Go Ahead, Offend Me

Frederica Mathewes-Green

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 12-13.

Last spring saw a free-for-all break out in the evangelical Protestant camp over a proposed new "inclusive language" translation of the New International Version Bible. While World magazine, which sounded the alarm, was scolded for joining battle in hysterical and sarcastic tones, the translators were compelled to explain in what sense it was "accurate" to render masculine terms neuter, singulars plural, or produce grammatical whimsies like "everyone . . . they."

As the battle broke open, I found that I wasnít wholeheartedly on either side. On the one hand, Iím a living-language Philistine; I believe that a language in use will be in change, and that this organic process must be accommodated. Itís futile to fight it. Friends with sensibilities purer than mine protest that we canít allow ungainly, PC-inspired language changes to occur, but in many cases itís simply impossible to prevent them. Some "improvements" are too awkward to gain common use, but when a language shift catches on, it has to run its course. Sometimes, as in the case of the short-lived term "groovy," the word can be toddling out the door within a year. Sometimes, as in the case of the current redefinition of the word "gay," resistance is futile. Anyone who insists on using "gay" to mean "blithe" is begging to be immediately misunderstood and snickered at.

Thus, I recognize that "man" is no longer a coherent synonym for humankind, and I have long avoided it (and other masculine generics) in my writing. Some of my friends are mounting the barricades on this one, because it is a fine and dignified word with excellent credentials, but I think that battle is over. Not that we have to expunge it from our past, re-titling books and recarving plaques, ripping the guts from idiomatic sayings; there may even still arise occasions of such dignity that no feebler substitute will do. But in ordinary speech and contemporary writing, most of us have grudgingly learned to avoid using the impolite, impolitic "man."

No, there arenít any good equivalents. "People" is unmelodious; "humankind" is overly earnest; "folks" is unsuitable for situations that donít include a hayride. Too bad. For the time being, people who write about people canít use masculine-flavored group nouns. They wonít be clearly understood, and the purpose of writing is communication.

But our own original writing is one thing; translation is another. Like it or not, the Bible frequently uses masculine generics in the original languages. Some partisans in the inclusive language debate insist that we must therefore use masculine generics, like "man," in order to be faithful to Scripture. But this principle of exacting literalism is unevenly applied. The original languages of the Bible also use different terms for singular and plural "you," yet even the most emphatic proponents of literal translation arenít insisting we go back to "thee" and "thou." They acknowledge that archaic, discarded terms canít be resurrected, even if theyíre more precise. In modern Bibles "you" is used for both singular and plural, and the reader is dependent on footnotes when the distinction is significant (as in Luke 22:31-32).

Itís a judgment call, but I believe that here again "man" is now archaic, and should be dealt with the same way. But what about gender-specific words that arenít outdated, words still in everyday useóa man, he, his, brother? Should these be avoided, so that women know theyíre included?

Speaking as one of the party whose tender feelings are under consideration, I donít want the Bible rewritten so it wonít offend women. I think the Bible should offend women. It should offend men, figure skaters, plumbers, headwaiters, Alaskans, Ethiopians, baton twirlers, Jews, and Gentiles. If itís not offending people, itís not doing its job.

The Bible, that powerful book, has many effects: it comforts, counsels, instructs, and brings us into the presence of God. But trying to erase offense as one of its functions is a fundamentally misguided task. Where the original language uses a generic term for humans, donít cling to outmoded "man." Where it uses a specifically masculine term, respect that puzzling fact and leave it alone. We donít know enough to change it. Weíre not as smart as we think we are.

Almost twenty-four years ago I walked into a church in Dublin a Hindu, and walked out a Christian. I had had an unexpected confrontation with the presence of One I discovered to be my Lord, and was set reeling. I knew I needed operating instructions quickly, and particularly wanted to find out who this Jesus was. I hunted up a Bible, a pocket-sized King James with print several microns high, and plunged into the Gospel of Matthew.

I disliked it from the start. Jesus was often abrupt and hard-edged. I disagreed with some of the things he said. I was offended.

But something had happened in my heart. The confrontation in the church had knocked a hole in my ego. I knew at last that I didnít make the world, I didnít know everything, and it was time for me to sit down, shut up, and listen. I kept working my way through the Gospels, and they began working their way through me. There are still parts of the Bible I donít like. But I like the parts I donít like, because I know thatís where I need to listen harder.

Again, thereís nothing wrong with giving a neutral biblical term a neutral English equivalent. For example, when Caiaphas says, "It is expedient that one man should die for the people," he uses the Greek term anthropos, not aner; this could acceptably be, "It is expedient that one person die."

The problem comes when the original writer chose a specifically masculine term. Psalm 1 begins, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked." He could have written "people who," but he didnít. If we correct him according to dictates of modern fashion, what might we lose? We lose touch with the ancient and continuous historical understanding that this verse prefigures the One who is righteous, Christ the Lord. We lose the bracing image of one solitary figure standing against widespread evil, diluting him into a vague mass.

Scrupulous anxiety about offending women is offensive to this woman. If someone thinks Iím incapable of reading "Blessed is the man" and figuring out it applies to me too, Iím insulted. Besides, updating gender references wonít go very far toward a goal of making the Bible palatable. Someone who balks at "a man" is really going to be thrown for a loop when she hits "Take up your cross."

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a syndicated columnist and a commentator for National Public Radio.