–Daniel S. Ferguson
Let’s say you were the church’s biggest success story.
You came to church, you accepted Jesus, and you want to get involved in your new faith community. You’re doing everything the church ever hoped you would do when it opened its doors in the first place.
You know you need to read the Bible, so you download the YouVersion App. But let’s face it, when it’s on your smartphone, you don’t take it seriously. There’s just too many other distractions.
So what do you do? You go get a Bible.
Assuming you don’t already have one gathering dust somewhere, what do you do? Well you go and buy one. This is America; that’s what we do. But which one?
By far the most common question I get asked by new believers is this: “What Bible translation is best?”
It’s a fascinating question in an historical sense. At no other time in history has it been feasible for a person to have a host of options. The idea of more than two or so translations even being available in churches at a time is only about 40 years old, and it’s really only in the past 20 years that churches started using them more interchangeably.
So now you’re looking at the first generation of Christians in world history who grew up with the translation buffet you see today.
If you go to BibleGateway, you’ll find FIFTY-FIVE English translations of the Bible. I’m a Bible translation nerd, and even I’ve not heard of all of them. I’d be amazed to find a collector who had early editions of each one. How would you even know which one to look at?
Thankfully, BibleGateway defaults to a fairly neutral, highly readable translation, the NIV.
Of course BibleGateway puts the NIV as its default. BibleGateway is run by Zondervan, the company that publishes the NIV.
You see, you thought you were trying to obtain the Holy Word of God. That’s true. But it’s also a commercial product. It’s an economic good sold by companies through marketing, just like potato chips and smartphones.
There is no mistaking this. You cannot walk into a Christian bookstore and get any other impression.
I recently did so. While there were, mercifully, only eight translations for sale (the Big 8: KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, NLT, ESV, HCSB, and the Message), there were TWENTY-SIX different types of Bibles.
The range was absurd.
Children’s Bibles, Student Bibles, Study Bibles, Devotional Bibles, Outreach Bibles, Gift Bibles, Women’s Bibles, Men’s Bibles (and if that weren’t enough, there were also Bibles specifically for husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers), Reference Bibles, Parallel Bibles, Military Bibles (one kind for each branch of the military), Large Print Bibles, Single-Column Bibles, Journal Bibles, Story Bibles, Apologetics Bibles, Chronological Bibles, Prayer Bibles, even a Christmas Bible.
The list is even longer than that. It was truly absurd.
I opened a few up to see what the substantive differences were. Of course, there were no differences in the text itself. The NIV is still the NIV, no matter how you market it. You’re not allowed to change the text itself, for copyright reasons.
But rather it was the added materials that were different. The little notes, the pieces of information in the margins, the arrangement of the text sometimes (Chronological Bibles being the most dynamic change). Of course, the Study Bibles had all sorts of interpretive aides along the bottom side of each page (you really shouldn’t take those at face value). The Apologetics Bible was weird, in that it gave little one-page arguments throughout the text wherever it thought someone might argue the validity of the text or its events.
By far the weirdest Bible was The Jeremiah Study Bible, with articles, notes, and word studies from Dr. David Jeremiah. I absolutely lack the boldness to put my name on the front of a Bible in large print and sell it. That is a confidence (arrogance?) I do not possess.
All these things remind me as I stroll through the four smallish racks of Bibles at the Christian bookstore:
Big Business has been trying to sell it to us. Why else would there be Women’s Bibles and Men’s Bibles? Really, if you think about it, how could those really be any different? They’re just repackaging the same product in the textual equivalent of either blue or pink and selling it to the different groups. (Interestingly, the Women’s Bible cost more, even though it was almost identical. #pinktax)
The Military Bibles were the most telling. There was one for each of the five branches of the military (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and Air Force). They had different covers with the colors and symbols of the respective branches. But that was where the differences ended. The insides of the texts were identical. Not one disparity. Only the marketing on the front cover had changed.
We Millennials were raised on marketing, more so than any generation. We’ve seen more commercials, both explicit and implicit, than anyone. We have trained our brains to ignore such marketing (for the most part). We dismiss it. We know it’s not real.
We, at least on an intellectual level, have long discovered that the marketing is always better than the product. We instinctively think of marketing as a falsehood, and we know from experience that Big Business lies to us routinely.
And therein lies the problem with the Bible. We’re told that there’s absolute truth inside. But then it’s marketed to us, which we connect with falsehood. (Click to Tweet)
The economic competition between the translations has been enough to tell us that. You can’t sell multiple versions of something unless one can argue that it is better than the other. That’s how markets work. That’s why there’s more than one smartphone company: one phone actually can be better than the other.
So when I come across a passage that strikes me as untrue, or conflicts with my ideas of justice, belief, or whatever, rather than struggle with that idea, I can simply put it down and, at best, pick up another Bible, in order to buy the truth that I want.
There’s no shortage of options.
(For the record, I think it’s good that there’s a lot of translations. I’m just trying to explain one idea of Millennials’ approach to the Bible as Truth.)