“You must be doers of the word and not only hearers...” James 1.22
“How much longer are we stuck with this Bible translation?!”
Last week, I fielded another strongly-worded version of the question that comes up many times these days. If you’ve had your own questions or experienced visceral reactions (negative, even) amidst our three-year lectionary journey through the Common English Bible translation, rest assured that your perspective on the CEB has likely been well-represented!
I admit, the critiques are received loud and clear. In fact, I often agree with them. It can be jarring to hear some of our most familiar and beloved passages from Holy Scripture translated using different words or phrases from the familiar translations, like the New Revised Standard or even the King James/Authorized.
(A couple weeks ago, I remember it was the overly vernacular phrase, “Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers,” translated from Ephesians, that really got this person’s goat. Others have noted in the past that the familiar phrase “Son of Man” is always translated in the CEB as “The Human One.” This is troubling to some, perhaps feeling that it reduces Jesus’ divine nature just a little too much.)
On August 29, we read in Mark’s Gospel that when the religious leaders confront Jesus that his disciples aren’t following their ritual practices, he responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about, when he prophesied about you hypocrites!”
These sorts of colloquial translations include casual phrases, informal style with lots of contractions, and speech patterns that can come off as truly anachronistic when reading back into 1st or 2nd century texts, or even further back to Before the Common Era (BCE).
Besides all that, I think we just tend to find comfort in the steadiness of words from a single translation, washing over us, undergirding us, reassuring us in trying, unsteady, uncertain times. (We Episcopalians are, after all, kind of known for our ritual forms and repetitive practices!)
You may not be aware that we have a few Bible translations authorized for use in the Episcopal Church. Some of them are more historic or traditional translations, like the King James and the Revised Standard versions, now rendered less reliable by more recent archeologic discoveries, scholarship, and emerging dynamics in an evolving modern society. The most common translation currently in use, is the one we are used to reading here at Grace – the New Revised Standard Version. It has been available since 1989. The NRSV drew newly discovered ancient manuscripts for its basis, and sought to render as much of the text as possible in gender-inclusive language.
The Common English Bible is a very recent translation, being released just a decade ago. It was written to be accessible to more people, to be read, heard and understood by a wider audience. The language choices of the CEB were geared toward a 7th grade reading level. Hence, the contractions and casual phrases, and more common word choices.
I doubt at this point I have won many doubters over to the side of the CEB. And don’t worry, we are getting closer and closer to the end of “Year B” and will soon begin our final year in this translation before returning to the well-worn grooves of the NRSV.
But I also need to say this about our experiment. The fact that we are noticing things we don’t like and hearing the words of the Bible in new ways; the fact that folks are speaking up and pointing things out; the experience of our stuttering and stumbling over the unfamiliar or grating words or phrases in this different translation is really kind of the point! And your responses show us that we are right on track with this endeavor.
Because we hear in Scripture, and especially in the letter of James *from which we’ll be reading over the next several Sundays) that there is an essential, inextricable relationship between faith, action, and words. What we hear and what we say matter, but how much they matter to US shows up in how we act toward others. And that’s where our true faith is revealed – in how we live out our lives, in what we do.
And James goes on in Chapter 1 to offer examples of the kind of actions that look like what we hear from Jesus/what we often SAY about Jesus: being good listeners, holding back our opinions and our own indignation so that we can better understand and empathize others; being humble and doing right; taking care of those who are vulnerable and alone.
These are the kinds of matters we are called to care about. These are the priorities that would inspire faithful activity by followers of Jesus. These are the ways that our words and intentions to follow Jesus can work themselves out in our lives.
I want to say something else, too, about a dynamic showing up in our culture these days: something very dangerous is happening, turning the words&actions relationship on its head. Some folks are using words to dismiss, diminish, or discredit well-intentioned actions for goodness and justice by faithful people.
We hear a lot in the news and commentary about “ woke “ culture. The term didn’t originate as a derogatory thing, but it sure has been co-opted as a weapon – often against folks trying to do the right things and work to move society toward righteousness for all: those fighting for equal rights for queer and trans people, or for voting rights (especially in marginalized communities), or for economic justice for those hardest hit by the pandemic; or for those who advocate for love of neighbor by getting vaccinated or masking up; or for those who fight against drug culture and advocate for those in addiction, or for those who need food to eat and a safe place to lay their heads tonight (no matter where they are from or what they look like or how they believe or what choices may have led to their not having a home).
Friends, we say as Christians that we follow Jesus. And in saying that we follow Jesus we make a commitment to do things like Jesus would do—to work for a good and just world like Jesus did, and like he calls us to.
When we hear the words of Scripture in new and surprising ways, my prayer is that we ingest and digest God’s Word to activate our faith in this world. It can make our word count for more, because we’ll be doing things that look like the faith we profess.
When we do move from our words of faith into action, I pray that we’ll keep going forward, committed to the cause of love in all we do, no matter what the cost.
Meanwhile, let’s keep reading the CEB. Let’s keep getting hung up on words and phrases we don’t like. Let’s keep talking to each other about it—complaining, even! Because the fact that we are talking about what we’re hearing means that we might have a better chance to be transformed by it and to become doers and not only hearers of the word.