Magazine article U.S. Catholic

We Should Take the Bible at Its Word

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

We Should Take the Bible at Its Word

Article excerpt

Trying to erase offense in the Bible through inclusive-language translations, argues Frederica Mathewes-Green, is a fundamentally misguided task.

Two years ago saw a free-for-all break out in the evangelical Protestant camp over a proposed new "inclusive language" translation of the New International Version Bible. While World magazine, which sounded the alarm, was scolded for joining battle in hysterical and sarcastic tones, the translators were compelled to explain in what sense it was "accurate" to render masculine terms neuter, singulars plural, or produce grammatical whimsies like "everyone... they." As the battle broke open, I found that I wasn't wholeheartedly on either side. On the one hand, I'm a living-language Philistine; I believe that a language in use will be in change and that this organic process must be accommodated. It's futile to fight it.

Friends with sensibilities purer than mine protest that we can't allow ungainly, PC-inspired language changes to occur, but in many cases it's simply impossible to prevent them. Some "improvements" are too awkward to gain common use but when a language shift catches on, it has to run its course. Sometimes, as in the case of the short-lived term "groovy," the word can be toddling out the door within a year. Sometimes, as in the case of the current redefinition of the word "gay," resistance is futile. Anyone who insists on using "gay" to mean "blithe" is begging to be immediately misunderstood and snickered at.

Thus, I recognize that "man" is no longer a coherent synonym for humankind, and I have long avoided it (and other masculine generics) in my writing. Some of my friends are mounting the barricades on this one, because it is a fine and dignified word with excellent credentials, but I think that battle is over. Not that we have to expunge it from our past, retitling books and recarving plaques, ripping the guts from idiomatic sayings; there may even still arise occasions of such dignity that no feebler substitute will do. But in ordinary speech and contemporary writing, most of us have grudgingly learned to avoid using the impolite, impolitic "man."

No, there aren't any good equivalents. "People" is unmelodious; "humankind" is overly earnest; "folks" is unsuitable for situations that don't include a hayride. Too bad. For the time being, people who write about people can't use masculine-flavored group nouns. They won't be clearly understood, and the purpose of writing is communication.

OUR OWN ORIGINAL WRITING IS ONE THING; TRANSLATION IS another. Like it or not, the Bible frequently uses masculine generics in the original languages. Some partisans in the inclusive-language debate insist that we must therefore use masculine generics, like "man," in order to be faithful to scripture.

But this principle of exacting literalism is unevenly applied. The original languages of the Bible also use different terms for singular and plural "you," yet even the most emphatic proponents of literal translation aren't insisting we go back to "thee" and "thou." They acknowledge that archaic, discarded terms can't be resurrected, even if they're more precise. In modern Bibles "you" is used for both singular and plural, and the reader is dependent on footnotes when the distinction is significant (as in Luke 22:31-32).

It's a judgment call, but I believe that here again "man" is now archaic, and should be dealt with the same way. But what about gender-specific words that aren't outdated, words still in everyday use--a "man," "he," "his," "brother"? Should these be avoided, so that women know they're included? …

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