why it's ok to read the message {and why you shouldn't judge others who do!} a guest post.

Hello and good morning!

This is LONG but worth reading.  Please go grab a cup of coffee and sit in a comfy chair!

As you may or may not know, I've been reading through the Bible again this year.  This makes my 4th or 5th time through and this time I am reading The Message translation (on purpose).  A translation written with the purpose of making the Bible approachable to all.  Every morning of the week, and sometimes on weekends, I put the verse of the day up on my Instagram feed as a way to share the word with others in a way that allows them to receive it or not with the scroll of a thumb.  I've shared some of those verses HERE where you can print and use them.  To date, reading The Message has put me on the receiving end of more scorn and criticism than any act I've ever done online.  It's been shocking really.

And I kind of love it honestly.

Do you know why?  Because for every rude critic, I've gotten two thank yous.  I've lost count of the emails, comments, messages I have received since the beginning of this journey telling me that because of this approachable, easy to understand translation that I have shared publicly, without judgment or expectation, they've either started to read the Bible on their own for the first time ever, or it's made them very curious about this loving Jesus I have shared about.  I share that not to toot my own horn in any way, I am humbled that God would even give me, a sinner, the chance to bring one of His children closer to Him in some way but to show you that there is fruit, where critics claim is only disgust and fruitlessness.  Being criticized and attacked verbally is worth it to me.

I recognize that God is creative and endless in His pursuit of us.  He can use a phone book to call to us if need be.  Running around criticizing others for how they read the word is unattractive, it does nothing but shame a (possibly fragile new) believer at the expense of puffing ourselves up.  To think we should tell others how to believe or seek Him is arrogant on our part.  I do my best to present my view point in a non-confrontational, loving way and it's usually met with "yeah, but really, reading the Message is evil" so to speak.  It's legalistic to think we should take our life rules and apply them to others.  Yes, each is entitled to and encouraged to have their own opinions and paths, but they should have no bearing on how another lives.  I've grown weary of explaining myself so I've called in my big guns.

Enter the author of this post, my friend Ryan, whom I've recently talked into starting a blog he calls "Homecooked Jesus".  Usually the biggest argument that people give me against The Message, is that we should be reading "the original" text, referring to the New King James version.  My response is usually "so you read Greek and Hebrew", which is actually the "original text"?  They don't.  And Ryan actually does.  He's is super Bible smart, understands context and is getting a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  I asked him to write a post explaining why The Messages should not be a point of contention, and is definitely not a salvation issue.  I think he does a wonderful job.  And please, if you have any questions or comments, Ryan has agreed to come back and respond in the comments, so please feel free to ask or comment, respectfully of course.  And here is Ryan:                   

Hi, my name is Ryan.  I like romantic-comedies (particularly Warm Bodies, which I’ve dubbed a zom-rom-com), candle-lit dinners, long walks on the beach, reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew…and the Message translation of the Bible. 

Confused?  Is THIS how you feel right now (definitely click on that link)?  I get it.  I have friends who call the NIV the “nearly inspired version.”  I understand.  But we need to be careful here.  If these translations are horrible, then maybe people should be warned against them.  But if it’s just a matter of preference…well then we should all chill out a little.

So…which is it?  Well, my cards are on the table already.  I like the Message.  Why?  We’ll get to that.  But first I’d like to talk about translation in general.  Here are a few of the problems with the common perception of translation:

First, there is no such thing as a literal translation.  Here’s how Merriam-Webster describes literal: “reproduced word for word.”  There’s the problem.  You can’t do that in translation.  Let’s use an uncontroversial example.  Here’s Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew.  

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

For those of you playing along at home, that’s seven words (and two of them aren’t really words as much as they are grammatical markers…).  Now, in the good old King Jimmy…
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

That’s ten (even the Message is closer here with only 8 words).  So right away…where did the extra words come from?  Is the King James adding words to the Bible?!??!  No.  That’s just what happens in translation.  See, the first word in the Bible, which is just one word in Hebrew (בְּרֵאשִׁית) means “in the beginning.”  One word in Hebrew, three in English.  There just isn’t a single word in English that means the exact same thing as בְּרֵאשִׁית.  That’s because English is a different language.  If all the words in one language directly corresponded to another…they’d be the same language.  So the notion of literal or word for word translation needs to be scrubbed from our vocabulary.  It doesn’t exist.  

Not even good old King Jimmy lives up to that.

Second, all translations are interpretations.  Let’s look at Lamentations 3:22. 
KJV - It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
NIV - Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
ESV - The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
NASB - The Lord’s loving kindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.

Notice, the KJV and the NIV are in agreement.  The Lord’s mercies/great love are the reason that Israel was not consumed.  The ESV and the NASB see it differently.  It is the steadfast love/loving kindnesses of the Lord that do not cease.  Neither of these translations says anything about ‘us’ (referring to Israel).  That’s a significant difference.  And two of the strictest English translations available (KJV and NASB) disagree.  And if that wasn’t strange enough, the NIV (which also has a bad reputation in some circles) sides with the KJV.  Why is there a difference?  Well it’s because the Hebrew here is not particularly easy, and there is significant disagreement as to how we ought to understand it.  [By the way, it is more than a little interesting to me that the Message agrees with the ESV and the NASB here.  “God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.”]

Now that we’ve dismissed a few misconceptions, let’s look at the positive side of translation.  What exactly are we trying to do when we translate?  We’re taking a phrase or phrases in one language and trying to convey the same idea in another language.  So בָּרָ֣א becomes created.  That’s simple.  But what do we do when we have a more complicated sentence?  For instance, a literal translation of Amos 4:6 is “And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.” (KJV)  What on earth does “cleanness of teeth” mean?  Is God brushing our teeth for us?  This could also be translated “I gave you freedom of teeth…”  Well that doesn’t help.  But if we look at the context, it is talking about famine.  So the NIV translation tries to help us with that.  “"I gave you empty stomachs…”  The word ‘stomach’ isn’t here.  They are interpreting ‘cleanness of teeth’ for us, to help us understand what is happening.  And they get it right (*cough, so does the Message, *cough *cough…I should get that cough looked at). 

That’s the fundamental difference in the type of translations available.  Are they trying to stick as closely to the Greek and Hebrew as possible (and thus leave us with “cleanness of teeth”) or are they trying to help us understand where possible (and thus give us “empty stomachs”)?  A translation like the KJV, ESV, NASB, etc are trying to stick closely to the Greek and Hebrew (even with word order), whereas the NIV, NLT, and the Message are trying to help us out to varying degrees.

So we’re left with two possible problems.  When reading the KJV, you may not understand what it says.  When reading the Message, it may not be saying the right thing.  So what do you do?  You read multiple translations, and you use different translations depending on your situation.  When I’m talking to middle-schoolers…there’s no way I’m using the KJV.  But when I’m doing careful study of a text, I’m definitely not going to just read the Message and call it a day.

So why do I actually like the Message? 

First, I like that the chapter and verse numbers aren’t in my way.  Sure that’s makes it tough when I read it in church and I’m trying to find a specific verse, but it makes it better when I’m at home.  These divisions aren’t original to the text, and they have fostered a lack of context in the minds of many Christians.  Translations like the Message help us move away from that.

Second, I like it because it often captures the tone of the passage in a way that other translations just can’t.  It gives me God’s word as if He’s using the language I use on a daily basis.  For instance, Philippians 2:1-4 reads this way in the KJV:

1“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies,
2 Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.
3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”

Now, I get what he’s saying, but I’ve spent a lot of time studying this passage.  If I read this to a youth group…their eyes gloss over and they tune out.  Also, notice the separation of verses…just saying. 

But…here’s the Message of the same passage:

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

Yup.  Got it.  That makes sense.  Is it interpretive?  You betcha.  But is it understandable?  Absolutely.  If I’m talking to a new believer, I’m giving them the Message.  Why?  Because they can read this passage and say, “Oh…Paul is saying that what I’ve received from Christianity ought to motivate me to act a certain way towards other people.  Well that certainly makes sense.”  It helps them get into the text.  They can ease into other translations eventually.  But do you know, when they are tired…they will probably come back to the Message, and that’s a good thing.  When they share a verse on Facebook, it will probably be from the Message, and that’s a good thing.  Why?  Because it is easy to understand.

I know, for some of you, that the Message is a serious problem.  I know it’s really popular in some circles to talk about how horrible the Message is.  It’s inaccurate.  It removes things or adds things.  It encourages dogs and cats to live with one another.  You know…mass hysteria.  I get it.  But I want you to consider something.  Think about what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 8:11 “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.”  Before you jump in to tell people about the horrors of the Message, remember that this is someone for whom Christ died.  Remember that He loves them just as much as he loves you.  And consider for a moment that even if you are right, your knowledge in this circumstance might do more to destruction than building, and that is a disaster of Biblical proportions.
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