How Not to Use the Vernacular

In those long-ago days when new cars had built-in cassette players and we were a large homeschooling family, I invested in a set of tapes of the New Testament, narrated by Alexander Scourby. Those were the only straight readings of the Bible I heard until last week, when I popped The Message into my CD player.

Eugene Petersen is a man whom I admire and respect. The first I ever heard his name was as the author of a book with a compelling title, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. To hear him speak, as I have recently on the Mars Hill Audio publications, is to know that he has received a goodly share of grace and wisdom from God. In introductions to the recordings he explains that his motives for writing The Message paraphrase of the Bible were to make it accessible to the everyday English speaker as a “reading Bible,” to introduce them to God’s words and God’s ways, with prayers that they would go on to read a study Bible, and learn to participate in the life of God.

A couple of years ago I read a few passages in the printed version of his translation, as he loosely calls it, and was neither impressed nor offended. But I’m past the stage of needing an introduction, so I didn’t pay much attention. I bought the recording because it was the least expensive experiment I could make in a newer format, and I didn’t imagine that the experience would be so far removed from listening to Alexander Scourby.

It was only a year ago that Scourby read the entire gospel of Matthew to me while I was driving to the mountains and back in my old car. It was a flood of God’s blessing to hear that much of the earthly life of my Lord — His words, His being the Word — in one sitting, and I thought my heart would burst with the overflow. The several hours’ drive was over before I knew it.

But the narrator of The Message series makes me remember why we always chant or sing the Scripture in the Orthodox Church. The first portion I listened to was Matthew’s gospel, in which John the Baptist and Jesus appear early on, and the narrator gives them the voice and intonation of an actor over-dramatizing his role. In tone, it is so not the vernacular, unless you are a football coach at half-time when your team is losing, or a political talk-show host on a rant. To have the words of Christ spoken that way is to make Him out to be a cheerleader or an ad-man. Even the most Pentecostal preachers I have heard do not speak with such urgency through their whole sermon.

If only Eugene Peterson had been the one to read aloud his rendition of the Bible. He would not have been capable of such a style, nor would he have thought it necessary. He knows that the words of God do not need hepping up. Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay. But he speaks more slowly even than Scourby, whose pace sacrifices speed to dignity.

I had to dig out our old cassettes to check who the narrator was, and then I googled his name. Wikipedia says, “Although Scourby made voice recordings of over 500 different books, he considered the Bible to be his most important,” saying “‘…it is the one book that has the power to inspire, encourage, comfort and change the life of the person who hears it.'”

The Orthodox believe that worship services should be in the language of the people, the vernacular, so priests and missionaries through history made great efforts and sacrifices to translate the Bible and prayer books. St. Innocent is one I have heard the most about; he traveled by kayak all over the frozen north to minister to the native peoples of Alaska, and learned several languages besides his native Russian.

But we do not read the Scriptures aloud in church in the tones of our everyday speech, even though the words are in our respective languages. If you do that, it is nearly impossible not to emphasize one word over another and lend changeable meaning to the sentences depending on who you are and what assumptions and personality, not to say errors and misunderstandings, you bring with you. The only way to let the words speak for themselves is to chant or sing them without emphasizing one over another.

Scourby was Greek and baptized Orthodox. I wonder if he had a sense of how to read the Bible from hearing it chanted or sung in his youth. His reading resembles the way many ministers in Protestant and even Evangelical churches used to read, and I’m sure some still do, not with a lot of expression, but clearly and reverently.

And why did someone decide to intersperse jaunty electronic quiz-show music in between some tracks? Is that supposed to be the vernacular as well? Petersen says that he wants people to become familiar with “the way God speaks,” and he wants us to be mindful that God in the Incarnation did not take “the role of a sophisticated intellectual.” The style of The Message‘s narrator may not be sophisticated, but it is affected and distracting.

Not that I would give anyone even Alexander Scourby’s Bible readings with the thought that they could know from them alone what Petersen calls “God’s grand rule of love and justice.” God has spoken through His Son, the Word, and the words of the Bible testify that it is the Church, not the scriptures, that is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:23) The Church is the only context in which one can learn and live the full meaning of Holy Scripture.

The Scourby readings were, it seems until recently, available for listening for free online. They have been replaced with readings by another man; I haven’t tried them yet.  Audio-Bible provides those new readings online and sells recordings of Alexander Scourby’s Bible in various modern formats. I can see making that investment at a future date. And for the present, I have a portable cassette player for playing my valuable antiques.

12 thoughts on “How Not to Use the Vernacular

  1. Alexander Scourby sounds really Scottish! I too would like to have a recording of the Bible, even just the NT, read in old-fashioned, measured tones without any of the weird emphases and inflections one finds in so much modern reading.

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  2. It's been a few years since I first looked at a Message bible, seeing as the bible study I attended I was one of the few ladies with a NKJ. I borrowed one on the insistance of another woman and looked up some passages. I didn't like the reading at all, and noted significant differences to popular verses.

    Acts 2:42 (New King James Version)
    42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

    Acts 2:42 (The Message)

    41-42That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

    John 3:16 (The Message)

    16-18″This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person's failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

    I'm sure you know the standard version of John 3:16. Seems to me the Message leaves a whole lot more to get confused about if easy reading was the idea.

    I don't know that such vernacular as “were signed up” really lends more to understanding. Largely, I found the message useless. Did the world really need another version? I don't think so. My other problem was that everyone I knew/know who uses the Message uses it as a study bible. If Petersen couldn't see that happening…

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  3. I see that Petersen did get one thing right in that Acts passage you mention. THE prayers, I learned, is the correct translation because the definite article is there in the Greek. That is, they weren't making up their own prayers but were using some particular ones, as liturgical churches have continued to do to this day.

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  4. I didn't know why the Scriptures were chanted. Some (ok, half) of the Orthodox churches I've attended didn't have anyone chanting the Scriptures, likely out of “no one knows how to chant it so we'll just have to read it”.

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  5. Not being in the Orthodox church, I don't know much about chanting. But I do know what you mean when you describe the over-done, overly-dramatic speaking that is sometimes used on those production videos/tapes. It's so sad. I'm afraid it demonstrates that the producers think this is what will appeal to their audience — a “Hollywood” type voicing that is too studied, too emotional, too showy. To me, it seems to ridicule the text, but perhaps that's my preference.

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  6. I've never been interested in “The Message” as I've been perfectly happy with my good old NASB. Nevertheless, I like the idea of listening to the NT in long stretches. I think there must be much to gain from such an endeavor. Thanks for the inspiration.

    And, there is something about listening to the chanting that helps the listener. I'm not sure I can capture what it is exactly because my mind can still wander away from time to time.

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  7. I, too, had the Scourby Bible on cassettes. I gave it to my MIL and now I wonder where they are? I think they can be had on mp3 now, can't they?

    I never thought about chanting/singing the scripture to keep emphasis of the reader at bay.

    Jody

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  8. Eugene Peterson is fabulous. I'm an Orthodox convert and grew up in the 'scholarly' world of Protestantism. I sometimes get overwhelmed by the cultural box that so many Orthodox Christians are in and Eugene Peterson is someone I turn to for solace when I get in freaked out mode. Although I've never really gotten into 'The Message' for no real reason, his latest book series is excellent. It starts with 'Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' and I think there are 3 after that. Though you can tell he is not Orthodox and veers from Orthodoxy in parts, he is right on for the most part. Great reads.

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  9. I love The Message. I LOVE it. I'm also a huge admirer of Eugene Peterson in general, and I think he did an amazing and important service by interpreting the Bible in such an accessible way.

    But I've never had any luck finding an audio recording of Bible readings that I loved. Sometimes the reading is nice, but then there's the music to contend with, and oftentimes the reader overdoes it. I guess I'll stick to reading it myself!

    frances

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  10. I do understand what you mean. Our (PCA) church has a lot of very talented people doing every little thing, from preaching to music to scripture readings. One of our scripture readers was even written up in the New Criterion this month for his narration of Screwtape on Broadway!

    I appreciate talent, but I occasionally find it distracting, especially in the case of the scripture readers. I grew up in one of those Protestant churches where the scripture was read plainly, by a lay person, and I have actually found myself on sometimes guiltily wishing for an amateur reader, because I end up concentrating on the reader and not the scripture.

    And it may just be me, but I find almost all music in audiobooks and sermons, and even in many movies, distracting.

    So, I'm agreeing with you. I have never heard Scourby, but I think I'd like him!

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