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More unmerited mercy

Battling against ideologies that mistranslate the Bible, kill neighborhoods, and hurt students. Not so often battling against my own pride

More unmerited mercy

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Ten articles published in a WORLD series that concluded on Feb. 13, 2010, portrayed my movement from atheism (1968) to Communism (1972) to Christ (1976), and showed how God over the next two decades moved me into university teaching, WORLD editing, and welfare reform (worldmag.com/olaskyseries).

I kept writing those articles because subscribers kept asking what came next in my stumbling progress. During the past two years many have asked for a sequel. This seems a good time to write it, because 2012 is the 15th anniversary of a crisis that could have sunk WORLD but ended up strengthening commitment to the Bible-and the Bible is under attack once again, in different ways.

The crisis began in 1997 when a pastor called and said the translation committee responsible for the New International Version (NIV) was considering major revisions. He was right: The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) was quietly changing the NIV, at that time by far the best-selling English language Bible translation, one turned to and trusted by at least half of American evangelicals.

When we delved, it became clear that feminist cultural trends, which had blown through liberal churches in the 1960s and '70s, were digging at the foundations of evangelical ones. The goal of the new translation, according to the NIV's British publisher, was "to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language."

That was startling: My wife Susan and I had always thought that the goal of translators was to make clear the meaning of the original, not mute it. Susan wrote a cover story that reported the CBT's wholesale revision not as a matter for publishers and clergy only but as something in which pew-sitters had a stake.

Since Zondervan and the International Bible Society (IBS), the American publishers, were planning to market the retranslation without announcing the changes, we called the new version a "stealth Bible." The story provoked an immediate reaction. Both Zondervan and the International Bible Society rejected the article's suggestion that ideology was the driving force behind the translation.

Their public-relations staffs also protested the high-profile way WORLD chose to report it. They said we were not only behind the times but divisive. They quoted the code of ethics of the Evangelical Press Association, which insisted that members-WORLD was one-not do or say anything that could hurt the brands of other members.

We pushed on, producing more articles in subsequent months. It was exciting. Not only was our upstart publication taking on behemoths, but the evangelical world had risen up and declared, "Don't mess with our Bible." The heat of battle, weekly deadlines, and my old tendencies toward intellectual pride made for a potent brew.

When theologians not tied to the CBT got their hands on the retranslation and analyzed it, they noted that thousands of verses were at stake. They found striking changes of meaning. For example, the new translation shifted Psalm 1's teaching about the godly individual sometimes standing alone-"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked ..."-to a collective: "Blessed are those who do not walk. ..."

Plus, many pastors have pointed out that only one person fully delighted in the law of the Lord and never sinned: Christ Himself. The change to "those" eliminated that reminder. It seemed to me that since God's inspired writers praised individual courage and pointed us to Christ, translators should not misdirect us.

While all this was going on, a battle closer to home was also teaching me about ideology undermining something good. My family and I lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood a dozen minutes from downtown Austin, Texas. Our University Hills neighbors-black, Hispanic, and white-said hello to each other. Our children hiked along a tiny creek that adjoined our backyard and emptied into a larger creek where they could wade and look for fossils.

University Hills was also one of those East Austin neighborhoods holding on by its fingernails as increasing crime and drug use threatened to drag it down into poverty and fear. In 1997 one neighbor, Alma Jean Ward, a 58-year-old deaf woman, walked out of a convenience store close to us. She could not hear the shouting between two rival gangs that preceded shooting. She walked into the crossfire and died.

At a quickly called neighborhood association meeting, residents asked, "How many tragedies will we have to endure before someone gets serious?" They said, "We need more police protection. We get ignored." Think of a Frank Capra movie or a Norman Rockwell painting, yet with faces of varied hues, and you can imagine how good it was, in times of racial bitterness, to see diversity becoming unity.

The sad part of this scene is that citizen involvement produced little response from the Austin city council. One of my neighbors said, "The environmentalist side of town doesn't care about our environment." That was the truth. Affluent environmentalists who dominated Austin politics spent more time discussing a development that threatened a species of cave spiders west of the city.

Protecting people or cave spiders? I wrote biweekly columns for the Austin daily newspaper at that time and didn't win friends by critiquing an ideology that preferred eight legs to two. "You're an idiot," one citizen responded, and others sent stronger messages.

I made no progress in that local debate, but in the Bible battle pastors and theologians like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and Al Mohler supported WORLD's position and pointed out CBT mistranslations. Jerry Falwell ordered 50,000 reprints of our article.

Meanwhile, IBS felt the heat from supporters who had contributed over the years to get the Bible into the hands of more people, and not to have more hands transforming its meaning. Under enormous pressure, the IBS board announced it would preserve the traditional NIV and discontinue all plans to put out a new, gender-neutral version.

IBS and Zondervan executives even agreed to a statement declaring "many of the translating decisions" made by the re-translators to be "not wise choices." But they could not regain the trust they had lost. Other groups developed or pushed ahead with plans for new translations: Southern Baptists created the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Crossway Books would soon bring out the English Standard Version.

Neither of those tried to mute biblical concepts. Both cut into the NIV's "market share." Zondervan and IBS in 2002 would come out with Today's NIV, the same ideological translation they had shelved in 1997. Last year they dumped the traditional NIV and came out with a translation that incorporated some anti-patriarchalism but dropped the worst mistranslations. But by then, few cared all that much. The NIV was no longer standard, and new translations provided good options.

It was good to defend the Bible's integrity 15 years ago, but it was dangerous to WORLD. The Evangelical Press Association (EPA) created a committee to review an ethics complaint against us. The key charge was this: "WORLD seems to be unconscious of its duty to protect the good names and reputations of Zondervan Publishing House, International Bible Society, and Committee on Bible Translation."

Would WORLD survive? We had lost book advertising, as expected. We had unexpectedly gained some readers. But now some EPA members wanted to ruin our reputation. We awaited the outcome, noting that "The members of the ethics committee have before them a historic decision: they have the power to promote independent Christian journalism or to stifle it."

Meanwhile, I was still a professor at The University of Texas at Austin. None of my colleagues wanted to teach the 500-student introductory course for journalism majors, Critical Thinking for Journalists, so I seized the opportunity.

"Critical thinking" on college campuses is often a euphemism for Marxist thinking, but here was an opportunity to examine overreaches on the right and the left. Students would see how press coverage of the pro-life and Intelligent Design movements was biased. They could become journalists with a much wider lens than many of their peers.

The course readings I chose introduced them to Noam Chomsky and others on the left but also to Thomas Sowell's new book The Vision of the Anointed, which criticized secular liberalism. Sowell wrote of reporters lying for supposed social justice, turning homeless folks from central casting into mascots, and never wasting a crisis that could be used to grow government.

The course quickly became controversial. Some students complained that they were hearing from me ideas that directly contradicted what they had learned from other UT professors. That was exactly the point.

Some of my faculty colleagues were exceptionally weird: One refused to state whether s/he was a he or a she: S/he announced that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays s/he was "male," and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays "female." But I didn't try to get to know this human being: Maybe on Sunday I acted as a Christian, and on Monday through Friday I was a condemner. Could it be that the temptation to mock the weirdness arose when I forgot the basic gospel message: God saves sinners, of whom I am the worst?

Many professors believed what I had believed before Christ grabbed me. One whose office was a few doors down from mine put up hard-core socialist posters and sign-up sheets. I didn't talk with her. Instead, I put up a Ronald Reagan poster showing in one column forecasts by academic experts that the Soviet Union would grow stronger, and in the other Reagan's prediction that the evil empire soon would crumble.

My poster told the truth and hers did not, but all I got for fighting a poster war rather than reaching out personally was someone scrawling swastikas on mine-and I felt more under attack.

Another example: Despite the problems of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, UT leaders encouraged student promiscuity by placing condom machines in dorms. I went with two Christian doctors before the Faculty Senate to propose their removal. The doctors explained that a culture of condom use led to more tragedy, not less. Many of the illustrious professors responded by making jokes and giggling like middle-schoolers.

And yet, while their group behavior was irritating, why did it surprise me? Wasn't I just like them before Christ opened my eyes? When I forgot that, my tendency was to put them in a box and write them off as hopeless.

At UT I was used to being in the minority and making waves. Some of that attitude was apparent in my writing about the ethics charge against WORLD. In one column-headlined "Throw the book at us, please"-I acknowledged that we had reduced public confidence in Zondervan and IBS, but did not apologize for that: "If telling the truth is unethical, we hope to be unethical next month, and the month after, and the month after that."

I thought my closing paragraph was pretty snappy: "The good thing about ethics charges, by the way, is that they provide parents with a powerful disciplinary tool. Since my wonderful wife wrote the Stealth Bible exposé, I can now tell our children, 'Better obey your mom. She's been brought up on ethics charges. No telling what she might do.'"

Snappy-or snarky? When the Evangelical Press Association board refused to endorse a document criticizing WORLD, we celebrated victory. We fought for a crucial principle: Scripture passes judgment on ideologies, not ideologies on Scripture. We declared that translators need humility in approaching God's Word-but did I always have humility in criticizing the translators, or the city council members and professors in Texas?

No. I was as much in need of a Savior as those on the other side of all those debates. The only difference between me and some of my faculty colleagues is that for some mysterious reason I had received completely unmerited mercy from Christ, and they apparently had not. But as I battled vigorously, was I a good ambassador for Christ?

The question is important for us today, as those who stand on Scripture face Darwinians, "open theism" advocates, gay lobbyists, and others. We daily need God's grace as we try to be truthful but also loving, amid hostility.

I messed up in different ways from 1998 to 2000, as my next episode in WORLD, in two months, will show.

Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.