The fourth level of Zondervan’s approach -- and perhaps the boldest -- is to use the TNIV New Testament as a bit of a decoy. Executives hope that the TNIV’s zealous opposition will have expended all of their flack by the time the Old Testament, which makes up about two-thirds of Scripture, debuts.
The cost of promulgating a new Bible translation often has been steep. Sixteenth-century reformer William Tyndale, for example, was tied to a stake, strangled, and then burned for translating the New Testament and a portion of the Old Testament into English from the original Greek and Hebrew sources. Even the NIV wasn’t greeted warmly at first by evangelicals.
Doornbos says that the TNIV was created by essentially the same group of scholars who translated the NIV, a not-for-profit group called the International Bible Society (IBS), and that they were operating from the same impulse “to combine the accuracy of the original Greek and Hebrew with the clarity of the receiving English of today.” He notes that the TNIV has changed “only” 7 percent of the NIV and that more than two-thirds of the modifications (such as using “coat” instead of “tunic”) haven’t caused a stir.
But the other 30 percent of the changes deal with gender, and they have made TNIV a lightning rod, electrifying an underlying matrix of tensions within evangelicalism itself. Like most of the major religions, Christianity is a highly patriarchal faith, starting with God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son but also continuing right down through the popes, Martin Luther and Billy Graham. Bibles’ use of the singular-masculine pronoun syntax of traditional English has complemented the male dominance. Yet as in the general culture, the last few decades have brought a persistent debate to evangelicalism about the historical and current roles of women.
Here’s an example of a change that particularly riles TNIV’s opponents. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons,” says the NIV translation in rendering Hebrews 12:7. “For what son is not disciplined by his father?” But TNIV translates that passage, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their parents?” That translation, goes the critique, loses the reference to God as Father.
Zondervan and its allies insist that, with TNIV, they’re simply trying to make the Bible more relevant. “There’s never been any pandering to political correctness,” insists Larry Lincoln, IBS communications director. “These [translators] are conservative, evangelical Christians just like many of the opponents.”
But others insist that most of the impulse for “gender-corrected” scripture has come from liberals in the church. “The words that God has spoken have a meaning that should not be tampered with, no matter how strong the cultural winds blow,” says Dennis Rainey, executive director of FamilyLife, a major “parachurch” ministry based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Much of the support for “inclusive language,” he says, “comes at the beckoning call of the politically correct movement and feminists.”
What further riles foes is that they thought they already had nipped TNIV in the bud. At a 1997 meeting at the Colorado Springs, Colorado headquarters of Focus on the Family, IBS scholars and Zondervan’s then-president agreed not to go the gender-correction route in a revision of the NIV. “But then a few years later,” recalls IBS’s Lincoln, “we realized that that had actually contradicted our mandate of spreading God’s word and providing readable scripture."
Zondervan erred by not tipping off opponents in the meantime that TNIV was still aborning, says a marketing source close to Zondervan. The failure to do so only added to their indignation once Zondervan announced late in 2001 that it was, in fact, coming out with a gender-revised TNIV. Opponents struck back by placing an ad in a number of Christian magazines that proffered a scathing critique of TNIV. The ad was endorsed by 100 of the most esteemed leaders in Christendom, including James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family; Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministry; and Reverend Pat Robertson. While fueling a short-term surge in purchases by the curious, the gambit threatened the very viability of the TNIV.
Zondervan also has demonstrated a willingness to play rough with its critics. For example, incensed when Charisma and Christian Retailing ran the scathing “list of 100” anti-TNIV ad last year , Zondervan pulled its advertising from issues of the two magazines even though they are main conduits to the trade. Further, Zondervan threatened to end any advertising in all six magazines published by Strang Communications.
There isn’t much Zondervan can do about some stores that already have decided not to carry TNIV, such as the Lifeway chain operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, which denominationally opposes the translation. But overall, Zondervan believes that its four-tiered strategy gradually will turn the tables in favor of TNIV.
At the level of interaction with Christian bookstores, Zondervan has been backing TNIV in several unprecedented ways. It began a propaganda campaign with retail outlets more than a year ago, peppering store managers, owners and chain executives first with a brochure, then an entire packet of information including flyers to hand out to consumers, followed by a series of faxes and, last fall, the insertion of an eight-page, magazine-style advertorial about TNIV in the industry’s leading trade publication, CBA Marketplace. A website explains Zondervan’s views on gender neutrality. And the chain’s “front-liner” campaign attempts to persuade bookstore employees with a new version of a CD-ROM and a booklet that give advice on helping consumers navigate the many choices in Bibles.
Zondervan also thoroughly briefed its 29 Bible salespeople about how to present TNIV and handle tough questions from bookstore personnel. Yet Zondervan hasn’t added incentives for selling the book. “We need to tread a fine line between acknowledging the differences and trying to pretend it’s just like any other translation,“ Doornbos concedes.
On a second level, Doornbos is trying to outsmart his foes by going around them. Zondervan has launched a massive public-relations campaign that features a beefed-up review-and-giveaway program; endorsements by its own phalanx of top figures in Christendom, including Philip Yancey, a popular Christian (and Zondervan) author; and a 35-page, 86-footnote scholarly defense of TNIV. Zondervan is disappointed that it hasn’t gotten more sympathetic coverage of TNIV from liberal news-media members to offset reports such as one by Fox News last year that said it was “trying to change the gender of God,” according to the source close to Zondervan.
Zondervan also is trying to broaden distribution beyond the polarized CBA market by tapping into huge secular retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Inc., which have been important outlets for crossover hits such as the Left Behind series of Christian fiction, published by Tyndale House, and Multnomah’s The Prayer of Jabez.
And Zondervan is directly pursuing “key gatekeepers” who it believes, over the long haul, could influence many Christians in favor of TNIV. It already has sent tens of thousands of copies of the TNIV New Testament to pastors, educators and other church leaders and is trying to put copies of the testament in the hands of leaders of youth organizations who, it hopes, then will endorse it to their members. Because it aims to make TNIV the Bible of preference for today’s youth, Zondervan also is planning to lean heavily on computer and Internet-based versions of the translation once it launches the entire Bible.
Doornbos won’t reveal marketing expenditures, sales results or how they matched initial expectations for TNIV. But he insists that Zondervan’s high hopes for TNIV remain. “It’s meeting needs in the way that we expected it to,” he says. “And, once the whole translation comes out, our expectations for the future are much larger.”