Monday, July 4, 2011

Nabbishing the Bible

Why are most efforts to ‘modernize’ the language of our great religious texts such dismal failures? In his memoir, The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens uses the apt subheading, "The Prodigal Son Returns Too Late," to describe his dismay at encountering this wreckage of the Anglican patrimony on his return to the Church of England he had abandoned as an adolescent. He means that the Anglican communion he returned to was not the C of E he had left decades earlier. Even more than the Catholic Church in the West, the C of E had been infected with a liberal, secularizing modernism. Traditional teaching on faith and morals as well as liturgy, architecture, music and ancient practices and forms had been abandoned and the communion was falling into apparently irreversible decline. Hitchens deplores these developments, which include discarding some of the greatest literary treasures of the C of E and the English language--the King James Bible and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. (See my review of Hitchens’s book on this blog and for Amazon.)

American Catholics have to endure, not only similar liturgical, architectural, and musical horrors. Not least of these are the pop-music hymns of the 1970s and 1980s – what a terrible period in the life of the Church in so many ways! – hymns that are embarrassingly narcissistic, being all about me rather songs of praise and adoration to the Lord or Mary. (I finally had to change parishes after one crooning rendition to many of Dan Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord.”)

But also, and perhaps worst, because inescapable, of these horrors is the New American Bible. Now at least we can relish an accurate account and at least a partial explanation of its peculiar language, the language of Nabbish, in the current issue of First Things ( The essay by Anthony Esolen, also aptly titled, “A Bumping Boxcar Language,” explains:

The bland, Scripture-muffling, colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase American Catholics have had for forty years often was not a translation at all, nor even a paraphrase into English. It was a paraphrase into Nabbish, the secret official language of the New American Bible.
Esolen explains the principles of Nabbish:

Principle One: Prefer the general to the specific, the abstract to the concrete, the vague to the exact.
From Esolen’s wonderful, if depressing, account of this principle in action, let me take just one example. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say to you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. In Nabbish this becomes, Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.


Principle Two: Prefer the neuter, the indefinite, and the impersonal.

Thus St. Paul, in prison awaiting execution, writes to his beloved disciple, the bishop Timothy. As Esolen explains,
He is writing to his beloved disciple, the bishop Timothy. He regards the many years of his life spent preaching the word of God; he thinks of the shipwrecks, the stonings, the narrow escapes, the joys and the sorrows. And he utters those bold words that ring in the heart of every true Christian. Here they are in the Revised Standard Version, an exact translation of the Greek into contemporary English (and quite close to the King James): I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

And in Nabbish this becomes, I have competed well. As Esolen comments, “Try to remember that as you await your own last hours. Just try.”)

Principle Three: Prefer the office memorandum to the poem.
Here Esolen compares two versions part of the prologue to the Gospel of St. John, which he calls “one of the most powerful and astonishing poems in all of Scripture.” Here is the King James Version:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.

The simple, direct and awe-inspiring language of John, faithfully rendered from the Greek to the KJV, is muffled and stripped of its awe in the sadly familiar way of Nabbish:

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.

He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

“Ah,” says Esolen, “the boxcar-bumping of Nabbish! Natural generation, human choice, a man’s decision—thudding softly as their train rumbles across the dusty plains of oblivion.”

Esolen describes and illustrates the core principles of Nabbish. He also explains how a reader may learn Nabbish on his own:
[H]e should simply take all the lessons in an old and reliable book of English style, say the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and invert them. Or he may ask himself, “What are the things that make poetry lovely or memorable?” and eliminate them.

Esolen’s essay is available with a subscription to First Things, at

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