Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please

The launch of a new online Bible version has been in the news lately: the Conservative Bible Project. The project’s overseer, Andrew Schlafly, even scored an interview this week on the current-events place to be, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

This “translation”  is being spotlighted because it differs from other Bible versions in at least two important ways. First, it’s written by readers. In Internet jargon, the content is open source, a “wiki.”

The theory is that, over time, the best version will emerge. It’s literary Darwinism, the survival of the textual fittest – which is ironic because the host site, Conservapedia, isn’t fond of evolution.

The other major difference is that the editors diligently impose a point of view on the text, vetting passages according to 10 “conservative guidelines.” Renderings must fit into the “framework against liberal bias … utilize powerful conservative terms … express free-market parables” and other criteria.

The results are mixed. Many changes are harmless. Others, however, mangle the meanings. For example, a straightforward translation of Acts 2:44 describes the earliest church in Jerusalem: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

According to the “proposed conservative” translation, however, “Everyone who believed was together and shared values, faith, and the truth.”

That last phrase simply isn’t in the actual text, Greek or otherwise. But as a note of “analysis” helpfully informs us, the original could be “misread as socialistic,” and so the Conservative Bible adds the gloss.

Likewise, when a rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the conservative version waters down Jesus’ words, almost doubling the word count in the process: “You lack one thing, you need to rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure to the point that if you were destitute you would still rejoice in the Lord. For doing so will give you the greatest treasure of all, the glory of heaven. Do this and follow my teachings.”

This, despite the Conservative Bible’s claim to favor “conciseness over liberal wordiness” and “not … diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity.”

Apparently, any guideline is trumped by the risk of Jesus actually challenging conservative policies.

And that’s the point. The problem isn’t about being conservative or liberal. For people who take scriptures – any scriptures – seriously, a more important principle is at stake.

The Conservapedia approach turns translation on its head. Instead of coming to Scripture as students to learn what God might be saying, translators turn into dictators, forcing the text to fit their preset ideas.

But the folks at the Conservative Bible Project are not alone in this sort of ideological narcissism. They’re just more obvious. We all want to see what we want. We’re all prone to emphasize some points and then neglect or even bend others that make us squirm.

We can see it on the right, this case in point. We can see it on the left as well when, for example, interpreters go through verbal gymnastics over those thorny passages about, say, homosexual relations, war or the exclusive claims of Jesus. But if we read the texts honestly, we’ll find plenty to upset everyone.

That’s inevitable. We’re all shaped by culture, by personal experience, by the company we keep, by a dozen other factors that affect our reading of Scripture and our response to it. The key is to keep that in mind – humility is the word – and try to compensate. (That is one reason most reliable translations are done by committees of people from various backgrounds, with scholars.) This is not easy work and perfect reading is impossible, but open eyes and open minds can get us closer.

One message of the Christmas story is that God isn’t bound by our assumptions about how the world works. God is clear on that point, according to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Jesus came by stealth, the story says, born to obscure working-class parents, which is not what most people expected. The ones who first recognized Jesus’ birth for what it was (at least without the help of singing angels) were traveling foreigners, probably pagan astrologers, who kept their eyes open. We still sing about them.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Dec 2009.

We do believe in spooks. We do. We do. We do.

 Ghost poster


That’s the word in pop culture. It’s hard to keep up with the revolving doors of TV programming, but the primetime schedule is well populated with psychics (“Medium”), ghosts (“Ghost Whisperer”), vampires (“True Blood”), demons (“Supernatural”) and other paranormal wonders (“Heroes,” “Lost,” etc.). That’s not even counting the movies, the books and the blogs.

Some observers wonder if this fascination with things that go bump in the night indicates a rising interest in so-called alternative realities.

A rising interest? It’s already high. Gallup polls consistently find that about 75 percent of Americans hold some form of belief in the paranormal, including extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation or channeling.

This is old news in East Tennessee, which has long offered fertile ground for supernatural stories – and little wonder, with its hills and hollers, its spiritual fervor and its long heritage of early Native American and Scots-Irish settlers (who brought tales from the old countries).

It’s all familiar territory for Nancy Hamblen Acuff, a well-known researcher into alternative realities for three decades, about as long as she taught developmental psychology at ETSU before retiring in 1993. As the official historian for her native Sullivan County, she dug into local folklore – and that led her to ghost hunting.

“I started to collect these stories and began to realize there’s more to this than folklore,” she explained in a phone interview. “With my background in psychology, I had to say this is not just someone’s fantasy or mental illness. This is something else.”

She started to research what that something else might be, including investigating reports of unexplainable events.

“When someone calls me about a problem, I follow it almost as a detective would,” Acuff said. “What kind of occurrence is this? How often does it occur? What was the person’s religious and ethnic background? There are hundreds of questions.”

She recalled a sighting in Johnson City, where a woman who bought an old home kept seeing a man in a World War I army uniform carrying an umbrella. She also heard children’s voices and a barking dog.

Acuff discovered that a minister lived there around 1920, and he was so proud of his wartime service as a chaplain that he often wore his uniform around the property. His family owned a dog.

“I think he was simply captured in time, a true ghost,” Acuff said. “Sounds and images are frozen in time … like a shadow or part of a photograph left in a place. It may diffuse over time. But you’re hearing that puppy from 1920.”

Acuff, who earned a Ph.D. at Ohio State University, also believes in what she calls spirits, “the essence of the person, an entity that can move even in places where they didn’t live in their lifetime.”

The 1990 hit movie Ghost was “one of the more sensitively and accurately done” portrayals of that phenomenon, she said. She thinks the movie may have been a turning point in American acceptance of supernatural phenomena.

Acuff, who was reared as a Christian and now considers herself a “real unitarian, who believes Jesus is the messiah,” believes that acceptance is a good thing.

 “We do not handle death well in this society,” she said. “We are just now moving into a state when we’re beginning to recognize our mortality.”

Acuff suspects more traditional societies, such as those of Native Americans, held a better grasp on death than more complex ones.

“They accepted death as an integral part of the life cycle,” she said. “More complex societies run into so much denial.”

In other words, people in a more modern society find it easier to believe we’re able to keep death at bay with technology, whether it’s chemotherapy or cryogenics or cloning.

But Acuff thinks American views about life, death and afterlife – including how they think about ghosts and spirits – are growing up.

“I think we’re coming into a time of great spiritual maturity,” she said.

That maturity, according to Acuff, understands that life exists in different dimensions, even though we live in only one of them. The mysterious events that stretch the limits of belief – those are strange and rare openings into alternative dimensions.

 “And that’s all right,” she said. “Maybe we’re not supposed to know about the other dimensions. Maybe it’s only by accident that we do know.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 8 Aug. 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 29 Oct. 2005.)

Cowardly lion

Christian retailing: Buyer beware

Xn retailThousands of Christians gathered out West this week, making decisions that could affect millions of believers, with the potential both to strengthen their faith and to ruin it.

I’m not talking about the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which met in Anaheim, Calif.

Instead I’m referring to the International Christian Retail Show, which drew thousands of religious retailers to Denver for a kind of commercial pilgrimage. The convention is “the largest annual gathering in the world of anyone and everyone involved in the creation and distribution of Christian products,” according to CBA, the world’s foremost trade association for Christian stores and the event organizer.

Every year retailers roam among displays of more than 235 publishers, music producers, church-supply distributors, jewelry designers, clothing manufacturers and game makers, looking for new merchandise to feed their customers’ faith. Last year’s convention in Orlando, Fla., attracted almost 7,500 people, representing more than 1,700 stores, from small, independent shops to large chains owned by denominations or multinational corporations.

These shoes are made for walkin' with Jesus: A "witness wear" sample

Christian retail is big business. Sales of Christian products by CBA suppliers totaled $4.63 billion in 2006, and one-third of all Americans made at least one purchase in a Christian bookstore during 2005, according to a Baylor University survey.

But I have never met anyone who works in a Christian store mainly for the money. People who work at local stores say they want to help customers find a book, a CD or something that might provide fresh insight or offer personal help. They use words like “ministry” and talk about “making a difference.” Years ago an independent store owner told me his business was “just another wrench in God’s toolbox.”

Like any human endeavor that holds heavenly ambitions, however, Christian retailing comes with its own special, sometimes subtle dangers, besides the temptations that usually follow the money. Selling a Bible is not like selling a novel, much less a hot dog. Advertising slogans become theological statements, for better or worse.

Jim Street, pastor of North River Church, a small congregation in the Atlanta suburbs, and a former psychology professor at Milligan College, is sensitive to the issue of marketing among Christians. A dozen years ago, he and Milligan theology professor Phil Kenneson co-wrote a book with the self-explanatory title of Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing. Their target was not marketing per se but the problems that come when the church, the mystical body of Christ, is treated like a commodity.

This isn’t an abstract concern to Street. More than 100 other congregations are located within five miles of his church building, he told me in a phone conversation this week, and he’s watched several families depart for churches that offer more goods and services.

“The issue … is not our commitment to one another and to Christ, but ‘what are my needs and desires and which of these buildings can I go to have them met?’” he explained. “I understand the pressures. As the economy gets worse, the temptation to marketing will increase.”

He thinks selling religious merchandise to Christians carries similar risks.

“The fundamental problem with marketing the church and the business surrounding the church is the elevation of the consumer,” he said. “Selling Christian products puts the consumer at the center of attention. We try to understand him and then shape products to meet his needs. There has to be some amount of consumption to be production, but we’ve elevated the consumer to be a kind of idol in and of himself. The consumer is very much in the driver’s seat.”

That may not be a problem when selling cars, but it can be if someone is trying to walk with God. It’s always been easy enough to let social trends, politics, economics, or just the passing “vanity fair” distort Christian messages (and not just Christian ones). Add the power of modern retail marketing and we can end up with merchandise that creates a house of mirrors more than a window into heaven.

“The story of God is about God, and the Bible is about the works of God,” Street said. “We’re participants in the story of God. But marketing looks at consumers and says we have to shape this to fit what we think they need. Marketing wants to make the consumer into a god. That turns the whole biblical narrative on its head.”

Let the buyer beware. Amen.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 18 July 2009.

Jesus wept, and so can we

By the time Alan Wolfelt was 15, his best friend and two of his grandparents had died. He remembers hearing familiar advice about coping with loss: You’ll get over it. Time heals all wounds. Keep your chin up.

But the conventional wisdom didn’t help.

“What people were saying just didn’t make much sense,” he said in a phone interview this week.

By age 16, Wolfelt had written a mission statement for his life: to launch a center to help people deal with loss, a place where they could learn to mourn. Out of his wounds, he said, he found his calling.

Wolfelt, now 54, fulfilled his adolescent vision, earning a doctoral degree as a clinical psychologist and then opening the Center for Loss and Life Transition in 1983. He’s written at least two dozen books about bereavement and grieving. Besides the counseling and teaching he offers at his center in Colorado, he spends up to 75 days a year presenting workshops and seminars across North America.

He comes to Johnson City next week (16-17 June 2009) for two sessions at the Millennium Center, hosted by Tetrick Funeral Services. Tuesday night’s seminar, “Understanding Your Grief: Touchstones for Hope and Healing,” is designed for anyone facing bereavement or caring for those who do. A workshop for caregivers, “The Art of ‘Companioning’ the Mourner,” will be held Wednesday.

Some fundamental facts about grief are easily missed – or dismissed – in our “mourning-avoidance culture,” according to Wolfelt.

For one, the loss of a loved one, particularly a close family member or friend, is a transitional event: there’s no going back. A significant loss takes us to a “new normal.”

“So well-meaning clichés about ‘getting over it’ aren’t that helpful,” he said. “It’s not about resolution or ‘getting back to normal.’ It’s about reconciliation … integrating the new reality with our lives.”

Grieving and mourning are essential parts of that process.

“If we give and receive love, it’s natural to grieve,” Wolfelt said. “It sounds corny, but it’s true: you have to feel it to heal it. When you have a loss, you can’t avoid grief. You have to go through it.”

Mourning, which he defines simply as “grieving made public,” is also an instinctive response, a need to tell and listen to the stories and share in other ways about the people we’ve lost. He goes so far as to say it is impossible for anyone to mourn alone.

Central to Wolfelt’s work is the idea that we need companions to help us grieve. He’s even coined a verb, “companioning,” to describe the task.

“My role as a fellow human being is to help someone feel safe enough to be open in their mourning,” he said. “I can create conditions to help the mourner” by listening, by simply sitting with a grieving person – in short, by acting as a friend rather than a therapist “trying to drag them back to their old normal.”

While his work is not specifically religious, Wolfelt calls grief an inherently spiritual journey, one that forces even the most secular person to ask profound questions about the meaning of life, or about why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t, or about the nature of God.

Wolfelt said he has integrated his clinical expertise and an interest in Eastern philosophy with his Methodist faith to shape his ideas about death and mourning.

People who are spiritual or religious need to “guard against the idea that we don’t need to mourn, or that to do so shows a lack of faith,” he said. “You can have profound faith but still miss the person. But I see a number of people who are shaming themselves” because they think they shouldn’t be sad.

As he pointed out, Jesus himself wept over the death of a friend.

Grief forces hard questions, and Wolfelt encourages them.

“We all have a world view, and then loss flips your world upside down,” he said. “Now you’re faced with questions, some directed at God.”

A good companion, according to Wolfelt, allows mourners to ask the hard questions and search for meaning in the loss.

“If you say ‘Don’t ask why,’ you’re inhibiting one of the instinctive needs to find meaning,” he said. “The very nature of grief leads to searching. But those who do not search, do not find.”

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 13 June 2009.

Rumors that just won’t die

Zombies_Ahead_610x479The rumors still sound ominous.

Atheists, inspired by the now-deceased Madalyn Murray O’Hair, are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to ban all religious broadcasting. If this request – petition RM-2493 – succeeds, then we can say good-bye to church services on the radio, televangelists and all religious programming.

If you want an example of what might happen, consider the fate of that popular CBS-TV series, “Touched by an Angel.” It was taken off the air because it mentioned God in every episode.

Christians can stop the atheists, however, by adding their names to a petition that would force the FCC to keep its big government paws off their broadcasts. The goal is to collect one million names. James Dobson of Focus on the Family endorses this effort to stop RM-2493.

But wait, there’s more!

Redesigned dollar coins and Lincoln pennies omit the words “In God We Trust”!

Jesus will be portrayed as a homosexual in an upcoming film!

Steak ‘N’ Shake restaurants won’t allow its customers to pray in public!

And of course, Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim!

One problem: Not one of these rumors is true. Not one.

According to, one of several Web sites devoted to researching and unraveling rumors and so-called urban legends, more than 40 religion-based rumors are currently blowing around cyberspace. Only a handful of them, however, are emphatically true. The vast majority are bogus in whole or part.

That FCC rumor about removing religious broadcasting? Various versions have circulated for more than 30 years, by chain letter before the days of Internet. It started after two men filed a petition, the infamous RM-2493, asking the FCC to investigate the operating practices of stations licensed to religious organizations and not to grant new licenses for new noncommercial educational broadcast stations until the investigation was complete.

The FCC denied their petition in 1975. O’Hair had nothing to do with it, but her name got attached because she was then America’s most famous atheist.

But the story just won’t die. The FCC still gets mail and phone calls.

 “Such rumors are false,” the FCC Web site bluntly states. “The FCC has responded to numerous inquiries about these rumors and advised the public of their falsehood. There is no federal law that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting religious programs.”

For their part, Dobson and Focus on the Family have never been involved in any controversy over RM-2493, except for efforts to distance themselves from it.

The “Touched by an Angel” Web site also set the record straight in 2001, just after it was renewed for a seventh season: “A chain email has been floating around the internet and our message board stating that the FCC is forcing CBS to take ‘Touched By An Angel’ off the air because we mention the word ‘God. … This is a new variation of an old hoax. If you are a recipient of this email, please ignore it.”

The series ran a total of nine seasons, a long and successful lifespan for any program, and the scripts mentioned God from the first episode. The show ended for the same reason most do: it no longer appealed to the audience advertisers wanted.

Ironically, the same Internet that makes it so easy to spread rumors makes the truth more accessible than ever. Viewers can check out sources directly, such as the FCC, or locate information on sites such as Snopes and Urban Legends.

That being the case, then why do such stories persist, some for decades? Why don’t people check for themselves?

Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe the stories confirm what we already believe or what we want to be true. Maybe it’s a reaction of fear and insecurity, prompts for people who feel threatened by the world around them.


For now, let’s just take the pledge to check the facts and find the truth before we risk passing along a lie.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 May 2009. (This column is an updated version of one that was published on April 29, 2006.)

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Easter: It isn’t kids’ stuff

ea-00004-ceaster-girl-in-rabbit-suit-with-eggs-postersEaster is for grown-ups.

That’s not to say Christmas is just for kids, but we can tell that story to children, start to finish. Babies are cute. Farm animals are usually cute. Angels singing in the sky are cool. (There’s the terrible interlude when King Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s little boys, but that episode is easily avoided.) Christmas is mostly G-rated.

But the only way to talk about Jesus’ resurrection is to deal with a gruesome, unjust death. Easter is rated R – literally, if you recall Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ five years ago.

So for the sake of the kids, we bring on the bunnies. The children wave palm branches one week and the next hunt for eggs and wear new outfits. But in between there’s not much for them. The story is too brutal, and it’s too close for comfort.

Read or listen to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution in one sitting, focusing on what people around Jesus are doing, and you might notice how familiar it sounds. Change the names and a few details, and we could be hearing about some guy getting railroaded by the old-boy network in some mid-major city.

The disciples get confused and then angry and then scared. They want to do the right thing, but they can’t pull themselves together. Peter, the so-called rock, crumbles when confronted by the first-century equivalent of a teenage waitress.

The establishment leaders perform the familiar dance of self-preservation, huddling to engineer an exit for this popular and powerful outsider who threatens their tidy universe.

Perhaps they acted with intentional evil, but maybe they just fell into that long parade of people who convince themselves they are doing the right thing for the public. To those who are charged with maintaining order, any whiff of chaos smells like dung. Security and stability, they say, sometimes require distasteful methods, even if they contradict the values they claim to protect.

So the Jerusalem leaders, intelligent men, decided that Jesus simply had to go, even if he made some sense and raised the dead. (How paranoid and myopic they grew, plotting to murder not just Jesus but Lazarus, the man he raised, because he was a walking demonstration of Jesus’ abilities.)

They talked their way past “Thou shalt not kill” and a dozen more of their holy commandments, in the same way other intelligent people have talked their way into murder, torture, genocide and countless other horrors, all in the name of the people.

We’d recognize the Roman governor too. Pilate, the caretaker of troublesome fringe province, was intrigued by this mostly silent peasant standing before him. But as a minion of the Roman Empire, he discarded his humanity long enough to serve political practicality.

How ordinary and recognizable all this is. And yet, like it or not, this story emerged as one of the great hinges of history. Even our dating system says so.

Momentous events should happen in Rome or its latter-day equivalents – Beijing, Paris, London, New York, Washington – involving people with big offices, big bank accounts or big election returns.

But no. This story could be transplanted anywhere. It’s like the history of the world pivoted around the case of an itinerant preacher in, say, Knoxville.

That’s part of the story’s power: it’s not only for there and then, but also for here and now.

According to New Testament scholars Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright, “The Gospels never say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death’ (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die’ (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.'”

Writing in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, they point out that the gospels interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a “this-worldly” event that established Jesus as the Messiah, “the true Lord of the whole world.”

“The line of thought within the Gospels,” they observe, “is, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.'”

A story that immediate, that familiar, that deadly serious – even grown-ups struggle with it.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 April 2009.

What’s next? Give up blogging for Lent?

In case you missed, the Vatican has urged Roman Catholics to give up high-tech for Lent. Call it a digital fast.

So if most Catholics follow this lead, and the Roman Catholic is the largest single denomination in the world and in the U.S., what would be the cultural and economic impact? And we can only speculate what kind of church-state tensions may surface among elected officials who happen to be Roman Catholic. If they follow the Vatican’s lead, their constituents may be out of touch in today’s environment.

But seriously, folks, there’s a serious point being made here. As the Associated Press story reports:

The Church is trying to balance an increasing appreciation of modern communication with a wariness of new media.

In January, the Vatican launched its own YouTube channel, with Pope Benedict XVI welcoming viewers to this ”great family that knows no borders.”

Benedict praised social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for forging friendships and understanding, but cautioned that online networking could isolate people from real social interaction.

The pope has also warned about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media to trivialize sex and promote violence.

It’s comforting to know the Vatican takes seriously the relationships and implications that rise with the varieties of digital media. If a 40-day fast from high-tech gadgets can jumpstart that conversation among believers, then so be it.