Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Good As New

A review of GOOD AS NEW: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures, John Henson from the ONE Community for Christian Exploration, O Books, New York, USA, Alresford, UK, 2004.

by Lawrence G. Downing

When Vern Carner recommends a book, those who know him pay attention. Therefore, when he told me to order Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures, I did. Now that I have read the book I can appreciate the blurbs on the front and back covers:

"A presentation of extraordinary power." Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury.

"I found this a literally shocking read. It made me think, it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me angry, and it made me joyful. It made me feel like an early Christian hearing these texts for the first time. John Henson and the ONE community have made the Bible accessible and alive so that a new generation my hear the news and experience it as good." Elizabeth Stuart Professor of Christian Theology, King Alfred's College, Winchester and Bishop of the Open Episcopal Church.

"It spoke to me with a powerful relevancy that challenged me to re-think all the things that I have been taught." Tony Compolo Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Eastern University.

Good As New (GAN) lists the name John Henson on the title page. It is he who over a twelve year time period served as the translation coordinator on behalf of ONE for Christian Exploration. ONE is described as "…a network of radical Christians and over twenty organizations in the UK, working to renew the Church from within. Contributions have come from all across the spectrum, from fundamentalists to liberals, and from all denominations." (Wonder if there were any Adventists?). John Henson himself is a retired Baptist minister.

We learn from the Forward, written by Archbishop Rowan Williams, that Rev. Henson wrestled with the challenge of screening out stale, technical, unconsciously exclusive words and policies.

Items to that may be helpful to know about GAN:

GAN is not a "complete" Bible, but it does include one book that many do not know: the Gospel of Thomas. GAN begins with the Gospel of Mark followed by The Gospel of Thomas, Matthew, John, Luke-Acts, and Romans. Paul's letters to Corinth are divided to make three. The letters from Paul's team: I & II Thessalonians are followed by Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, James, I Peter, I John, and Hebrews. Letters not included are I & II Timothy, II Peter, II & III John, Titus, Jude, and The Apocalypse of John.

Brief articles by Henson, “Firing The Canon” and “Order of Books” along with the “Introduction to the Gospels” by Reg Bridle, an Anglican priest, provide helpful information for the reader who questions the selection of translated books and other matters that arise as one reads the documents themselves. For example, Why change the names of traditional places and personal names? Where is Tessatown or Grapetown or Fishtown? Who are Gus, Kurt, Barbara and Stan? Why is it that angels are now God's agents, messengers, and companions? Who are the Strict Ones? Why is the Holy Spirit always referred to as "She"? Why is demon possession called mental illness? The answers to these and other questions are provided in the articles.

I found GAN to live up to its hype. The language is British, and therefore some of the terms are not natural to our ears. But this is not a serious drawback. Of more interest are the unique reads the translators have given to what for many may have become hackneyed verses. The explicit language of the following verses grabs the reader’s attention.

I Corinthians 7: "Some of you think the best way to cope with sex is for men and women to keep right away from one another. I think that is more likely to lead to sexual offenses. My advice is for everyone to have a regular partner. Husbands and wives should strive to meet each other's sexual needs. They should submit to one another for that purpose. It's not good to refuse a partner, though it's fine if partners agree in a friendly spirit not to have sex for a while."

Hebrews 13: "Keep on loving one another….You must all respect a committed relationship. Partners must be loyal to one another. When they're making love they should be gentle."

Bible docs might have been more popular if passages like these were discussed.

GAN is not a study Bible. That is not its purpose. Rather it is an interesting read that attempts to bring the Bible writers into the 21st Century. I would be interested to have a person who has little knowledge of the Bible read this translation and then listen to their response. This person would be the best judge of whether the authors succeed in the goal they set for themselves: produce a Bible that speaks to modern people.

As one who grew up with the traditional readings and names, it would have been helpful if the Glossary had put the new names in alphabetical order rather than alphabetizing the traditional names. This would have saved me time and lessoned my frustration as I searched for the new name of a familiar person or place.


Anonymous said...

This is more of a paraphrase of the NT, and a poor one. It brings into the text the reader's presupositions and cultural bias. Yes, a paraphrase at times do that, as we see in the Aramaic Targum; however, the Targum stays very close to the intended meaning. This version, Good as New, is closer (not the same) to the Midrash in style and methodology. Nevertheless, contrary to the Midrash it does not communicate the ancient teachings in a contemporary language seeking its significance for today; rather, makes the text say what the reader or translators want it to say today. I do not see evidence that this text is a direct translation from the ancient Greek, but simply a rewriting of various English versions, paraphrasing them into one edition. Of course there is validity in the project. It is an interpretation worth reading. But it becomes silly, almost ridiculous and distracting, the nicknames given to a few characters. There is not need to do this, although they could say in a footnote that the nicknames given in Aramaic to some of them, could be similar to an English name today. The author is not consistent giving Anglo nicknames to the characters. Needless to say, the Anglo Irish nicknames remove the characters from their Jewish, Hebrew or Aramaic context. Understanding the NT in its historical, religious, and cultural context (Second Temple Judaism) is extremely important for a proper interpretation.
A couple of details are example of readers interpretation instead of striving for unbias exegesis. Adding Thomas in this canon, by a one man or one committee decision, gives the seal of canonical approval to a book still under major controversies. Obviously, if we agree with the NT writers or not, they did not speak of "partners" but of marriage between a man and a woman.
This edition of the NT is misleading for someone who have never read the NT. It is very useful for small study or discussion groups and dialogue as long as they have read a translation like REB, NRSV, and others, especially the Greek NT.
Again, this edition is a contribution to challenge traditional theological and ethical presupositions, but like some fundamentalists, it reads the editor(s) own presupositions into the text, making the text say what it was not in the Greek mss. One good example of having theological Church dogma as presuposition is found in 1Corinthians 15.
These are just some notes. Do not consider the comments as a scholarly final statement. Just some thoughts. Perhaps someone will help me see in a more positive way this edition.
R. Peretz

Anonymous said...

I must clarify that I wrote the above as a Jewish man who has an appreciation for the Jewish teachings found in these writings, and promotes Jewish Christian Muslim Dialogue. I also have a commitment to proper exegesis of any religious literature, Jewish or from any other tradition. It is a concern when I see some Muslims misinterpreting the Qur'an for their own personal interest, ignoring the fundamental and practical principles of Quranic exegesis. The GAN version of the NT does the same. It ignores proper exegesis for the sake of advocating a personal interest. This problem is found also in some of our own writers.