Monday, September 14, 2009

Watch Your Language

This Sunday our pastor preached an excellent sermon on the tongue. We all need to hear this from time-to-time, but something bothered me, not about the sermon but about the Scripture reading – James 3:1-12. Our church uses the New Revised Standard Version and verse 7 read, “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species”. Human species? The translators were very careful to use ‘human species’ instead of ‘man’(NIV). Now I have read many translations and all of them have certain passages that are clumsily translated and I do not make an issue of it. But what is behind this is something different. It is someone’s agenda. It is the attempt to make our Bibles and our speech “gender-neutral”. Although it is well-intentioned, I think it is a bad idea.

Languages, those still in use, are constantly changing. New words appear and older words often fall into disuse. Words acquire new meanings, gain additional meanings and lose other meanings. Words that are acceptable in one era are considered rude or vulgar in another. In defending the ‘gender-neutral’ agenda one translator said that the use of male pronouns to refer to both males and females, for example, was falling into disuse and, therefore, should be discontinued. I do not agree. What is happening is that some are trying to push the language in that direction. We all use language to suit our own purpose and to influence others, but I object to those who try to force changes in the English language to promote their own goals.

This has been done successfully before. Think of the word ‘gay’. Fifty years ago it meant ‘happy’; now it means ‘homosexual’. Was this a natural development of the word or did some promote the word because they wanted to promote their social agenda? It is definitely the latter. The homosexual ‘community’ promoted it and the media helped them to make it the most common word to refer to them. It worked. You might say it is good or bad, but it certainly helped homosexual activity to be more acceptable than it formerly was. (Now I am not saying that it is okay to use some of the more colorful terms for homosexuals, but that is another issue.)

Some in the church and in academia are pushing the language in what they believe is a good direction, but it is making speech more awkward even if it is politically correct. The first time that I heard a preacher say ‘humankind’ instead of ‘mankind’ it sounded extremely artificial to me. It still does. Are we making the language better by making it more awkward? Those who speak this way do not want to emphasis the ‘man’ sound in ‘mankind’, so they say ‘humankind’. The funny part of this is that the root of the word ‘mankind’ and ‘humankind’ is the same –it is ‘man’. But you emphasize “man” in mankind’, but “hu” in ‘humankind’.

Even worse, when listening to a series lectures by Bible scholars, I heard several of them use the phrase, “God is building God’s kingdom” instead of “God is building His kingdom”. Now they are trying to avoid using “His” with reference to God and the reason is good enough. God, as a pure spirit, has no gender and they do not want to imply that He is male. (Oops!) And I agree that we might need to explain that fact to some young Christians, but that should part of our normal instruction anyway. One of my problems with this is that it just sounds silly. I know that we need to be respectful and sensitive in our speech, but I think we should sound human as well. (Now this is the right way to use the word ‘human’.) Communication, in speech or in writing, must not only be accurate it needs to have a ‘flow’. It ought to be easily readable (if it written) or be easy on the ears (if spoken). Translating the Bible is hard enough without adding to it someone’s agenda, be it good or bad. Let’s translate it the way people speak and not the way we think they ought to speak.

At this point, you might be thinking that this is a small issue that only affects English ‘style’. Consider John 14:23 in the TNIV: “Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’” Beautiful, isn’t it? It is, but there is a problem here. In the Greek, the word translated ‘them’ is not plural but singular. The translator did not want to use ‘him’, the best English equivalent, but opted for ‘them’ to keep it gender-neutral. The problem is that it changes the meaning of the passage. This promise is not given to a group (church or fellowship) but to the individual Christian. A person reading the TNIV or NRSV would not know that. What a shame it would be if someone who read this never found out that Jesus and the Father wanted to make their home with them on a individual, personal basis. I really do not think that what might be gained by promoting a gender-neutral agenda is worth what it does either to our English Bible or to the English language.

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