From his hilltop headquarters above Colorado Springs, James Dobson has issued numerous edicts about how people should live their lives. Now the most powerful religious broadcaster on the planet, warning of the perils of "militant, radical feminism," is trying to control how Christians throughout the world read the Bible. And he's doing a pretty good job of it.
At stake is the wording of the next edition of the New International Version (NIV) Bible, which currently commands 45 percent of the North American market. Until Dobson interfered, the NIV's Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) was preparing to use what's known as "inclusive" language in some verses. In Psalm 1:1, for example, the translators reportedly would have substituted "Blessed is the one..." for the current "Blessed is the man..." and, in 2 Timothy 2:2, they would have used "reliable people" instead of "reliable men." "Dear brothers" in 1 Corinthians 15:58 would have been changed to "Dear brothers and sisters"--which is the way many ministers preach it now anyway.
The translators, who themselves are conservative Christians and overwhelmingly male, contend that there are many instances in the Bible in which ancient Greek or Hebrew words for "people" had been translated into "men." The translators say they simply wanted to be more accurate and that they had no intention of changing God into a woman.
But Dobson wrote an editorial on the issue last spring in the arch-conservative Christian magazine World in which he accused the translators of stealthily trying to change "our Bible." And he announced that he would hold a meeting at his Focus on the Family bunker in May to take up the subject.
Word of the planned meeting spread fast. And the translators already had trouble on their hands: They were catching grief from the Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God for the same reasons. The day before Dobson's meeting, the International Bible Society (IBS), which holds the NIV copyright, and Zondervan, the company that publishes the Bible, yielded. They agreed to halt work on the revisions and to withdraw an inclusive version of the NIV already selling like hotcakes in Great Britain.
Zondervan, which makes $50 million a year from its NIV sales, even agreed to give refunds to people who had purchased its inclusive version of a Bible for children--an edition that Focus on the Family, to Dobson's chagrin, had distributed.
When Dobson had his meeting, he shot from both hips, accusing the translators of succumbing to a "feminist agenda" and even issuing a set of "guidelines" for them: Use "man" to designate the human race, retain "masculine references to God," and do not change "brothers" to "brothers and sisters," "son" to "child," "father" to "parent" or "fathers" to "ancestors."
But if Dobson won the battle, he may yet lose the war. For the first time, he's now publicly taking heat from other conservative Christians. Close allies of Dobson, such as Mark Taylor of Tyndale House Publishers in Illinois, which has issued some of Dobson's own books, have objected to being "bullied." So have the translators, one of whom has already lost his seminary teaching post as a result of the fuss.
"The men on the CBT are as far from militant feminism as can be imagined," says IBS vice president for translation Gene Rubingh from the company's Colorado Springs headquarters. Christianity Today, founded by evangelist Billy Graham and the most sober and influential magazine in the rapidly growing evangelical community, took the translators' side, editorializing against Dobson--though not by name.
"What troubled me the most," Christianity Today senior editor Ed Dobson, a Michigan pastor, wrote in the magazine's July 14 issue, "was that anyone who was egalitarian or who was interested in updating the English language of the NIV to include both genders was accused of opening the evangelical tent to a humanist, radical feminist, liberal agenda. Such accusations are nothing less than evangelicalism's own form of political correctness. An oppressive conformity is being demanded."
However, the reluctance of Christianity Today and other evangelicals to take on James Dobson by name has some longtime critics of the Focus on the Family leader marveling at his clout. "The remarkable thing is Dobson's ability to make people run for cover," says Gil Alexander-Moegerle, a former Dobson intimate and ex-vice president of Focus on the Family. And it may be dismaying to some devout believers that financial concerns are governing their holy word of God.
Christian book publishers pray that their authors appear on Dobson's radio show. One appearance is practically a guarantee that a book will be a success. A bad word from Dobson, however, can be a mortal blow.
"He can move 35,000 units with one interview," says Alexander-Moegerle, who used to be Dobson's co-host. "So publishers feel, 'Do we go into the marketplace with Dobson branding us as heretics, or do we yield?' It's a terrible situation."
"Of course there are marketing overtones," acknowledges the IBS's Rubingh. "Our church was telling us, loudly, not to go in and change, and our board was talking about survival."
Rubingh says the IBS was swamped with letters objecting to the changes and even received copies of "inclusive" Bibles with holes shot or drilled in them.
"Now," he says, "I'm hearing from the other side. And I say, 'Where were you when we needed you?' We had just wanted to be gender-accurate."
Alexander-Moegerle says he's appalled that anyone would object to such things as changing "brothers" to "brothers and sisters," especially if the original Greek and Hebrew words were themselves inclusive.
"It is so benign, so harmless," he says, "and for Dobson to go off the deep end, well, we see the power play, the arrogance. It's all on display."
Now people in the academic world are speaking out in defense of the translators. Aida Besançon Spencer, a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, blasted Dobson in a recent article titled "Power Play" in Christian Century, a liberal Christian magazine. "It appears," she wrote, "that the hidden agenda [of Dobson's May meeting] was to enable a certain type of men to 'lord it over' others. How could some Christians have the breathtaking arrogance, not to mention the power, to require other Christian organizations to publish only their point of view?"
Describing herself as a "biblical feminist," Spencer speculates that Dobson and his allies may be driven by feelings of "inadequacy" as men. "And it's also fear," she says. "There are lots of things happening in society, a lot of changes. They're picking a group as the scapegoat. I guess they've picked feminists."
A question still nagging at the Christian world is exactly who has an "agenda" in this dispute. Dobson accused the translators of having one. But Rubingh, asked whether it appears that it's really Dobson's forces, not the translators, who have an agenda, replies, "That's your statement, but I'm not going to deny it. They certainly do have an agenda."
Alexander-Moegerle says Dobson's actions come as no surprise to him. Dobson has always been a sexist, he says, pointing to several examples in his recent book James Dobson's War on America. He recalls Dobson telling him, "Don't breathe that feminist stuff too deeply."
But it all may backfire on Dobson.
"Mark Taylor is his friend," says Alexander-Moegerle, "and it's significant for him to say he feels 'bullied.' And Christianity Today--those people are his friends. This may be the beginning of a major earthquake under Jim's feet in his own community."
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