Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Bible Publishing World's "New Coke" Moment?

If you are old enough to remember the 1980's in detail, then you must certainly remember the "New Coke" fiasco. This occurred when the Coca-Cola Company unveiled new plans to replace Coke with a "new and improved" Coke. Like some who remember where they were during historic occurrences, I remember where I was when I first heard of Coca-Cola'a actions. I was watching NBC News. The story on the subject featured blindfolded taste-testers sampling "Old" and "New" Coke; the "New" was almost uniformally preferred, according to the report. I experienced a form of angst. Later, Coca-Cola trotted out Bill Cosby to tout the new product as being the superior brew. My first taste of the "New Coke" confirmed my worst fears; it tasted like Pepsi. My taste buds rebelled. It wasn't long before the entire nation aligned itself with my taste buds. The outcry against the change forced Coca-Cola to bring back the "real" Coke, labeling the "real" Classic Coke, to be sold alongside the "New" Coke. Quietly, "New" Coke was pulled from the shelves, and Coca-Cola and Cosby hoped the world would forget the entire episode. But why did Coca Cola attempt this brazen act in the first place? Stereotyping. Many people in the 1980's assumed that the nation, especially the nation's young, had turned Yuppie. Advertisers convinced themselves and us that a new cultural dawn had occurred and one of the aspects of this new era was a preference for Pepsi over Coke. Misreading their marketing research, Coca-Cola thought that to survive the competition from Pepsi, its tried and true product had to be morphed into something that tasted more like Pepsi. How wrong they were. America had not opted to degenerate into the "Pepsi" generation. The "New" quietly disappeared. The "Old" remained. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. All was well with the world.

The news that the NIV is to be phased out and replaced with a version close to the TNIV reminded me of those long ago days. I wonder if if this episode might prove to be the Bible publishing world's "New Coke" moment.

First, I need to make some preliminary statements. It is not my belief that God prefers one Bible version over the other. I don't believe that reading certain translations will stunt your personal growth or theological acumen. The Holy Spirit is the interpreter of Scripture and will give you all the proper illumination of Scripture you need no matter what version (provided it is not a paraphrase) you prefer.

That being said, I do have my own preferences. I have read extensively in the NIV and most sermons I have sat under were preached from the NIV. I like the NIV, but it was never my favorite. In seminary, we examined the NIV in one class. We learned that during the translation, having many legitimate choices as to the correct English translation of a word, the translators almost habitually chose the word that had the least impact on the reader. For example, the word "contract" was used in the Old Testament where the better translation would have been "covenant." Not only that, but most of the NIV translators were of the Calvinist persuasion and the translation reflected that fact. For instance, the word "perfect" was left in Phil. 3:12, while the word "mature" appears in 3:15. "Perfect" should appear in both verses, but to accommodate this version to their theological preference, they changed the wording in verse 15. (It is true that other modern tranlations leave the word "perfect" out of Phil. 3:15. However, I have met those who worked on the NIV translation team relate that while the translators knew Phil. 3:15 should use the word "perfect", they deliberately chose not to do so, citing theological reasons.)

There seems to be a war for allegiance between the fans (and publishers) of the ESV and the TNIV. When I had first heard that the ESV was to be published, I waited in anticipation because it was to be a revision of the old Revised Standard Version. But I was disappointed with the results. While the ESV's translators did a great job creating a readable version while remaining a literal, as opposed to a dynamic equivalent version, style seems to have been sacrificed. To me, I found the New Testament ESV weak. Also, I believe that it is what the New American Standard is wrongly accused of being: wooden. As for the TNIV, I have never explored it. Until recently, I have never even seen it on the shelves in stores. Many object to it because of its gender-neutral language. While that would dispose me to be wary of it, I have heard that the gender-neutral language is not the only negative feature of the TNIV.

What are my preferences? Most of my reading and all of my preaching is done in the New King James version. I also like the New American Standard. My third choice? What used to be called the "communist" Bible: the Revised Standard version.

So what reasoning could have been behind the decision to phase out the most popular Bible version in the Evangelical world and replace it with something akin to the TNIV? Stereotyping possibly, and the desire to keep raking in the money by the publisher? There has been much discussion in the press and the Evangelical world concerning just who Evangelicals are, especially since the last presidential election. There have been many predictions that the Evangelicalism as practiced in this country for the past 20 or 30 years is dying out. It is maintained that younger Christians have rejected the current national leadership for the likes of Jim Wallis, Brian McClaren and Rob Bell. Some commentators believe that the results of the last presidential election proves that most younger Evangelicals are now Obama aficionados and issues such as abortion are no longer an important factor in Evangelical voting patterns. Abortion is no longer an issue, social justice Obama style, is the new political focus for the Church, these commentators tell us. We are also led to believe (sadly, perhaps correctly) that the younger generation of Evangelicals are more tolerant of alternative life styles and open to the belief that the Gospel is not the only way to God. I am not saying that those responsible for the NIV's phasing out adhere to these new attitudes. But it is possible that their decision was influenced by the perception that these commentators are correct. And so, to avoid having the NIV rejected in favor of other versions, to accommodate the new attitude, and to continue to make a profit, the publisher of the NIV felt it had to act.

But have those responsible for this decision misread the Evangelical public? Did personal perception affect their marketing research? Has a stereotype of Evangelicals affected their marketing research as stereotypes affected Coca-Cola's advertising research in the 1980's? I think it is too soon to conclude that such sweeping change has occurred in the Evangelical world. After all, Evangelicals did not vote for Obama in droves. In fact, Evangelicals voting for McCain kept McCain from losing in a landslide; many of the votes for McCain were actually votes for an Evangelical, Sarah Palin. If the Evangelical world was open to a Bible version that featured gender-neutral language, then why has not the New Revised Standard been a best seller among Evangelicals? Most people I know of who read that version are from mainline denominations, not Evangelical ones. What will be the reaction of the Evangelical world that has preferred the NIV to all other versions to this new version? Not to mention the still sizable fan base for the King James Version, a fan base which by my observation cuts across generational lines? Will they be tolerant of gender-neutral language? Or will the presence of gender-neutral language, plus the outcry among certain Evangelical leaders, doom the new version to be rejected by the Evangelical audience. Will parents, who have grown up with the NIV view the new version as being an unreliable version? That remains to be seen.

It may be that the new version of the NIV may be as much of a fiasco as the "New" Coke. The outcry against it may phonetically resemble another phenomenon from the 1980's: "I WANT MY NIV!"


Mr. Guthrie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Phillips said...

John, work on the TNIV has been going on for a while, for at least five years. Zondervand's "update" to the NIV has been in the works even before that. When Zondervand first announced a "gender-neutral" Bible, the reaction of evangelicals was swift and negative. Let's hope that is so again with its release.

I have found also that NRSV does similar when it tries to replace works like "mankind" with "humans". It tends to do awkward things with the text to use more gender-inclusive language.

There is a false idea that the Greeks had male bias in its use of "anthropos" to mean "humanity" in general. The truth is, at least by NT times, is that the use of gender in the Greek language had become fluid. It was not significant. Thus, the modern sensibility against gender differences is only read back into the texts. Modern scholars are only showing their own biases by reading back gender bias in the Greek text.

Mr. Guthrie said...

John, thanks for the comment. It appears that I am still able to receive comments on this site.

In my post I mention that some have other problems with the NRSV than just gender neutral language. I remember this being discussed at WBS but I cannot recall the specifics. Have you heard anything along those lines?