Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Perils of “Onlyism”
“Using anything but the King James Version [of the Bible]” The Chicago Tribune reports Pastor Chris Huff in suburban Chicago saying, “is like shaving with a banana.” I’ve never actually tried to shave with a banana, and I can’t imagine why Pastor Huff did, but I’ll accept his word that it’s not overly effective. On this 400th anniversary of the King James translation I’ve discovered a not so little sub-culture in the church called the King James Only movement. These folk don’t just believe, with many of us, that the King James Version was a magnificent religious and literary achievement. They believe that it is the only translation to be trusted. Some believe it was divinely inspired in ways that no other translation is, and some even believe that it is a second revelation, from God’s mouth to the King’s speech. Wow!
I’ll leave it to my Hebrew Bible colleagues to debunk this foolishness. Millions of English speaking Christians across these four hundred years have undoubtedly been inspired and sustained by the graceful cadences of this 17th century text. But to deny the evident flaws in translation in this time and culture bound translation, or the way some verses have been translated that oppress others, requires an act of anti-intellectual will or moral indifference that is breathtaking. Then, of course, there is the sad specter of millions of non-English speakers consigned over the centuries to a second rate Christian experience. Can’t read English? Sorry. Only bananas for you.
Bible translations do evoke heated passions. I studied in the RSV room at Yale Divinity School where the translation teams met in the early 1950’s under the leadership of Dean Luther Weigle. Allegedly there was a file in the archives – the “Revised Standard Virgin” file – containing all the hate mail that arrived complaining about Isaiah’s “virgin” becoming “a young woman.” One envelope contained the ashes of the page the writer had burned and sent in! Too bad he also destroyed Isaiah’s vision in the temple on the reverse side of the page. Recently a new edition of the New International Version of the Bible got into trouble for making explicit that references to humans in the Bible include women and men. Sorry, only brothers allowed!
All of this got me thinking about the perils of “onlyism,” and not just in the religious arena. Newt Gingrich has launched his presidential bid with speeches that call for a renewed embrace of American “exceptionalism.” For him, the United States is not just one of many countries in the world. It is, for Gingrich, unique in its embodiment of the values of political and economic freedom and democracy. Only the United States? “I am not a citizen of the world,” Gingrich says, “I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous.” How quickly the grave perils of Neo-con onlyism appear to be forgotten! I guess they never learned to sing that wonderful hymn, “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”
Then there are the last gasps of moral indignation and bigotry from those who claim that marriage must only be a union between a man and a woman. Congress has decided to defend in court the “Defense of Marriage Act,” even as a “Respect for Marriage Act” is introduced that would strike “only” from the vocabulary of federal law codes. Expect the only crowd to hang on to the bitter end, probably voting for Gingrich, and, you guessed it, reading only their King James Bibles!
During the Presidential campaign Barack Obama invited a number of religious leaders to an off the record meeting here in Chicago. A few of us watched incredulously as Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, tried unsuccessfully to trap Obama into acknowledging “a Muslim background.” Failing that, he then asked him, “Senator, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation?” Obama responded, “Dr. Graham, my mother wasn’t a Christian. She wasn’t a person of conventional religious faith at all. But she embodied the values that most of us around this table cherish. I’d like to think that the God all of us in this room love, and who we believe loves us, would not have turned her away when she arrived at the Pearly Gates. Next question.” So much for onlyism.
I guess onlyism makes some people feel good. We belong, others don’t. We’re good, others are not. We’re right, others are wrong. We’re pure, others are not. But what makes it so hard to say, “The King James Bible is a powerful witness to me in the same way that other translations are powerful witnesses for others?” Why can’t we say, “I love my country for all its greatness and in spite of its flaws, just as others love their countries in all their grandeur and flaws?” What is so troubling about two men or two women falling in love and committing themselves to a life together? Why can’t we say, “I celebrate the God whose love for me in Jesus Christ extends far beyond me in a wide and perhaps mysterious reach of grace?”
So happy 400th birthday, King James Bible! May you have many more, for you deserve to be read. But I’m going to continue using my NRSV, among others. I may be shaving with a banana, but at least I won’t be risking moral and intellectual life and limb on onlyism’s proverbial banana peel.
John H. Thomas