GUEST COLUMN
The Words of God

December 1989By Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson, an evangelical Episcopalian, is Associate Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and a former editor of The Washington Monthly.

Song and Scripture are the embers of Christianity that glow brightest in the hearts and minds of believers, and longest in the memories of those who were raised to believe but no longer do. We who have been in the church’s fold may not remember a word we ever heard preached or a doctrine we ever heard taught (what’s that about consubstantiation again?), but we all know that the Lord is our shepherd and that amazing grace is life’s sweetest sound.

The centrality of song and Scripture makes the words in which they are rendered vitally important. Somehow, American hym­nals and Bible translations must be familiar enough to retain the authority that only memory, accuracy, and tradition bring, yet also modern enough so that they are not archaic or unintentionally offensive to people outside the dominant white male culture. Striking this balance is a task that, in the language sensitive 1980s, the National Coun­cil of Churches, the umbrella organization of mainline Protestant denominations, got all wrong and that the United Methodist Church, the largest of those denominations, got just right.

The NCC made Scripture the object of its reforming zeal. In 1980, offended by the Bible’s insistence on, among other things, speaking of God as ruler and of Christ as man, the Council appointed an 11-member committee of feminist academics to write an “inclusive language” lectionary to be read in worship services. Rendering Scripture as they wished it to be rather than as it is, committee members consigned the “Lord” and the “Son of Man” to the then popular Conehead family — “the Sovereign One” and “the Human One,” respectively. The “Son of God” was transformed, Peter Pan-style, into the eternally infantile “Child of God.” And here’s what happened to the English language when the committee got its hands on Gen. 2:18, God’s decision to create Eve for Adam: “It is not good that the human being should be alone; I will make a companion corresponding to the creature.”

The NCC, consulting no one but its own bureaucracy, published the lectionary’s first volume in late 1983. After a week or so of alternating outrage and hilarity, the larger church abandoned it to gather dust.


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