Marketing the Common English Bible

UPDATE: Paul Franklyn, Project Director for the CEB, informed us in the comments that the text originally featured on the new CEB website would be revised taking into account the concerns laid out below. I sincerely commend Abingdon for their gracious response to criticism and for their willingness to promptly put suggestions into practice. Further, I am pleased to report that the text quoted below has been removed from the website and that the new presentation of the CEB is much, much better.

As most of my readers know, the Common English Bible is a new ecumenical Bible translation project sponsored by Abingdon Press. News of the project appeared throughout the Biblioblogosphere last year, and over the past few days, the buzz has been about the release of the text of the St Matthew’s Gospel, which was finally made available for download yesterday. I expect to make a few comments about the translation later, but  at the moment I only wish to discuss the perplexing statements featured in the brand new website for the CEB, which was launched in connection with the release of its translation of the Gospel of St Matthew. Below are two blocks of text from the website’s front page, each followed by my comments.

While new translations abound for part of the church, for mainstream denominations the choice is limited. The NRSV revision began in the 1970s and is now 20 years old. It reads at an 11th grade level (which is higher than the typical college graduate), and it was a modest revision of the 1951 RSV. In the past 20 years alone, the English language grew from 300,000 words to over 1 million words. In our quickly changing world, we need a translation of Scripture that connects with the kind of people who worship and study the Bible in our congregations. The Common English Bible can connect people to God once again. What happens next, when we study the Scripture, can take our passion for loving God and neighbor to the next level.

The first question here is what exactly constitutes a “mainstream Christian” or a “mainstream denomination.” By any count, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the US, and news of the controversies at their annual convention often make the national news, so they have a large degree of public visibility. Further, they have recently produced the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and hardly lack choices of other translations to use. Evidently, then, “mainstream” denotes here neither numbers nor public visibility, since Southern Baptists have both of these, and the opening statement still does not apply to them.

A possible solution to the dilemma is that “mainstream” is used here as a synonym of “mainline,” a proposal that has much to commend to it: after all, a majority of the CEB’s translators and consulting readers hail from such denominations as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Traditionally African-American denominations are also well represented, as is even the Roman Catholic Church. But then the Church of the Nazarene, a 20th-century revivalist denomination of Wesleyan-holiness heritage, is represented by 5 translators and two readersmore than, for instance, the very mainline UCC. Further, there isn’t a single Orthodox translator or consulting reader in the CEB team, though one would certainly think that the Orthodox Church is considered by all to be at least “mainstream.”

It is unclear, then, to whom does the CEB website actually refer when it speaks of “our congregations” and of the “kind of people (!) who worship and study the Bible” in them. What is clear, however, is that the CEB is being marketed with a regrettable “us versus them” mentality from the start, even though who falls into which category is not explained. Still, whoever belongs to the “us” can rest assured that the CEB will “connect [them] to God” and stir them to “take [their] passion for loving God and neighbor to the next level”presumably in a way that the NIV will not (see below).

I cannot help but to comment on the incredible (and linguistically naive) statement that “[i]n the past 20 years alone, the English language grew from 300,000 words to over 1 million words.” Imagine that: a mind-boggling 700,000  new words coined in two decades, whereas the previous six or so centuries before that only managed to produce a mere 300,000! Clearly our Anglophone ancestors were lazy and unimaginative in the extreme. This sort of figure is usually produced by counting words in a dictionary or another lexicographical corpus and comparing the tally with previous editions of the same, or yet more fantastically, by swallowing whole the claptrap advanced by Paul J. J. Payack’s Global Language Monitor. But let us suppose for a second that English has really expanded at a rate of 35,000 new words per year over the past 20 years: how many of these new words do you suppose would find their way into a new Bible translation? There are no New Testament passages, alas, that recount how St Paul wrote his email to the Seattleites from his laptop while using the wireless connection at Panera.

Several Bible translations were produced over the past 20 years. However, most of these translations represent a particular conservative theology and are revisions or updates from prior translations (e.g., ESV from the RSV, NKJV from KJV, TNIV from NIV). The revision is generally less than 5 percent. Or they are paraphrases of the biblical text (e.g., The Message, The Voice, or the New Living Translationa revision of the Living Bible). The NIV will be marketed again in this crowded conservative field in 2011, by merging the TNIV with the aging NIV, which originated among Reformed groups in the 1970s.

There are a couple of glaring errors in this paragraph. For one, we hear the same old tired canard that the New Living Translation is a paraphrase of the Biblical text. It is not. Like the Good News Translation, it is a functionally equivalent translation, not a paraphrase. Also, the New International Version had its origins among Reformed groups in the ’50s. By the ’70s, when the translation was finally published, the members of the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation hailed from no less than 13 different denominations, all Evangelical, but not all Reformed or Calvinistic. (For details on how the NIV came to be, see this article by the late great John H. Stek.)

More importantly, however, here we learn where the perceived divide between “us” and “them” in the previous paragraph lies: it is something ominously called “conservative theology.” By this I suspect  that they mean Evangelicals and others with a so-called “high view of Scripture,” since they are the ones who by and large have produced the revisions mentioned above, and also the ones who make the most use of them. This is a shocking proposition on which to market a Bible translation, particularly taking into account the fact that Evangelicals and others with a “high view of Scripture” are the primary market for Bible translations. If it is hoped that the dying demographic of the mainline will suddenly become energized by the publication of the CEB and return handsome profits to Abingdon for their enormous expense on this project, I’m afraid that such hopes are built on quickening sand.

From the above we would be led to think that no individuals who espouse a “conservative theology” are involved in this translation project, but a brief glance at the list of translators and readers quickly dispels that notion. Indeed, three of the translators belong either to the Evangelical Free Church of America or to the Baptist General Conference, two bodies that unambiguously affirm Biblical inerrancy in their statements of faith. There are also several translators who serve on the faculties of Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Denver Seminary, all of which are, at the very least, decidedly Evangelical schools who affirm a “high view of Scripture.” Why, then, stir the hornet’s nest of “liberal” versus “conservative” Bible translations? Why the gratuitous indictment of the “conservative theology” that several of the CEB’s own translators espouse?

I realize, of course, that framing the matter in this way likely responds to the recent news that a new edition of the NIV will be released in 2011, which is also the target publication year for the CEB. One can practically hear the terror behind the lines quoted above about “the aging NIV” and the hideous progeny that will surely result from its “merger” with the TNIV (which descriptions are, incidentally, very disingenuous). It is understandable that those responsible for marketing the CEB should want to have the first strike against its putative rival, especially when it said rival is a new edition of a translation that has over 300 million copies in circulation. However, the point that they have chosen to emphasize in their campaign isn’t only misleading (because the CEB is not a “liberal” translation, and plenty of “conservatives” are involved in its production), but it is also a classic example of shooting oneself in the foot.

22 responses to “Marketing the Common English Bible

  1. I think this may be a case of the marketers taking over the explanation of the translation which has happened before with one of the very well known “word for word” translations.

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s post.


  2. Jeff> Oh, it is most definitely a case of the marketing department doing all the talking without a clear understanding of what they’re actually saying. This is why I felt compelled to lay it all out. It is really quite unfortunate.

    If you’re referring to the ESV in your comment, though, I must disagree with the idea that the marketers somehow botched their strategy and unwittingly ended up wreaking havoc. The polarizing “us” vs. “them” mentality is the very raison d’être of the ESV, its prime mover. It was all there from the beginning. For proof, just consult Poythress and Grudem’s 2000 book “The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy,” where it is all in full display.

    Mike> I love you too, man! I haven’t called you a kindred spirit before for nothing. ;-)

    And yes, indeed it was! I laughed for days.


  3. This seems like a lot of wasted effort. You could have settled the question simply by citing the first two sentences of quoted material: ” . . . for mainstream denominations the choice is limited. The NRSV . . . ” That reference alone should make obvious their target audience.

    As for this: “Paul wrote his email to the Seattleites from his laptop while using the wireless connection at Panera.” I’m still thinking of a suitable punishment for you. Clearly, you’ve been hard at work on an updated version of the Cotton Patch Bible without letting anyone else in on the project.


  4. Esteban

    You are right about how the marketing copy sounds . It will be adjusted. One challenge for a new Bible translation is to show how it is different from other translations. The content is the most important way to do this. The social location of the translators does matter also in terms of method and theology.

    Some forget that the NIV began and was marketed as a protest vs. the RSV, which was being burned in the streets. That trigger is no longer the case, because social location shifts over the decades from that of the founders. Labels are always loaded. “Mainline” is a word that marketers and sociologists of religion now avoid, preferring “mainstream” instead. “Ecumenical” is a word loaded with baggage for some tribes and critics.

    The CEB does embrace a much wider diversity than any previous translation, in terms of gender, affiliations, and ethnicity of the participants. Perhaps we should emphasize that breadth, though that diversity message has its critics too.

    We will revise the copy at the splash page. Your criticism is valid.



  5. Peter> Oh, but the mention of the NRSV would not have settled it. The Christian Reformed Church, for instance, is not a mainline church, and the NRSV is widely used in it. And, believe it or not, the NRSV is also the pew Bible (augh! pews!) of choice at a local Orthodox parish I visit often!

    As for my efforts to become the next Clarence Jordan, I’m afraid you’re right. Would it lighten my punishment if I told you that the email to the Seattleites discusses the evils of grunge?

    Paul> I am simply delighted to hear that Abingdon will be revising the text of the webpage. I wrote this post out of sheer frustration that a very commendable Bible translation project had chosen to market itself in an ultimate divisive and self-destructive way. Trust me, there will already be enough copies of the CEB burned without the help of the marketing campaign!

    I think that focusing on the breadth and diversity of the translators and readers is precisely the right thing to do. People who find fault with that approach will never be appeased, and the resulting translation will stand on its own merits. Besides, if the NIV could claim in its preface to be free from sectarian bias when its translators we solely and exclusively (white male) Evangelicals, how much more could a translation like the CEB, (whose translators and readers include Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals, and even Roman Catholics and Jews, and an admirably diverse ethnic and gender make-up) make the same claim? Confessional diversity was one of the key ingredients of the success and wide acceptance of the RSV/NRSV, and I think that this can be fruitfully emphasized here too.

    You are right, of course, about how the NIV was marketed in some quarters back in the ’70s. It was, after all, the decade of the so-called Battle for the Bible! Still, it must be remembered that the genesis of the project had no reactionary dimensions to it at all. Howard Long, the layman who dreamed of having a Bible like the NIV, belonged to the Christian Reformed Church — a denomination which had synodically approved the use of the RSV for worship, and in which that translation was effectively used for close to three decades. But you are right, of course, that more reactionary motives may have been present in some elements of the NAE side of the equation.

    Once again, I’m glad to hear that the page will be revised, and I will note that at the top of the post!


  6. Esteban, you are right, I was referring to the ESV. I guess they were more cunning than I thought. I was mainly thinking of their term “word for word” but maybe they really did know what they were doing and were pandering to those who like “literal, word for word” translations. And the ESV does that perfectly. (sarcasm)


  7. Well, this sort of thing is just typical. I was watching an HCSB promo and thinking to myself, “Actually, that’s not exactly right, sir. Nor that either.”

    But everybody wants to distinguish themselves from the competition (silly as the notion of competition in Bible translation is). I mean, doesn’t it go back in a sense to about the KJV and the Duay Rheims? Or how about the multiple Greek OT translations, to go even further back?


  8. you people and your cursed love of secondary literature. if you aren’t reading the MT and the GNT, you aren’t reading the bible!

    so there!




  9. Jeff> Not only were they pandering to the “word-for-word” crowd, but tragically the chief ideologues for the ESV (take Grudem and Ryken) are so linguistically naive as to fall into that trap themselves. Add to this their perception that they are in some kind of new “Battle for the Bible” against the “muting of the masculinity of God’s words” (!), and you have the recipe for the ESV-related vitriolic pamphleteering we all know.

    Chuck> Yes, the propaganda machines for all translations out there are the single most frustrating thing about Bible publishing. More often than not the noise has little to do with the substance, and letting the translation stand on its own merits takes a back seat to the hype.

    Jim> Gasp! How dare you say such things! I will have you know, good Sir, that in these parts The Bible is the LXX and the Majority Text of the GNT! ;-)


  10. Esteban: Thanks for the info on this translation. Maybe “mainstream” is being used as the opposite of “extreme” and this Bible is being marketed to people who were just too moderate to buy things like the “Extreme Teen Study Bible.”;)

    I have looked over its translation of Matthew and it’s hard for me to believe that something like that would become popular in churches outside of those that are developing teaching materials with that version (UCC, ELCA, PCUSA, etc.). It just doesn’t seem that impressive. There are just so many English Bibles out there now and it will be perceived by some to be a “liberal” translation regardless of what the final product looks like. The NIV did some incredible marketing and gave people an alternative to the KJV with its archaisms and the RSV referred to by some evangelicals as the Reverse Satanic Version. I had a Zondervan sales rep tell me at one point that the NKJV would be in more churches today than the NIV if it had been released prior to the NIV.


  11. My pastor uses the NKJV for much the same reasons as Jim, I suppose. I use the NET and NRSV to follow along, checking every NT text by the textual notes in the NET diglot.

    I was really disappointed to find Jim reading an English translation rather than the Hebrew with a translator in Psalms.

    I confess the very early sample reviews do not incline me toward the CEB.


  12. hey chuck- sorry about that. id do it in hebrew and greek if anyone could understand it. but you know what paul said- ‘id rather speak ten words… etc’


  13. My friend, this was a most enjoyable post, and I’m very glad to see that it came to the attention of the publishers themselves. My favourite line: ‘If it is hoped that the dying demographic of the mainline will suddenly become energized by the publication of the CEB and return handsome profits to Abingdon for their enormous expense on this project, I’m afraid that such hopes are built on quickening sand.’ But St Paul e-mailing in Panera was great too, if only for sheer outrageousness!


  14. The Esteban, he rocks.

    Although the translation sounds about as interesting and desirable to me as synthetic day-glo orange leg-warmers (i.e., not at all, in case there is any doubt on that score), I thoroughly enjoyed the review.

    It’s good to see that it has been promptly taken to heart and that corrections are forthcoming. This gives one some modicum of hope for humanity, or at least its subset of publishers.


  15. Aaron> Why, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this post! (And, truth be told, those were my favorite two lines to write.) I’m even gladder that the original marketing line has been scrapped for something much more irenic. The “Bible wars” are bad enough without having one translation picking fights against another! And again, I am positively impressed by Abingdon and their willingness to take constructive criticism to heart.

    Kevin> To be fair, this was no review of the CEB as a translation, but rather of the rather misguided original marketing campaign. But indeed, who knew that there was any hope left for publishers? ;-)

    Chuck> I confess with you that the very early sample reviews don’t incline me to the CEB either, something I greatly regret, since I very much wanted to be so inclined. After all, the CEB features a full translation of the entire canon of the Orthodox Church! When I first heard of the project, I hoped for a Bible with the same kind of fresh literary quality found in the (T)NIV, but that did away with its well-known Evangelical slant, which is problematic in a number of places. Well, the release of St Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that the CEB will be something else entirely, and I find this disappointing. But I still hope it does well.


  16. Esteban: Well, if the KJV can last a few centuries, the RSVA, NRSVA, and ESVA can serve for a decade or two more, I guess. Or mix the NETS with a New Testament.

    Personally I’m rediscovering the NRSVA with my recently purchased cross reference and compact editions.

    And there’s always hope further revision can be done to the CEB. Which is more than my hopes for a fuller canon NET anytime soon.


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