The language of the Mass will soon be reverting to a richer tone, but it’s a different story over in the field of Biblical studies, where a group of about 200 scholars just published a new translation of the central Christian text. A joint effort of both Protestant and Catholic clergy, the “Common English Bible” seems to do everything that might be inferred from the title of the project.
Predictably, the CEB is rife with political correctness. In Genesis, Adam is referred to as “the human” while Eve is still called “woman.” Indeed, the tendency of the CEB seems to be to eliminate most instances of the word “man”: Christ is simply “the Human One” and not “the Son of Man.”
In other sections, “alien” becomes “immigrant” (wouldn’t want to upset MEChA); Medieval-sounding “angels” become generic “messengers,” and the prophetic call to “repent” is softened to a polite request to “change your heart.”
But beyond altering the translation to fit the sensitivities du jour, the CEB in general maims well-known expressions and sayings and renders Biblical language pedestrian to such a degree that Scripture becomes indistinguishable from ordinary speech. Pathos is drained utterly out of the text. This willingness to cater to society’s informality is a more subtle concession than the adoption of studied academic non-offensiveness, and it cannot as hastily be dismissed as a transparent ideological machination.
The fundamental problem is that the translators of the CEB seem to believe Christianity should submit to all stylistic demands of the culture it finds itself in, even if those demands leave it shorn of much of its complexity, elegance, and history, if not its core truths. In charity, this is a debate over means. Does effective conveyance of the Gospel—even to our highly democratic society—really require the kind of bland prose found in the CEB? Can such a stripped-down language hope to stand apart from a world of text messages and formulaic business-talk? The answer, I think, is no.