Sunday, September 4, 2016

Controversial Book Review: The Clear Word for Kids

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Clear Word for Kids

Author: Jack J. Blanco

Date: 2008

Publisher: Review & Herald

ISBN: 0-9748894-3-1

Length: 1042 pages with several four-page full-color inserts

Quote: “And the things that Samuel had told him happened to Saul that same day. He met two men, then three men, and when he got close to home he met a group of ministerial students…and he joined them in singing.”

The first I heard about The Clear Word was when a Daily News columnist referred to it scornfully as “the Seventh-Day Adventists’ own Bible.” Say whaaat? All the years I went to that church, we used the KJV, NKJV, RSV, NIV, NASB, such that most Adventists I knew were familiar with those initials. (They're less familiar with the Douai and Geneva translations.) In “Sabbath School” classes (since they don’t actually meet on Sundays) Adventists often look for illumination of the Bible in the Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary, in (some of the favorite) writings of Ellen White and other founding members of the church, and in popular books by non-Adventist authors. Seventh-Day Adventists are proud of being part of the Protestant tradition; their study groups refer to Luther, Wesley, Foxe, Knox, Moody, C.S. Lewis, Fanny Crosby, or Max Lucado as well as Ellen White and Arthur Maxwell. None of these books is regarded as part of, or equal with, the Bible.

But then I found a copy of The Clear Word on sale for a dime, so I bought it to see what the man was talking about. The Clear Word is not a Bible. It is a paraphrase—the sort of exercise students write to show that they’ve read something from their required reading list. It has more in common with The Message than with any of the new “copyright Bibles.” It’s not a new effort to translate the original Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic texts into modern English. It’s an exposition of what the modern English suggests to Jack Blanco’s mind.

If you know your Bible well, very often, as in the paraphrase of 1 Samuel 10:9-10 quoted above, the disparities are hilarious. What Saul met were “sons of the prophets.” These young men filled a role similar to that of ministerial students, but the mental pictures…The “sons of the prophets” wore robes (which they might have hiked up or thrown aside in the heat of “prophesying”) and sandals and head scarves. They spoke ancient Hebrew. During religious services they, like other people, offered food to become “a sweet smell unto the Lord” in the perpetual barbecue on the altar. Some of this food, especially blood and fat from butchered animals, was dropped down into the fire; most of it was grilled and eaten by the worshippers. Wine offerings were also important. What was offered was considered “wine” from the time of pressing, but in a hot climate it became alcoholic fast. Worship services did not involve sitting still and listening to a lesson; they involved milling around, probably dancing, and chanting and singing. The prophets chanted and sang the Scriptures too; they were the teachers of the Scriptures, and their job also involved "prophesying" to the people which courses of action would lead to blessings or curses according to Moses. The ancient Hebrews also apparently had faith in divination—after praying, people would draw straws, stones, etc., and consider the results as God’s guidance—as well as in signs, dreams, and visions. The prophets certainly practiced divination, and some of them even reported visions, but they apparently spent a large part of their time telling less scholarly people, “If you do good, good will result. If you do evil, you can’t expect good to result.” We're not told in which of these prophetic functions Saul joined. "Singing" is strictly an educated guess about which of them Saul might have been able to do.

The Clear Word abounds with this kind of intriguing incongruities. In Genesis 19 the evil men of Sodom demand that Lot release the two new young men, his visitors, “that we may know them” in the biblical sense—apparently they were one of a minority of primitive groups that practice gang rape as an initiation ritual—but in The Clear Word their demand morphs into an ordinary invitation: “Bring your guests and come with us, and we’ll all have a good time.” When Lot demurs, what the visitors actually say is often translated as “We shall serve you worse than them,” but in The Clear Word it becomes “We’re coming in and taking your guests with us whether they want to go or not.” This is a little closer to the original story than the Veggie Tales version of the Purim story, where Haman gets “banished to the Island of Perpetual Tickling,” but not much. Arthur S. Maxwell retold this story for children (with the gang wanting “to hurt” the angels in the form of young men, as if the men of Sodom were the sort of street bullies with which most children are familiar) much better than Blanco does.

In Genesis 30, the original text does make it clear that Jacob is…groping toward a modern understanding of livestock breeding. People didn’t fully understand how selective breeding worked, before Mendel’s time, but people around the world managed to practice it. Jacob was promised all the spotted goats born in the flock as wages. Not sure just how to increase the incidence of a minority gene, he tried prayer, he tried cutting spots of bark off green branches to give the goats the right idea, and he tried encouraging the spotted goats in the flock to mate with the solid-colored ones. God heard Jacob’s prayers, the spotted goats mated successfully with the solid-colored goats at the right times, and Jacob walked away with lots of spotted goat kids. The Bible explains this fairly explicitly. The Clear Word is coy: “So when Laban’s animals had babies, many of them were spotted. This was because the Lord was blessing Jacob, not because of the spotted branches.”

Inevitably the poetic books are mangled by Blanco’s tone-deaf urge to shorten, familiarize, and simplify the Bible’s ideas. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful,” says Psalm 1, “but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law doth he meditate day and night.” In The Clear Word this flattens down to “Happy is the man who doesn’t listen to those who are evil or go where they go. Happy is the man who delights in God’s law and thinks about what God said.” Further along, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake” becomes “He helps me do what is right.”

Although S.D.A.s historically denounced the Spiritualist movement, in the early 1980s some enthusiastic evangelists told people the church was “New Age” and “positive-thinking.” Later in the 1980s, when Dave Hunt and other disillusioned Protestants led the movement to purge “magical thinking” out of the churches, some Adventists of Blanco’s and my generation still clung to the “positive thinkers’” tendency to focus on emotional moods, to pursue an emotional sense of happiness in the absence of real good to feel happy about. Psalm 42 was originally a sensitive, realistic poem about a man who, like the future King David in his wilderness years, has been cut off from the pleasure of communal worship due to the whims of feudal rulers, or poverty, scandal, unpopularity, or other reasons; while mourning for the present loss of this pleasure, the speaker hopes to be able to enjoy it again. “I had gone with the multitude to the house of God…Why art thou cast down, O my soul, why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him.” Blanco’s ideology perverts this understanding into something Blanco apparently (and mistakenly) considers more relevant. “I used to lead people to Your Temple, singing praises all the way. What a spiritual feast we had! But why am I so sad now? My hope is in the Lord. I will keep praising You no matter how discouraged I feel.” The Psalmist was anticipating, and probably rallying support for, a change in the real world around him. Blanco’s speaker is self-bound, trying to talk himself out of a bad mood. If you’ve ever tried to talk yourself out of a bad mood while keeping the focus on yourself and your mood, you know how futile this is, and how deeply wrong the paraphrase is.

Substantial chunks of meaning as well as poetry are also lacking from the Proverbs. Among other resounding clunkers, Proverbs 31 specifies the attributes of a good wife as including the kind of physical strength and financial acumen that the French Romanticists, Rousseau, Comte, and Saint-Simon, considered unladylike and undesirable. “Like the merchant ships, she bringeth her food from afar…With the strength of her hand she planteth a vineyard.” In the United States an ideal of a “nuclear family” where the wife never “had to work” at anything useful, after the children ceased to be babies, was introduced from French philosophy to substitute for the biblical ideal, in which women actively contributed to maintaining the strength of the extended family. Blanco’s paraphrase seems to reflect an early attachment to the Socialist, anti-biblical vision: “She shops for food…and plants a vineyard.”

Passing quickly over the prophetic books, which are a source of confusion at their clearest, we find other things that are blatantly Blanco’s and not the Bible writers' thoughts. In Matthew 13, people murmuring about Jesus say, “Are not His brothers, James, Joses, Juda, and Simon, and his sisters with us?” These were people who used their words for “brothers” and “sisters” in an exceedingly loose, liberal way. The use of these words here offers no basis whatsoever for doubting any of the possibilities...

* that Mary and Joseph might have had six ordinary natural children of their own after Jesus was born; 

* that Joseph might have had those six children from a previous marriage, and Mary might have become somehow “too holy” to have children in the ordinary human way; 

* that all six (or more) of those people were actually foster siblings, cousins, or close friends whom Jesus was known to call “brother” and “sister” in an adoptive sense, whether all or any or none of them had been brought up by His human parents. 

A paraphraser who didn’t want to impose his or her own ideas on this text might have left it as it is, since it’s easy to read in all the classic translations, or just skipped the four brothers’ names…but Blanco has a preference. “We know His stepbrothers and stepsisters.”

Turn the page, and the eye immediately lights on another authorial, or paraphraser-ial, intrusion. The original text of Matthew 15 does not spell out why Jesus at first ignored a Syro-Phoenician woman who asked him to heal her daughter, then haughtily told her, “I am not come but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not right to take bread from the children and cast it to dogs.” Most readers have inferred that He was testing her in some way, and possibly also making a point to His disciples. What we know is that, when the woman replied, “Yes, milord, but the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table,” she did use a different word for a different kind of dog. Judaism discouraged intimacy with dogs; Jesus used a word that meant wild dogs. Some other ethnic groups had started keeping dogs as house pets; the Syro-Phoenician woman used a word that meant pet dogs. Anyway, Jesus apparently liked her answer and promised that her daughter was (already) healed—which opens the possible interpretation that an hysterical mother might have been sicker than her daughter, all along. Blanco, however, insists on only one possible reading: “Jesus paid no attention to her. He did this to show the disciples how it looked when they treated foreign people that way. Jesus said to the mother, ‘They tell Me I’m not supposed to help you because you’re a foreigner’…Jesus said…‘Your daughter is healed.’ Then the disciples realized that Jesus was telling them to be kind to everyone and help them, no matter where they come from.”

Seventh-Day Adventists have always been partial to that reading, too, and it’s obvious throughout The Clear Word that the church as a whole has tried to be kind to Blanco. It’s not that the psalmist hoping to rally a minyan for group worship might not have felt weighed down by discouraged emotions, or that Jesus might not have been telling the disciples to be kind to foreigners. It’s just that the Bible as written is…well…so much bigger and better than this silly paraphrase.

But how could it be otherwise? Could any mortal be expected to improve the Bible? I’ve read other individuals’ paraphrases of the Bible, including The Message and a committee-authored “Readers Digest Bible” that claims to have merely shortened the text but has, of course, done violence to it. No paraphrase ever was or will be an improvement on the Bible as it stands. The primary benefit of a paraphrase is to the student. The purpose of publishing one is not to improve on the original text but to encourage the student, and other students, to study the original text. What the Adventist church is saying with The Clear Word is not “This is the word of God” but “This is the result of Jack Blanco’s disciplined and thorough study of the word of God; let us commend his efforts.”

If you can read it that way, then The Clear Word may appeal to you. It is truer to the original text than The Message, although some think that makes The Message more interesting as commentary; it's truer to the original text than the "Readers Digest Bible."

I don’t particularly recommend The Clear Word for Kids to children. Yes, it is closer to being a child’s-eye view of the Bible than The Bible Story, which looks and sounds like a picture book of stories. Yes, Blanco does at least try to explain those intriguing ancient laws and prophecies to kids—at the expense of much of their sense and almost all their literary beauty—and some kids may like that. I’d rather let children look at the pretty pictures in The Bible Story, which is a classic in its own right, until they’re ready to dig into the Bible itself.

Children have an ear for language; they appreciate “a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate” and don’t need to hear that phrase flattened out into “balls that look like pomegranate fruit, with a golden bell between each one.” They are capable of learning the difference between “Thou leadest” and “He leadeth,” and other points of earlier English grammar that have faded out of modern use, from the KJV—and learning those points will serve them well at any university they may one day attend. Children hear the parallelism in Psalm 1:1, in translations that use “walketh not…nor standeth…nor sitteth” or in those that use “neither walks…nor stands…nor sits,” and they should at least be able to notice that it’s one of the things that are missing from “Happy is the man who doesn’t listen to those who are evil or go where they go.”

We’ve all heard from people whose memory of their first exposure to the Bible is “I didn’t understand all those strange words, and it scared me.” We’ve not heard enough from people who were, perhaps, more emotionally secure in childhood, whose memory is “I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but it was awesome.”

I’ll even go on record as speaking for those who, as children, had some appreciation of the classic KJV. Our number included the late writer known as Ozarque, and also the late Art Linkletter, Jessamyn West…and a whole school of writers, beginning perhaps with G.K. Chesterton, certainly including George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain, and Dorothy Sayers, and C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, and P.G. Wodehouse, and Farley Mowat, whose English was plain, down-to-earth, conversational, and at the same time memorable and quotable, because their writing, speech, and thought were formed by exposure to the KJV; Cynthia Voigt may have been the last of the true breed. 

My Drill Sergeant Dad first brought me the sort of picture books four-year-olds normally like, which I liked, and approved of my reading them, and then started pushing: “Once you know how to read, those little picture books have served their purpose. You ought to be reading the Bible.” So I tackled the Bible, at different times, beginning at different places. Of course, at first a lot of it didn’t make sense to me; much that did seem to make sense was still very confusing. Of course, some of the Bible’s original images are anything but warm’n’fuzzy, although I could, by age five, feel confident about which side I was on and appreciate the blood-and-thunder quality of God’s cleansing wrath as portrayed in the Psalms and the Revelation. Very few five-year-olds, even if Highly Sensory-Perceptive, have developed the neurological structure by which an adult brain would process a spiritual experience; but five-year-old HSPs do feel awe, and when the spring rains smashed through the ice and roared down the mountain, when the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed, I remember returning to the Revelation and wondering whether this was what the writer was talking about. Children do not actually need for adults to pretend that everything is warm’n’fuzzy. Children appreciate knowing that some adults understand that some things are awesome.

Do you have or lack “an ear for music,” “a sense of pitch”? Often the difference between someone who develops “absolute pitch” and someone who can be taught to tune his or her own instrument, given A-440, is that one grew up listening to live professional-quality musicians and the other grew up listening to the radio. Likewise children develop their ear for language by hearing and reading things they don’t understand. Eighteenth century writers in English were educated on Latin, French, and Greek, and read English as a guilty pleasure—and their stilted, affected English writing shows it. Toward the end of the nineteenth century English-speaking adults started educating English-speaking children on the Bible, typically the KJV, backed up by Milton and Shakespeare—and their fluent, lucid, quotable English writing shows it. Some of the worst passages in writers like Twain or Mencken or Lewis sound better than some of the best in writers like Swift or Madison…or like the more recent writers who grew up deprived of the literary “ear training” of reading the Bible aloud.

So I recommend reading the Bible itself with children. Of course you, the adult, should know before you begin reading which parts are going to be difficult to explain to the children. Their literary ears won’t miss Genesis 19, particularly, but they need to hear the difference between “Children are an heritage from the Lord” and “Children are a gift from the Lord. They’re like a reward from Him” (Blanco’s version, which makes me react, “Like really?”).The mind, also, has a need for awe and wonder; no child deserves to have its capacity for awe stunted by being fed on movies and picture books alone.

If, however, one of the children in your life is an ambitious reader, who gets far enough in the Old Testament to start asking adults in its life what all that stuff about the sheaf offering and the wave offering and so on mean, then I would recommend giving that child The Clear Word for Kids and explaining that, although it’s only one man’s best effort at retelling the story, Blanco has studied about the different offering rituals and provided a simple explanation of what they probably meant.

And, if there are no children in your life…you might get some use out of The Clear Word as an exercise in humility. Read Blanco’s clunkers. Laugh out loud—if you’re a Bible Maven you will, and laughing is good for the body. Then try to paraphrase the whole Bible in your own words, not copying the original words and not copying Blanco’s. Yes, publishing a paraphrase of the Bible is a bit hubristic, but...maybe you can do a better job than Blanco has done? I can't. I both write and edit, and therefore have an especially great need for humility. Once, over a few weeks, I managed paraphrases of eight Psalms; I was not, however, humble enough to be willing to expose those efforts to posterity, so I burned them long ago.

To buy The Clear Word here, based on its going rate on Amazon, send $35 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the bottom of the screen. It's only one volume, but it's a substantial volume; adding any other books to the package might put it over the weight limit for the $5 rate. I'll know for sure when you order a copy.