Approaching the Bible with an open heart

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
1 May 2012

A new translation of the Bible into English has been published, I recently read. Unsurprisingly, it seeks both to engage readers and to promote clearer understanding of the text’s actual meaning.

“The name Jesus Christ doesn't appear in The Voice, a new translation of the Bible,” wrote Bob Smietana in the USA Today newspaper. Jesus Christ is instead rendered 'Jesus the Anointed One' or the 'liberating king'.

“That's a more accurate translation for modern American readers, says David Capes, lead scholar for The Voice... Capes says that many people, even those who've gone to church for years, don't realise that the word ‘Christ’ is a title.”

Improving accuracy is surely a good thing to try to do when translating the Bible, one might think, whether or not scholars succeed in this. But not all agree. The attempt has sparked extreme reactions in some ‘Bible-believing’ Christians.

“In Rev. 22:19 God said if you took away the words of this book he would take away his part from the tree of life and from the Holy City which are written in this book. Quit changing the language,” grimly warned one of the readers’ comments under the piece.

“The word is forever settled in Heaven and this is just another version that is not inspired of God ! I'll stick with the old stuff. KJV only!” wrote another, referring to the King James (‘Authorised’) Version produced four centuries ago, an elegantly written though not always reliable translation.

Certain readers of the Huffington Post, which reproduced the article, were also indignant: supposedly “even though a Christian publisher has put it out there, it just goes to show that we are no match for being beguiled by the devil and his followers. Paul warns us about trying to stand alone against these adversaries in (Ephesians 6:10-17).”

To another “This article about the new version of the Bible has angered me. It is no surprise to see Satan's sinister plan behind all this depriving people now of Jesus' name. We are very close to the end of this system of things. He knows he does not have much time left!”

“The King James Bible -- Its [sic] the only true word of our Lord Jesus Christ”, according to one of the comments, though Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic and the New Testament was in Greek.

Others who joined in the online discussion tried to explain the rationale for the new version, but it is unlikely that the most irate took much heed.

Even for more sophisticated readers, it is easy to assume that the most familiar interpretation of the most familiar passages in the most familiar translation reflects biblical truth. Any alternative reading may be met with suspicion, even hostility, and passages that might challenge key assumptions ignored or glossed over. (Those most hostile to Christianity sometimes mirror this, focusing on a few quotes which are morally questionable or objectionable and making out that this is typical of the Bible as a whole.)

Even Christians who are used to dealing with complex matters in the secular world may embrace such an approach, which allows them to escape from the uncertainties and dilemmas of the modern world, and be accepted in circles where conformity is regarded as a mark of godliness.

Meanwhile opportunists may cash in on this fervour, claiming to speak for God, while church leaders whose own views are different may shy away from challenging such narrowness for fear of the reaction. In turn, other Christians may downplay the value of the Bible.

This is, I think, one of the reasons why dialogue on topics such as sexuality or the nature of the atonement in an atmosphere of fellowship and mutual respect can be so difficult. Amid fear of being branded as a heretic or of failing to prevent a split, hearing what the living God might be saying to people today, and acting on it, can be hard.

It is probably impossible to read the Bible with a wholly open mind – and indeed tradition, reason and experience can enrich our understanding. At the same time, we may have something to learn from those whose beliefs may at first seem strange or distressing, and they may have something to gain from us if we can address their arguments thoughtfully.

We can attempt to be open-hearted, not assuming the worst of others whose beliefs are different from our own, and at the same time being willing to examine their arguments critically rather than stay silent to avoid being labelled as 'a tool of Satan'.

In a spirit of love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, Christians can grow towards a greater knowledge of the truth. New translations, new interpretations of familiar biblical passages and careful attention to other sections which have previously been overlooked all have a part to play.

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(c) Savi Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, society, religion and LGBT issues. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector

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