Sunday, February 26, 2012

Found in Translation: A New Missiological McCarthyism

There is a strange new form of witch-hunting going on in the world of missiology these days.  It reminds me a lot of Senator McCarthy's infamous search for Communists in America during the Cold War.  Recently an online petition was started to "Keep Father and Son in the Bible".  The claim was that certain new Bible translations are removing the familial terms in Scripture in order to avoid persecution and make the Bible more palatable for Muslims. Even though I agree that we should certainly keep these core, self-revelatory terms of God in the Bible, here is why I won't sign this petition:

1. The claims of the petition are a gross misrepresentation of the actual texts they purport to have a problem with.  The first, a Turkish translation of Matthew, does in fact retain the terms "Father" and "Son" in an interlinear form right underneath the original Greek text in the left column of the book, while the right column has a translation that is akin to "The Message" in Turkish.  Is that a sin?  Are the translators demons for doing it?  The authors of this petition would have the Christian public believe so.  And many a Christian who can't read Turkish and hasn't even seen this text is ready to jump on the McCarthy bandwagon and demonize the missionaries who were behind this translation. 

2. The second text in question is an Arabic translation of the Gospels and Acts.  In this text, when the Greek term υιός του θεού ("Son of God") appears, it is translated literally as ابن الله ("Ibn Allah" / "Son of God") in Arabic.  However, when only the Greek word "Son" appears, the translators took some liberty by using حبيب الله ("Habib Allah" / "Beloved of God")  to make it clear that Jesus is not the result of human procreation (I'd prefer a literal rendering with a parenthetical note, but I'm not going to demonize the translators for it).  This translation is, again, much like "The Message" essentially.

3. Nobody wants to take "Father" and "Son" out of the Bible, with the exception perhaps of an infinitesimally small percentage of fringe people.  I agree that we need to make sure we keep "Father" and "Son" in the Bible.  I would have signed the petition if what it claimed was actually true.  But the exaggerations and misstatements in the petition were many, which is why I didn't sign it.

4. Using a secular, activist site like and posting the names and emails of the people who the petitioners deemed responsible is, in my opinion, very irresponsible and unprofessional.
5. Finally, consider the following example from Mark 1:1 in both the ESV and The Message:

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  - Mark 1:1 (ESV)
"The good news of Jesus Christ - the Message!" - Mark 1:1 (The Message)
[emphasis added by me for the Greek term υιός του θεού ("Son of God")]

The ESV is a translation.  The Message is an idiomatic paraphrase.  Everyone understands the difference.  The translations in question by the new McCarthys are no different than The Message.  They are simply idiomatic paraphrases designed to allow more people to connect with the Bible who otherwise might not.  Personally, I don't enjoy The Message.  But that doesn't mean I think we should attack what Peterson has tried to do with it.  And for the record, I don't enjoy the newer idiomatic translations for Muslims either.  But that doesn't mean I want to derogate those who do!

Why don't the initiators of the "Lost in Translation" petition start a new petition and charge Eugene Peterson with heresy and defame him all over the internet too?


PierreRashad said...

Oh come on- the Turks are the ones who started the outcry against this islamized "paraphrase", and only after the outcry was the interlinear with literal translation added to the left. And still the Turkish church is against it. Shouldn't that stop the missionaries from jamming this down their throats?

A public outcry against a mistranslation is hardly tantamount to McCarthyism or a witch hunt. The petition is only asking Wycliffe/SIL and Frontiers to stop removing Father and Son from translations.

And it is absolutely ridiculous to compare these islamized mistranslations to the Message. I'm not a fan of the Message either, but it never calls Jesus "the Caliph of God", like an audio bible that SIL's daughter organization, Sabeel Media produced.

There is plenty of evidence and documentation behind the statements in the petition, and they are available in the Fact-Check document on the petition site and on

So just because I think "Caliph of God" is a mistranslation I'm some kind of commie-hunter? Get real...

Warrick Farah said...

Thanks PierreRashad for responding. At least we know we have another person other than Abudl Asad, Abu Dauod, and myself reading Circumploar! :)

James said...

Excellent post. I also read this blog occasionally. This bunch have really sunk to a new low in worldliness in their willingness to defend their versions of truth. This kind of attempted religious thought control is all very islamic to me. Perhaps they have all been in the Muslim world too long? Its kind of ironic for me that those with such a strong Islamic mindset (deen wa doula whole-package faith+culture thinking) see themselves as defending "Biblical Missiology". If it was not so vicious and damaging it would be hilarious. I think I commented here a year ago that these guys are trying to knock back missions 100 years. Hudson taylor had a similar problems when some cultural philistine on his team came back to london and tried to whip up the masses by spreading innacurate info and anecdotes about him. But in the end Taylors policy of "field driven" mission won the day and has proved to be the best missions strategy. Lets hope these philistines using the internet as a megaphone are seen for what they are soon.

PierreRashad said...

James, I'm sorry to say, but your thinking seems to be backwards in a couple different ways, in an ironic way.

First you're saying that the petition spreading awareness about Islamized mistranslations is some kind of "thought control", and that it's "very islamic" to you. Wait, so it seems "very Islamic" to publicly oppose Bible translations that are dressed up Islamically? These are translations of the Bible that intentionally try to look like Qur'ans, and use Qur'anic terminology and names, and obscure Jesus' Sonship and God's Fatherhood in order to align better with Islamic theology. And now those who spread awareness and speak against such translations are "very Islamic"?

In what way is the petition controlling anyone's freedom of speech?

Secondly, you're claiming that Biblical Missiology is trying to "knock back missions 100 years", and your calling its members "philistines".(LOL)

Well, I'm part of Biblical Missiology, and (speaking of philistines) my wife is Palestinian, but I myself Lebanese. We also have in our ranks people from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Kenya, Bangladesh, and several other countries.

But seriously, what exactly do you mean by "philistine"?

I'm just trying to say that on one hand you seem to think that Biblical Missiology is made up of ignorant "cultural philistines", whereas a few sentences before, you were saying that the BibMiss people have spent too much time with Muslims. Which one is it?

We are not culturally naive Westerners, as many of us are cultural insiders and converts from Islam. And I hope you would not hold the field experience of our Western contingent against them.

James, I'm glad that you value "field driven" missions, yet I hope you realize that the petition is the truly "field driven" side of this debate. The Islamized "MIT" translations are Western imports that really have trampled on the field- and frustrated the local believers for decades.

Please open your ears and listen to the outcry rising up from the field. Look at the dozens of petition comments of former Muslims and native speakers of these languages, and look at the open letters from national churches. We are not hunting for witches or commies. We are asking Wycliffe to stop trampling us and closing their ears to the outcry.

Unknown said...

Pierre is more guileless than I am. Before I comment, I want to know who this Abdul Asad is who wrote this.
Is this a pseudonym for one of the western workers in Turkey or in the middle east who created these false translations?
Please give us the credentials of Abdul Asad.
Thank you.

James said...

Ah! One of the Housney boys! The academic one I believe. Try looking up philistinism in wiki if you have not come across it before. As you can see no ethnic slur intended at all (yes I know the Palestinian is pronounced with an f in Arabic so I can understand your misunderstanding). Basically, I would sum up the basic idea with one of your dads quotes: "culture is overrated" (so like why does he bother stringing letters together?)

This is very much about control. From the very beginning the BM websites goal has been much more than to discuss. It is all about screaming heresy and trying to close down ministries expressing different theologies. So yes you guys are trying to switch control from the field-driven to "mass hysteria"-driven. Mission teaching has been so lacking in the church for so many years most have no clue of the issues involved. But thats what you want and hence the petition. Its tea-party politics come to missions. Just cant help seeing the similarities when I look out at the Muslim world. I think you guys would be much happier as Muslims ;o)

As for your "frustrated believers" most of them are ethnically different from the people whose translations you are trying to close down. Please, dont tell me you've never ever told anyone you are "Phonecian" and a true native of Lebanon - unlike those Arab invaders of Islam. And dont dare tell me the Phonecian, Assyrian, Coptic Christians welcome Muslim converts into their churches, let them into leadership, let them marry their daughters.... you know that their only hope in these ethnic "Christian" churches is to be 2nd class Christians... yet you fight to deny them any right to work out their church structures, to cut them off the God's word, and to shut done any ministries that see the world different to your own definition of "biblical"

so yes, philistines

Abdul Asad عبد الأسد said...

And let's try to keep the comments civil and not so personal, please gentlemen, Warrick and I don't want to close them off. I know we all have strong feelings about these issues. And this post, which the comments should focus on, is about how the petition misleads the general Christian public. I apologize if the McCarthy analogy offended anyone at BM, but that's really the best analogy I could come up with for what this petition is doing among the general Christian public - it's creating an unnecessary hysteria.
Mark, I got your comment via email forward, but for some reason I don't see it here, not sure if you deleted it? In any case, please, let's keep the comments focused on this particular post and not get into all the other contextualization disagreements!

PierreRashad said...


The academic ONE? Thanks for the compliment, I think, but both my brothers and my sister are university educated too...

How do you know my father? You don’t seem to know him too well, because he is brimming with culture- he’s constantly singing (and playing) Arabic music, quoting Arabic poetry, proverbs, and scripture, and that does not conflict at all with his belief that, among missiologists, “culture is overrated”. (BTW I don’t know where you got that quote, but it sounds like something he would say).

Your response to that statement- “so like why...?” is like if I told you that, among Hindus, cows are overrated, and you responded, “so like why do you bother eating hamburgers?”

Indeed, culture is the holy cow of Western neocolonialist missiologists. We Arabs (BTW, sorry to break your stereotype of Lebanese Christians, but I think the “Phoenician, not Arab” stuff is a joke- we do have Phoenician ancestry, but we also have Arab ancestry and language, so no, I don’t tell people that) ahem, we Arabs live and breath our culture. We breed our culture, feed our culture, slaughter it, butcher it, grind it, grill it and eat it every day. In Lebanon, Christian and Muslim culture mixes and clashes on a daily basis- we criticize and compliment each other’s religions in the same breath as bargaining or buying a sandwich.

Yet these ivory tower American “contextualists” are coming in and claiming that they understand Islamic culture better than the Arab Christians. And you are using the same rhetoric as they- You claim that because I and “[my] ‘frustrated’ believers...are ethnically different” than Muslims, that it somehow invalidates our perspective.

Forgive me for assuming that you are a white male American, but did you notice that you are also “ethnically different” than Muslims? So does that invalidate your perspective? Do you think your perspective is somehow closer or more informed than Arab Christians who have grown up relating to Muslims on a daily basis and speak the same language??? This is pure hubris. And even if it doesn’t apply to you, it is typical of the IM neo-colonialists.

PierreRashad said...

And yes, I admit that the Arab church has historically not been open enough to accepting Christians from Muslim backgrounds, but believe me brother, that is changing rapidly. Yes, Lebanese churches are beginning to accept converts from Islam with wide open arms- On Sunday I worshiped with probably a dozen of them interspersed in a congregation of mostly Christian background believers, some of whom ARE married to Christian background women in the church, AND are in leadership roles. I have friends who used to be Muslim and came to Christ through traditional Assyrian churches in Iraq, and if you think the Copts of Egypt are not sheltering thousands of Christians from Muslim backgrounds, you are frankly out of touch. The copts have more among them than anyone else.

Of course there is a long way to go in breaking down stereotypes and prejudice, but God is working in his Church. And on what grounds do you accuse me/us of “fight[ing] to deny them any right to work out their church structures”? You talk as if you know me but you obviously don’t- who are you? Just because I work with the local Arab churches, it doesn’t mean I suppress new congregations- I actually am involved in an almost completely Muslim background congregation that is led by Muslim background Christians. I would encourage you to learn more of what’s going on before you start making all kinds of accusations.

And since I’m being called a “philistine” I must defend my appreciation for beauty, art, culture, and intellectualism. Must I tell you that one of my degrees is in music, and I have studied Arabic music in a conservatory here in Lebanon? I think you’re just trying to discredit me and mine with ad hominem attacks, so I will not continue...

I do find it funny that you are claiming that the reason we are spreading awareness about these subjects is so that we can keep the masses in the dark. How ironic and telling. You seem to be among those exposed by the light of this new awareness of what translators are actually doing- removing Father and Son and putting in ridiculous substitutions like “Caliph”, “representative”, “guardian”, etc...

Clearly you would prefer the knowledge to stay with the initiated few missionaries (that’s what you mean by “field-driven”), rather than the global church having a say. You, my friend are part of the oppressive hegemon, but the internet age will not allow the secrets to remain hidden. Praise God.

PierreRashad said...

BTW, in what way is mass-hysteria tea-party politics in anyway similar to the Islamic world?

Islam is a top-down system. Christianity is much more bottom-up, grass roots. Look how Christianity initially spread through the Roman empire. The reformation was a reiteration of the bottom-up spirit of Christianity, bringing theology to the laymen in the pews.

Well this petition is doing the same thing with translation and missiology.

Step off the throne, archbishop James...

moving2gether said...

I was just looking back at the comments on this entry as it is one of the hot entries of the year 2012. It always amuses me when some get overly zealous about the "purity" of translations, forget how "impure" the translations they favor are already. In the past we have accepted so many untranslated concepts that rob the meaning of the scriptures, but I see no one screaming very loudly. For example, Christ??? What does that mean? Oh, yeah that is Greek from Hebrew meaning the anointed or chosen one. Baptsism??? Pastor?? Apostle?? Gospel?? Bishop?? BTW is is Jesus or Joshua?? Let's keep our minds open folks. :-)