An outsider’s view of a Bible controversy

It is somewhat unusual to find a view on a controversy related to Bible translations expressed by someone writes “I’m not a Christian”, which goes beyond praise for the supposed literary excellence of the King James Version. Indeed that is just where Tim Footman starts his article in The Guardian, one of the UK’s main left-leaning newspapers. What is interesting is the direction he takes it in.

The background for this is the work in progress on translating the Bible into Jamaican Patois, a language in which there is so far no Scripture although it is the mother tongue of five million people. Eddie Arthur reported several months ago on the controversy in Jamaica about this project, linked to a Christianity Today article, and then wrote a follow-up post. But it has taken until today for the Church Times (yes, and the contributors to this blog) to take any notice of this controversy. The new post at the Church Times blog is prompted by an article in the right-leaning Telegraph (actually not their first article about this) which quotes “Former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, who left the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic” (she left because she could not accept ordination of women), who

said: “It’s one thing to turn the Bible into modern vernacular, but to turn it into patois is utterly ridiculous. When you dumb down you take away any meaning it might have.”She said that she supported attempts to widen the readership of the Bible, but believes that this goes too far.

Well, Ms Widdecombe, do you actually realise that this is not “dumbing down” but translation into a foreign language, even if it is one which has some superficial resemblances to English?

It is to these comments, and similar ones from Prudence Dailey of the Prayer Book Society, that Tim Footman responds. After accepting, as a non-Christian, that his preference for the King James Version is purely aesthetic, he writes perceptively:

If I believed that people’s only hope of avoiding hellfire was by accepting Jesus Christ as their saviour, then I’d want his message packaged in the most accessible shape or form. If sinners respond best to theological versions of chick lit and James Blunt, that’s what the church should offer, ideally without jettisoning the old stuff entirely. It’s bums on pews and souls in the right place that matter, not the Booker prize.

Yes, Tim, you are right. And since I do believe your premise (although I wouldn’t primarily express my belief in terms of hellfire), I accept your conclusions, not so much about “bums on pews” but certainly about “souls in the right place”. But, he continues,

Funnily enough, some people who profess to be Christians don’t appear to think this way.

– and proceeds to quote Widdecombe and Dailey. Then he makes the following sensible comments (although I don’t expect my American readers to understand the “MCC tie” reference!):

These are exactly the arguments that traditionalists used against the reforms of Vatican II, which led to the Catholic mass being said in a language that most of the congregation could actually understand; the same arguments, in fact, against translating the Bible itself into languages other than Latin in the first place.The most significant aspects of their religion would appear to be the social and political, rather than the spiritual. They speak of a Christianity not of love and forgiveness and justice, but of order and tradition and control, a society frozen at some point in about 1860. Everyone knows his or her status: the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate; women content to polish the pews and make the tea; gay people utterly invisible. If Jamaicans wish to hear the word of God, it must be enunciated in cut-glass tones; Tunbridge Wells, not Trenchtown. God, after all, sports an MCC tie.

This whole attitude strikes me as being a tad un-Christian. But what do I know? I’m just a poor bloody heathen. And the more I hear from Widdecombe and Dailey and their ilk, the more likely I am to stay that way.

I wonder if Widdecombe and Dailey, and others who express similar views like Dr Leland Ryken, realise what kind of witness they are being to outsiders like Tim Footman. And if they did, would they care, or do they consider preservation of 17th century English literary style more important than saving the lost?

The ever-renewing endurance of the vernacular

As I was recently visiting a Christian college, a book in the bookstore caught my eye (not exactly unusual). The title is “Translating the Message, The Missionary Impact on Culture”, written by Lamin Sanneh.

A paragraph stands alone, in more ways than one, at the very beginning of the book. It not only convicts the many historians who have, with incredulous blindness to the obvious, missed how Christianity has shone on the human face of this world, but it shows unequaled perception into how the Lord Jesus has used the common language of people to carry the so freely offered message along that very pathway of history.

Here’s the quote–read it slowly, since it’s packed with keen insight.

The issue that frequently escapes the dragnet of the historian is the cumulative capital Christianity has derived from the common language of ordinary people. To the secular historian this fact has only political significance as a force for incitement; to the economic and social historian it is a fact that creates social mobility, and perhaps social tension. Yet to a Christian the confident adoption of vernacular speech as consecrated vessel places it squarely at the heart of religious change, and thus at the heart of historical consciousness. The central and enduring character of Christian history is the rendering of God’s eternal counsels into terms of everyday speech. By that path believers have come to stand before their God.


To the phrase, “vernacular speech as consecrated vessel,” I say, “Amen.”