Once again we're seeing a free-for-all break out in the evangelical Protestant camp over a new "inclusive language" translation of the Bible. Once again, church leaders are berating publishers for kowtowing to the PC police; once again, translators are scrambling to defend decisions related to masculine and neuter nouns, singular and plural verbs. Since when was grammar so interesting?
As the battle continues, I find that I'm not whole-heartedly on either side. On the one hand, I'm a living-language Philistine; I believe that a language in use will be in change, and that this organic process must be accommodated. It's futile to fight it. Friends with sensibilities purer than mine protest that we can't allow ungainly, PC-inspired language changes to occur, but in many cases it's 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 the object of snickering.
Thus, I recognize that "Man" is no longer a coherent synonym for humankind, and have long avoided it (and other masculine generics) in my writing. Some of my friends are behind 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, retitling 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 aren't any good equivalents. "People" is unmelodious, a bleat studded with rubbery knobs; "humankind" is overly earnest and wears reading glasses; "folks" is unsuitable for situations that don't include a hayride. Too bad. For the time being, people who write about people can't use masculine-flavored group nouns. They won't be clearly understood, and the purpose of writing is communication.
It's a judgement call, but I believe "Man" is now similarly archaic, and should be dealt with the same way. But what about gender-specific words that aren't outdated, words still in everyday use--a man, he, his, brother? Should these be avoided, so that women know they're included?
Speaking as one of the party whose tender feelings are under consideration, I don't want the Bible rewritten so it won't 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 it's not offending people, it's 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, don't cling to outmoded "Man." Where it uses a specifically masculine term, respect that puzzling fact and leave it alone. We don't know enough to change it. We're not as smart as we think we are.
Twenty-eight 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 guy Jesus was. I hunted up a Bible, a pocket-sized King James with print several microns high, and plunged into the Gospel of Matthew.
But something had happened in my heart. The confrontation in the church had knocked a hole in the sandbag of my ego. I knew at last that I didn't make the world, I didn't know everything, and it was time for me to sit down, shut up, and listen. (On the heavenly scoreboard, this ranks as a bigger miracle than the feeding of the five thousand.) I kept working my way through the Gospels, and they began working their way through me. There are still parts of the Bible I don't like. But I like the parts I don't like, because I know that's where I need to listen harder.
Again, there's nothing wrong with giving a neutral original 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 is 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 didn't. 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.
Beyond that, we don't know what we would lose. Artificial baby formula can never be as nutritious as breast milk, because we don't know what all the components are; there are vitamins that haven't been discovered yet. These intentionally masculine nouns are mysterious to me, and I need to face them squarely, not be shielded from them.
Scrupulous anxiety about offending women is offensive to this woman. If someone thinks I'm incapable of reading "Blessed is the man..." and figuring out it applies to me too, I'm insulted. Besides, updating gender references won't go very far toward a goal of making the Bible palatable. Someone who balks at "a man" is going to really be thrown for a loop when she hits "Take up your cross."