Recently, Christianity Today announced that the TNIV translation (an updated NIV) was being redone to fix some of the “mistakes” that the editing and translating board had perceived as dangerous and in need of repair.
One of the biggest reasons given was the original TNIV’s gender inclusive approach that had altered the grammar of many passages to include sisters, daughters and other (female) left out people groups.
Clearly, there is a great theological discussion to be had on personhood, equality, gender of God, etc., but my focus here is on the grammatical argument. The idea that these changes have made reading hard, obtuse and that the structure is now “wrong” according to the rules of language fails to truly interact with the reality of our gendered experience.
I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble recently. An excellent little work that has nothing to do with biblical translation, but has a very powerful passage in the forward about language, grammar and gender.
She says, “moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral… there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself” (xix). Her point is clear; if a thought, idea or text is radical it might, indeed must, mess with our common sense and break the rules. It seems that there are few Christians who would argue the radical nature of their precious Scriptures, so why neuter the message by constraining it to the rules of the English language, which is so clearly limited?
Butler continues, “formulations that twist grammar or that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are clearly irritating for some. They produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended by such demands. Are those who are offended making a legitimate request for “plain speaking” or does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life?” (italics mine). To understand the point in our present circumstance: are those offended by the apparent literary heresy of the grammatical formulations of equality found in the TNIV really concerned with easy reading or are their interests in something much more perverse, the preservation of sexist orders and attitudes? Using gender inclusive language should be a given, should it not? Personally, I see women everywhere I go and I refer to them as such, not as brothers and fathers and men. Let me remind you, we are not talking about pronouns for God, but for the community of believers.
She goes on to remind us of Richard Nixon’s “perfectly clear” lie and levels questions at the idea of clarity: “Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does “transparency” keep obscure?”
In this case, the “transparency” is keeping a deeply held fear or dismissal (or both) of women obscure. For some reason the Evangelical tradition still does not widely ordain women and now the TNIV is reverting back to ignoring their existence in (some of) the biblical text. When understood in the large scope this is deeply disturbing.
This critique is incredibly pressing for the Christian community, will we continue to be known for archaic ways of thinking and speaking about one another? Or will we allow the true radical nature of the life of Jesus to trump, maybe someday transform, our language rules and embrace ways of loving others better?
When news broke earlier this week, most of my friends from Fuller (the largest Evangelical Seminary in the world) were incredibly disappointed. I am not promoting some crazy liberal agenda, this is a reasonable understanding of modern life and the Bible. The change the TNIV has announced is the continued support of a dangerous patriarchal order that undermines the message of peace, hope and love that Christians claim to live and preach.
I happen to like grammar; I use (mostly) correct grammar in my writing and speech. But, a revolution of the mind starts with our language and we must heed Butler’s call to seek radical texts that are beyond the rules of language.