e-mail us

Cover story

Scripture in multimedia

NCR Staff
New York

When the American Bible Society was founded in Manhattan in 1816, Protestant zeal was at its height. Moral reformers and revivalists looked around and saw more than enough to do. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a Jerry Falwell of his day, warned, “Our vices are digging the grave of our liberties and preparing to entomb our glory.” But Beecher had more to worry about than the nation’s morals. Looming at its borders was an influx of Irish Catholics that would challenge Protestant hegemony even more. Beecher would soon issue his “Plea for the West,” expressing his urgent hope for “saving the West from the pope.”

In this post-Puritan, anti-Catholic, missionary-minded world, the Bible society movement served a growing demand for Bibles at home and abroad, becoming the nation’s first mass producer of books and achieving so much success worldwide that popes found it necessary to condemn it.

“Pests of this sort must be destroyed by all means,” insisted Pope Pius IX, in his 1866 encyclical Quanta Cura, where he ranked Bible societies with socialism and communism on a list of social evils. The pope was tapping into 400 years of vociferous Roman Catholic opposition to the vernacular Bible that began with the Reformation.

By then, the American Bible Society, modeled after an English organization, was half a century old.

In 1897, Pope Leo XIII took up the cause in Apostolic Constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, an exhortation against noxious books. Second after the writings of heretics and schismatics came the vernacular Bible. All Bibles published in the vernacular by non-Catholics were “strictly forbidden,” the pope said, “especially those published by the Bible societies, which have been more than once condemned by the Roman Pontiffs.”

What a difference 150 years has made.

Today a high percentage of the staff of the American Bible Society are Roman Catholics -- as high as 50 to 60 percent of the society’s staff of 350 or so, some staff members estimate, though no one is actually keeping count. Catholics serve on the society’s board. One of the society’s translations -- the Contemporary English Version -- is approved and widely used for Catholic children’s liturgies.

Some of the society’s Bibles even carry the imprimatur -- though that stamp of official Catholic approval is becoming increasingly hard to get. Today, as a result of a surge of Catholic interest in biblical scholarship and Bible reading since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics are increasingly a focus of the society’s outreach.

Relationships with Catholics are a full-time job for Jeanette P. Russo, director, Catholic ministries, who is charged with increasing the society’s visibility among her co-religionists. “We’re here to serve the Christian community,” she said, “but when the society did some research to find out who is it we’re missing, the research pointed to the Catholic community.”

Another Catholic staffer, Gary Ruth, whose job is to form links with other publishers, has found Catholic publishers to be especially receptive. For example, Loyola Press has introduced several Bible society products into its catalogs -- primarily products for children, Ruth said.

Emilio Reyes is a pentecostal Protestant, but his job as national director for Hispanic Ministries is to reach out to the 30 million Spanish-speaking people in the United States, an estimated 73 percent of whom are Catholics. Currently he is drawing together Catholic scholars from Latin America for a pilot symposium in New York aimed at helping priests who work with Hispanics to use the Bible to teach theology. He hopes to put on similar programs in dioceses around the country.

Further, Catholics are deeply involved in the society’s leading edge: finding ways to present the Bible through “new media” -- that is, in ways other than print. Think MTV-type videos and film; CD-ROMs; scripture set to music in styles ranging from country-western to rock to jazz; interactive scripture comics on the Web. For Catholics, new media is a natural niche because Catholics are comfortable relating symbols to faith, said Robert Hodgson Jr., a Catholic from Springfield, Mo. The society’s ventures into video translations for young audiences earned it a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago and then went on to earn some international awards.

Research center

Hodgson, formerly professor of the New Testament at Southwest Missouri State University, heads up the society’s year-and-a-half-old Research Center for Scripture and Media. The Springfield-based center sponsors research and experimentation around such questions as what does it mean to remain faithful to the text when the medium of communication is, say, music, video, a Web page, comics or a CD-ROM? How do you convey the meaning of a passage -- and satisfy expectations of a contemporary audience -- using sound and video? How can you be sensitive to issues of culture, gender and ethnicity on, say, a CD-ROM?

The center’s Web site (www.researchcenter.org) is developing as an on-line think tank where biblical experts, along with experts in new forms of communication, can exchange knowledge with implications for the society’s multimedia work. Spots on the site have also been created for viewing some of the latest new media products, engaging in translation exercises and exploring the history of the society’s ventures into new technology: updated printing presses in the early days, then radio and TV, recordings for the blind, even opera.

Hodgson works closely with an ecumenical staff and 35 outside consultants, who include such Catholic heavyweights as Jesuit Fr. Paul A. Soukup, who teaches at Santa Clara University and specializes in connections between communications and theology; J. Ritter Werner, music historian and longtime liturgist at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dayton, Ohio; and Yale- and Harvard-educated Gregor Goethals, former dean of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Two recent fellowships funded by the center and intended to further its work are evidence of its avant-garde concerns. One scholar, Patrick Cattrysse of the University of Louvain, had done work in adapting detective stories into film noir; the other, Joy Sisley of the University of Warwick in England, had explored the relationship between film genre and cultural values. The center is authorized to sponsor two fellows a year.

So far, the society’s new media translations group has produced four short New Testament music videos aimed at 16- to 22-year-olds. “The Visit,” based on Luke’s tale of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, features the Women of the Calibash, an African-American dance group. “A Father and Two Sons” features Delta blues singer Roy Block singing the parable of the prodigal son as the action unfolds on a working horse ranch in North Georgia.

The latest completed video, “The Neighbor,” in final testing stages, is based on the story of the Good Samaritan. Instead of the ethnic adult mix of Jesus’ day -- the priest, Levite and Samaritan -- the cast features children: Anglo, African-American and Hispanic. It shows kids “doing violent things, then suddenly becoming reconciled,” Hodgson said by way of explaining recent requests for copies from pastors in Littleton, Colo., who had heard about the project.

Upcoming videos will be about the Resurrection and the Nativity.

Despite the awards, the society considers the result of the video projects mixed, Hodgson said, but good enough to go forward. “We’ve proven we can translate the scripture texts into new media,” he said. “We’ve declared victory on that front.” But there’s a problem with the gatekeepers.

“Young people love the MTV style, especially inner-city kids,” Hodgson said, “but parents and pastors weren’t comfortable with it,” either because of the technology or the way the scriptures were presented. The society has engaged professional testing groups to gather more information and explore ways to integrate the videos into personal Bible study and classroom use.

Hodgson expects it to take decades for translation into new technologies to mature as a field. “Print translators have had 2000 years to get it right,” he said. “We’ve had only 10 years.”

Hodgson attributes the shift from papal condemnations to acceptance of the society’s missionary work in large part to Eugene Nida, widely regarded as a pioneer in translation methods and ecumenical outreach. Nida worked for the society for more than 50 years, ending up as head of the society’s translation department. In an interview from his home in Brussels, Belgium, Nida said credit goes largely to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

Functional equivalency

Nida pioneered what is called “functional equivalency” translation -- sometimes called “dynamic equivalency” -- which means translating meaning for meaning (usually sentence by sentence) rather than the traditional method of word for word. The goal is to translate the Bible into the language people actually speak, not by paraphrasing but by working from the original Hebrew and Greek, he said. The goal is clear, simple writing for easy reading. The principle, applied to the society’s own translations, such as the Good News Bible, and the newer Contemporary English Version, though controversial among some conservatives and anathema to fundamentalists, is used in translation work worldwide. An example of how language changes from culture to culture, often rendering literal translation meaningless, is that the Hebrew word or Greek word that translates into English as heart -- as in “love the Lord with all your heart” in Matthew 28:30 -- would be more understandably translated in West African languages as “with all your liver,” Nida said. Many cultures use body parts to convey emotion, but not necessarily the same ones.

Nida had long envisioned Bibles acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants. After Vatican II and the shift from Mass in Latin to Mass in the vernacular, Catholic leaders were eager for new translations. “I was amazed at the requests coming to us from priests, bishops, archbishops,” he said. In the late 1960s, he organized a conference in Switzerland and invited members of the Vatican’s Congregation for Propagation of the Faith. The result was a document on Catholic-Protestant translation ventures, “a landmark in ecumenical cooperation,” Nida said. A few years later, Nida gave lectures in translation at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

“The society works with Catholics now in at least 150 different languages,” he said. He labeled the result “the most important thing to happen since the Reformation: to give the scriptures to people in forms they can really understand.” So far, the American Bible Society and its 134 counterparts around the world -- all under the umbrella of the United Bible Societies -- have helped to translate the Bible into more than half of the world’s 5,000 languages and dialects. Catholics increasingly are part of that effort, serving as translators, consultants and board members, he said.

Working ecumenically hasn’t been without its snags. “From time to time some local bishop doesn’t want to cooperate on something,” Nida said. “They back down on earlier promises. But that’s part of working together.”

In fact, a current snag with the Catholic hierarchy is interfering with Russo’s work. Although one of the society’s biblical translations, the Catholic edition Good News Bible, has carried an imprimatur for at least two decades, the imprimatur for a newer translation has been held up for well over a year. The holdup for the Contemporary English Version is apparently related to the Vatican’s increased surveillance of functional translations of biblical and liturgical texts, stemming in part from concerns about gender-inclusive language.

Examples of translation
(Functional translation is used in the Contemporary English Version)

Traditional translation, Psalm 147:10
“His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the leges of a man.”

Traditional translation, Romans 6:1
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”

Traditional translation, Hebrews 12:15
“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Contemporary English Version, Psalm 147:10
“The Lord doesn’t care about the strength of horses or powerful armies.”

Contemporary English Version, Romans 6:1
“What should we say? Should we keep on sinning, so that God’s wonderful kindness will show up even better?”

Contemporary English Version, Hebrews 12:15
“Make sure that no one misses out on God’s wonderful kindness. Don’t let anyone become bitter and cause trouble for the rest of you.”

Even though the Contemporary English Version is approved by U.S. bishops for children’s liturgies, even though they have granted an imprimatur to the New Testament and Psalms, the Old Testament is in limbo. The bishops’ committee sitting on it has sent the society a letter of apology saying they were disappointed, Russo said.

She said the delay in getting approval for the full Catholic edition has been disappointing for Catholic youth ministers, too. “Catholic catechists and youth ministers want it,” she said. “But a lot of groups won’t use it without the imprimatur.”

Meanwhile, Russo’s department is sending out Bibles that do have the imprimatur, along with other scripture-based resources, to every Catholic high school in the country, the result of an anonymous gift from a Catholic board member. Her department is also cosponsoring retreats for high school students, sometimes known as “Extreme Faith” retreats. Russo works on those with Catholic youth leaders to help them integrate scripture.

Education emphasis

Jean E. Bross-Judge of Minneapolis, a 34-year-old Catholic who serves as consultant to the society for the retreats, said she has received more requests for retreats from Catholic groups than she can handle. She is also working with the American Bible Society [and the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry] on a National Catholic Youth Conference, to be held in St. Louis in November. Bross-Judge said the society is helping to develop a program there that will bring bishops and youth together to talk about scripture.

As Russo and others on the front lines of the society’s work see a need for new products, they turn to the department in charge of developing them -- a department headed by vice president Maria Martinez, the society’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic.

Barbara Bernstengel who oversees development of still-important print resources, is always looking for ways to package scripture readings (the society calls them scripture portions) for new audiences. Booklets with appropriate passages are available for victims of domestic violence, for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease, for people affected by AIDS. A packet called “Power Source” is aimed at teens and focuses on issues of self-esteem. A new study guide to the Book of Ruth, prepared with inner-city audiences in mind, explores God’s faithfulness as it deals with issues of ethnicity, identity, assimilation and community.

The society also publishes foreign-language Bibles in languages as familiar to Americans as French and Spanish, as unfamiliar as Navajo. A reference Bible is available on CD-ROM, with a variety of English and foreign language Bibles in its databases.

Scripture sales bring in just 8 percent of the nonprofit society’s annual budget of $108 million. The rest is derived from investments (65 percent), contributions and grants (21 percent) and royalties and handling fees (6 percent). The society has assets of $707 million, according to its 1997-’98 report.

The society’s goal is not only to distribute Bibles, but to help people use them, said Bernstengel, who is a Lutheran. “When the organization was founded in 1816, there was a need to get the Bible out there. But now the terrain has changed. We still distribute, but we also recognize the importance of education and use. We want to develop materials that will help people get into the scriptures in a way that will engage them.”

Russo said that, despite recent efforts, the society is still often perceived as a Protestant organization.

“When the Promise Keepers held their Million Man March in Washington in 1995, they knew to come to us,” she said. “We produced a million New Testaments for them. I don’t know if the Catholic church would know to come to us.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999 [corrected 06/18/1999]