ THE BLESSED THING ALOUD!  
Why is the KJV still so popular after four hundred years?  Why do we still hear it quoted so often, even by people who can barely read, despite its inkhorn words and archaic phrasing?  Because it is beautiful.  Its translators were Shakespeare's contemporaries (Some think the Bard himself may have had a hand in it).  They read it aloud as they worked, to ensure that when proclaimed, it would ring out, clear and memorable.  We need that back.  That's why, when I pray the Psalms, I go back to the Douay-Confraternity translation.  It sounds like poetry - the poetry of Wordsworth and Tennyson, not Rod McKuen and Adrienne Rich.

We should try that sometime.

Yes, I know, it's pro-Reformation, but listen to Joss Ackland's readings, dammit!

1 comment:

  1. I am still giggling over the pass around the Catechism and see if any of them burst into flames or crumple to dust! HEE Hee Hee HEEE HEEEEEEEEE!