If Copyright is Right, then how do we improve what is Left?

Under Open Scriptures, Rob makes the following thought provoking comment:

I’ve long wondered about the concept of copyrighting the Bible, as this seems to serve as a barrier to sharing the gospel. Plus since the authorship is truly of the Holy Spirit, can the work of the Holy Spirit be copywritten[sic]?

While not a lawyer and therefore not giving legal advice, Stan Gundry gives some informed insight into this issue in a comment under The production of the TNIV/NIV Bible–the Standard of Integrity.

I’ve wondered, too, about how copyright fits with a message that ultimately comes from God. For example, the whole idea of copyrighting the “original text” seems an impossible conundrum to me. If the text is understood to be quite accurate, then it captures what can’t be copyrighted–it being ancient and in the public domain. The opposite would also be true, but the text would hardly be worth anything–not being accurate. A well done analysis producing a highly accurate “original text” is at best a labor of love and an offering of worship. Perhaps the best the copyright holder may hope for is to lay claim to any errors proved out in the court of textual analysis. What can I say: may verdicts in the holder’s favor be few, but proved.

However, it seems to me that copyrighting a sacred text–a Bible–more than any other type of text, should serve the same purpose as intended by the U.S. Constitutional Copyright Clause (see the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8). Or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Progress Clause. In other words, the purpose and intent of copyright is to promote progress. If there is anything that would promote progress more fully than any other endeavor, it is the translation of the message from God. Constitutional statement or not, I think that statement stands tall and true.

That gets a bit tricky, however. Can, through progress, the Bible be made better? Can it itself be improved?

That question, worded in that way, results in a quick, and I believe accurate, answer: “No! Of course not!” μὴ γένοιτο springs to mind.

However, when we refer to the Bible, we’re really referring to a translation. And translations can be improved. And this is where it gets a bit awkward. I think it’s important to realize the original meaning hasn’t changed–μὴ γένοιτο again. And I also think it’s important, though rather obvious, to observe that a specific translation hasn’t changed. The issue is not with either of those areas. So, what’s driving the desire for improvement? The issue is we’ve changed. And change will continue.

So, what needs improved? Do we seek to unchange us? Is it somehow that we’ve decayed, become less the image of God, less able to understand heavenly things (John 3)? Do we need to go back to the “good ‘ole days?” I don’t really think so (though I disagree with the evolutionist’s presupposition that we are inherently better than we once were.) Humans are inherently the progeny of fallen Adam. And that’s the way it has been almost since the beginning of time. So, I think the focus of real improvement lies with committing to improving the translation for the intended audience?

If the audience seeks a translation which bridges a mental gap between the original language and the modern one, then a translation needs to provide more than just a resulting text. It also needs to provide tools to help the reader bring the literal nature of that bridging text more fully into clear and natural English. Otherwise the uninformed user of the text, even with the best of intentions, will falter when dealing with all the intertwined ambiguities inherent in a literal text. They need a community (a body) of helpers (I’ll talk more of this in a moment). The way through this is to provide additional tools as well as educational helps to promote the needed skill. I suggest to Bible publishers that they market integrated sets of books which meet these needs. The idea is for the user to start with a literal translation and use the provided tools, packaged together, to develop a resulting clear and natural translation in their own language.

If the audience seeks a translation which is already rendered in clear and natural language, then my questions are:

  • How does one know the rendered text is in this clear and natural language?
  • Why did the translators decide to render the original in the way they did? In other words, what’s the connection between the “clear and natural” and the “original meaning.” Can we expose that and thereby not only enable a deeper understanding, but get past the so common misunderstanding that a non-literal translation “does not ‘say’ what the Greek says.”
  • Since language changes over time, is there a way, using modern technology, to promote continuous improvement?
  • How does one balance ‘continuous improvement’ (of translations) with the ongoing need of education (by teachers).

And, furthermore, I think with both these audiences, the following questions are appropriate:

  • Should continuous, broadly represented, respectful, translation-focused discussion be the norm and therefore the real solution?
  • Should such discussion be encouraged and therefore leveraged so that it feeds into new and better Bible translations?
  • How could that be done?

In any case, nothing is ever a true barrier to sharing the gospel. It seems that God has so ordered things such that the strongest of barriers only strengthen the message all the more.

The idea of a barrier to the gospel reminds me of an old story, probably apocryphal, of Caligula interrogating a common, ordinary man that refused to recant from preaching about Jesus. As the interrogation proceeded, Caligula became ever more frustrated. In anger and in clear finality he said something like, “Do you not fear me? Do you not know I have power over your life and death? What do you say? I have spoken. My name is Caligula.”

The lowly man replied–calmly and with great poise–“You are indeed powerful, most honorable Caligula. But I have no fear. Not of you or any other. For I do not fear death. You see, I have known death and now I live. I live because of Jesus. He has spoken my name. My name is Lazarus.”

Doesn’t the resurrection speak clearly of our yet future, final improvement?

So, as I’ve worked through this complex copyright issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that the seeming incongruity of copyrighting God’s Book is not the big issue. Nor is it a fundamental one.

The real issue is how do we improve translations?

The Bible Experience: The Easter Story

Read today’s blog post at Camy’s Loft: The Bible Experience: The Easter Story. There’s a great recommendation for The Bible Experience dramatization of the TNIV. And you can find out how to download the Easter story from The Bible Experience for free. I’ve been listening to it and it’s good.

You can also click here to download The Bible Experience: The Easter Story from the Zondervan website. It’s a free download in mp3 format.