(Written while longing for a Big Mac… seriously)
A good Christian buddy of mine recently recommended that I read, “The Message,” by Eugene Peterson. I was remotely aware of it as a “contemporary translation” of the Bible, but hadn’t picked it up - and have only recently become acquainted with Peterson’s excellent devotional works for pastors (eg. The Contemplative Pastor). I have really been enjoying and profiting from his meditations, so I was anxious to check-out The Message for myself…
The other day when I was at the book store, I picked-up a copy and began perusing it. My first move was to quickly turn to some passages I had just preached through since I was most familiar with the details of those texts. Let me give you a very small example of what I found in comparison to the NASB - probably the most (hyper!) literal English translation there is…
- The Message translation of Matthew 18:17
"If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love."
- The NASB translation of Matthew 18:17
"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
In this case (and there are many others), The Message translation signifantly departs from the original languages and more literal English translations. I believe this departure represents a subtle distortion of the Word that is not necessary or helpful. For example, in this text you would not understand from The Message that the sinning “brother” at this point in the discipline process should be cast out from the covenant people as an unbelieving and unclean “Gentile.” I’m not sure how starting over “from scratch” communicates this reality in English. Does that mean we go back to verse 15? Do we keep bringing it before the church? Peterson made this less clear in his translation, not more clear.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Christ goes farther and says the church should view such a person as a “tax collector” or a traitor who was willing to exploit God’s people, but Peterson passes by this and talks about offering “God’s forgiving love.” Now don’t get me wrong, when someone is disciplined out of the church, we should continue to hold forth the hope of the gospel to them and admonish them to repent and believe. However, Peterson has severely muddied the clarity of the Biblical process and perspective which Jesus colorfully and powerfully gives with words like “Gentile” and “tax collector.” True enough, someone might need to consult a Bible dictionary to fully appreciate Jesus’ choice of words, but how hard is that to do?
My concern is this - if The Message (or another “contemporized” text) is where people are going to regularly feed on God’s Word, I would worry about their spiritual health and development in the same way a medical doctor would worry about someone who eats fast food most of the time. Sure, it is fast, easy, cheap, and pretty good-tasting sometimes. However, if you eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner - if fast food is your sustenance, then you’re going to have health problems. You’re going to miss nutrients you need and get too much of what you don’t need. It is a supplement - a fun devotional diversion, but not food for the hungry.
Reading the Bible takes work - just like healthy cooking at home and eating raw vegetables. It takes time, energy, practice, and tools. When we make the effort it is not only a better experience - it is much better for our health.
If that analogy doesn’t work, try this. Would you like a pencil sketch of the Mona Lisa to simplify it for you? Would you only like to hear the first 10 bars of Beethoven’s 5th symphony so you are not overwhelmed by the complex ways it is recapitulated throughout the piece? Can Toliken’s hobbits be properly understood by seeing them drawn in comic books?
If you are ingesting a “contemporized” version of the Bible on a regular basis, I must ask, “Would you like fries with that?”