Go Ahead, Offend Me

[First Things, May 1998]

Last spring saw a free-for-all break out in the evangelical Protestant camp over a proposed new “inclusive language” translation of the New International Version Bible. While World magazine, which sounded the alarm, was scolded for joining battle in hysterical and sarcastic tones, the translators were compelled to explain in what sense it was “accurate” to render masculine terms neuter, singulars plural, or produce grammatical whimsies like “everyone…they.”

As the battle broke open, I found that I wasn’t whole-heartedly on either side. On the one hand, I’m a living-language Philistine; I believe that a language in use will be in change, and that this organic process must be accomodated. It’s futile to fight it. Friends with sensibilities purer than mine protest that we can’t allow ungainly, PC-inspired language changes to occur, but in many cases it’s simply impossible to prevent them. Some “improvements” are too awkward to gain common use, but when a language shift catches on, it has to run its course. Sometimes, as in the case of the short-lived term “groovy,” the word can be toddling out the door within a year. Sometimes, as in the case of the current redefinition of the word “gay,” resistance is futile. Anyone who insists on using “gay” to mean “blithe” is begging to be immediately misunderstood and the object of snickering.

Thus, I recognize that “Man” is no longer a coherent synonym for humankind, and have long avoided it (and other masculine generics) in my writing. Some of my friends are behind the barricades on this one, because it is a fine and dignified word with excellent credentials, but I think that battle is over. Not that we have to expunge it from our past, retitling books and recarving plaques, ripping the guts from idiomatic sayings; there may even still arise occasions of such dignity that no feebler substitute will do. But in ordinary speech and contemporary writing, most of us have grudgingly learned to avoid it.

No, there aren’t any good equivalents. “People” is unmelodious, a bleat studded with rubbery knobs; “humankind” is overly earnest and wears reading glasses; “folks” is unsuitable for situations that don’t include a hayride. Too bad. For the time being, people who write about people can’t use masculine-flavored group nouns. They won’t be clearly understood, and the purpose of writing is communication.

But our own original writing is one thing; translation is another. Like it or not, the Bible frequently uses masculine generics in the original languages. Some partisans in the inclusive language debate insist that we must therefore use masculine generics, like “Man,”in order to be faithful to Scripture. But this principle of exacting literalism is unevenly applied. The original languages of the Bible also use different terms for singular and plural “you,” yet even the most emphatic proponents of literal translation aren’t insisting we go back to “thee” and “thou.” These terms are now archaic, “you” is used for both singular and plural, and the reader is dependent on footnotes for the distinction (as in Luke 22:31-32).

It’s a judgement call, but I believe “Man” is now similarly archaic, and should be dealt with the same way. But what about gender-specific words that aren’t archaic, words still in everyday use—a man, he, his, brother? Should these be avoided, so that women know they’re included?

Speaking as one of the party whose tender feelings are under consideration, I don’t *want* the Bible rewritten so it won’t offend women. I think the Bible *should* offend women. It should offend men, figure skaters, plumbers, headwaiters, Alaskans, Ethiopians, baton twirlers, Jews and Gentiles. If it’s not offending people, it’s not doing its job.

The Bible, that powerful book, has many effects: it comforts, counsels, instructs, and brings us into the presence of God. But trying to erase offense as one of its functions is a fundamentally misguided task. Where the original language uses a generic term for humans, don’t cling to outmoded “Man.” Where it uses a specifically masculine term, respect that puzzling fact and leave it alone. We don’t know enough to change it. We’re not as smart as we think we are.

Almost twenty-four years ago I walked into a church in Dublin a Hindu, and walked out a Christian. I had had an unexpected confrontation with the presence of One I discovered to be my Lord, and was set reeling. I knew I needed operating instructions quickly, and particularly wanted to find out who this guy Jesus was. I hunted up a Bible, a pocket-sized King James with print several microns high, and plunged into the Gospel of Matthew.

I disliked it from the start. Jesus was pretty bossy. I disagreed with some of the things he said. I was offended.

But something had happened in my heart. The confrontation in the church had knocked a hole in the sandbag of my ego. I knew at last that I didn’t make the world, I didn’t know everything, and it was time for me to sit down, shut up, and listen. (On the heavenly scoreboard, this ranks as a bigger miracle than the feeding of the five thousand.) I kept working my way through the Gospels, and they began working their way through me. There are still parts of the Bible I don’t like. But I *like* the parts I don’t like, because I know that’s where I need to listen harder.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with giving a neutral original term a neutral English equivalent. For example, when Caiaphas says, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people,” he uses the Greek term “anthropos,” not “aner;” this could acceptably be, “It is expedient that one person die.”

The problem is when the original writer chose a specifically masculine term. Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” He could have written “people who,” but he didn’t. If we correct him according to dictates of modern fashion, what might we lose? We lose touch with the ancient and continuous historical understanding that this verse prefigures the One who is righteous, Christ the Lord. We lose the bracing image of one solitary figure standing against widespread evil, diluting him into a vague mass.

Beyond that, we don’t know what we would lose. Artificial baby formula can never be as nutritious as breast milk, because we don’t know what all the components are; there are vitamins that haven’t been discovered yet. These intentionally masculine nouns are mysterious to me, and I need to face them squarely, not be shielded from them.

Scrupulous anxiety about offending women is offensive to this woman. If someone thinks I’m incapable of reading “Blessed is the man…” and figuring out it applies to me too, I’m insulted. Besides, updating gender references won’t go very far toward a goal of making the Bible palatable. Someone who balks at “a man” is going to really be thrown for a loop when she hits “Take up your cross.”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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