I will have to apologize to a former pastor. He and I were at a Promise Keepers meeting one day and he was going on and on about The Message. He called it a translation, and I argued that it was a paraphrase. The argument got heated until he made a comment that I didn’t know what I was talking about, because I probably never read The Message. I replied, much to my later embarrassment, that I did read The Message. I read it for ‘comic relief.’ Comedian Tim Howkins loves to bash it on stage. If he is reading this, I apologize. Well, the preacher turned red in the face and made his excuses and left. I did as well. Our meetings were during Friday lunch, and I always took longer than the hour lunch break on those days. We could each use the excuse that we were in a hurry to get back to work. In spite of this, the preacher chose me to keep the group on track when he went to his new church a few years later.
I have since looked at the meaning of the two words. A translation is converting the words into the words of another language. A paraphrase is taking a text of some sort and rephrasing it using different words. Even with those definitions, it is hard to characterize The Message.
In my former pastor’s mindset, Rev. Eugene H. Peterson, author of The Message, translated from the original language to a form of “street language”. Yes, it is English, but it uses odd phrases at times. My argument that it was a paraphrase was that Peterson occasionally uses a physical item that has only existed for a hundred years or less. Thus, he translated the text from Hebrew or Greek and then paraphrased. Peterson doesn’t use this example, but I will for illustration. Instead of placing a valued object in a tote made of sheepskin, the object is placed in the trunk. Is this a steamer trunk or the trunk of your car? Neither existed in Biblical times, but the message is clear to the reader. As the ancient person can picture the sheepskin, the modern person can picture the “trunk.”
Peterson, in an interview, stated that, in his opinion, some of the worst translations are the ones that insisted upon being the most literal. Each language has its own meaning, its own rhythms, and its own nuance. I will admit, as I have read more and more of The Message, I have come to like it more and more. Yet, when he uses an item to describe something in Isaiah or Jeremiah that did not exist at the time, I’ll go back to a more literal translation to see what was written. At that point, I can either accept or reject Peterson’s metaphor. In most cases, he is on target. In some beautiful cases, he brings new light to an old passage. I think, “Ah, if I came from that direction, I could interpret that the same way.” Thus, it brings new freshness to the topic.
Peterson had editors that made sure that he didn’t fall far from the intent of the original text. In some cases, he may wander a bit more than some scholars are willing to go. You can find criticisms on line. Yet, there still is no tremendous controversy as there was over the ‘translation’ “Good News for Modern Man.” That book was written by paraphrasing English translations into modern English in 1969. In so doing, without a scholarly editor as a backstop, there were some errors in theology that misrepresented the original text in its original language.
Other paraphrases, like the Philips paraphrase of the New Testament have been favorites for many years. A paraphrase isn’t necessarily wrong, but any translation or paraphrase needs good editing. Reading more than one translation is always a good idea.
When I read the Bible lately, I often read The Message. I like picking up new translations. My first few times through the Bible was in the King James and once in the RSV. I think in the KJV, because my early Bible memory verses were KJV. When I go to a search engine and look for a phrase in the Bible, it often comes back saying “text not found”, because I was looking at the NIV or NASB. For example, Jesus promised that in His Father’s house, there are many mansions (or houses, or rooms… depending on translation).
Let’s not get caught up in technical literacy of a new Bible unless it changes the intent of the original text. Each time I read any portion of the Bible, it is like I have read it for the first time. I no longer drive myself to read the Bible in a year or less. I am spending more time savoring what I read. It takes me longer to get back to Genesis. Yet, I remember the stories, and the scripture is different the next time through because I am different. I am hopefully a little further along the path to sanctification. The text of the day is then compared to what happened yesterday or last week. I then ‘translate’ the text differently than I did three years ago, because God is working on a different part of my life.
Am I creating a controversy by listening to the Holy Spirit tell me what my thought of the day should be?
And if you use The Message in your church, it would be good to keep another translation handy, but some of the passages are so beautiful. I can still remember the pastor and associate pastor, several years ago, reading 1 Corinthians 13 in The Message, trading off every few verses. As for the comic relief, at times today, I still laugh when I read a passage, but I understand where the author is going, and maybe some young people will as well.