Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faith
According to one survey, 92 percent of American households own a Bible, and of those who own a Bible, the average number owned is three.
Owning a Bible is one thing; reading it is another. According to a 2000 Gallup survey, only 37 percent of Americans read the Bible at least once per week. And women (42 percent) read it more than men (32 percent).
Beyond reading it, only 14 percent of Americans belong to a Bible study.
Then we look at understanding it. Decreasing biblical literacy is common knowledge. Here are just a few examples from that same Gallup survey: only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels, only 42 percent could identify Jesus as the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 12 percent of adults believe that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.
That was more than 10 years ago; today it’s only worse.
To help address that dearth of reading and understanding the Bible, 120 scholars from 24 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faith communities have created a new translation called the Common English Bible (CEB).
The CEB is sponsored by an alliance of publishers from the following denominations: Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.
The CEB seeks to make the Bible more accessible to the common reader. It tries to substitute more natural wording for traditional biblical terminology. For instance, where most Bibles use the term “son of man” in the Old Testament (e.g. Ezekiel 2:1) the CEB translates it as “human.” In the New Testament, where Jesus uses the Greek version of this term of himself—probably with messianic overtones—the CEB renders it “the Human One.” Another example of common English is substituting “harass” for “persecute”: “If the world harassed me, it will harass you too” (John 15:20).
The CEB uses a balance of dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence translation principles. It measures ease of comprehension using the standard Dale-Chall Readability Formula to attain a seventh-grade reading level. The translators’ goal was to produce a rendering of the Bible at the same reading level as the USA Today newspaper. One element of this is the use of contractions. “Do not be afraid” in the NRSV becomes “Don’t be afraid.”
People always ask, Why a new translation? One reason is that language and language communities are constantly changing. Adapting an ancient and beloved text to current audiences is no small task.
2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible translation, which is widely lauded as a remarkable literary feat. Even militant atheists such as the late Christopher Hitchens praise its beautiful, poetic language.
Without disparaging its literary quality, one needs to ask, Is it readable? Produced in the language of Shakespeare, it is readable. But is it read? And if read, is it understood?
I suspect that many of the scholars who laud its beauty don’t necessarily believe its content.
The CEB is meant to be read and understood, not to be treated in some otherworldly manner. Whether or not we use this new translation, let us at least read the book that helps form our faith.
Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.