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.