Stopping by the new student center here at Ohio University for a latte on my way to my office, I saw a sign offering "Free Bibles". Always the bibliophile, I'm a sucker for any kind of free book, even heretical translations of Scripture, so I wandered over to the table to see what was on offer. They were giving away rather nice paperback New Testaments. I say "rather nice" because, if you've ever been on a college campus at this time of year, you're probably familiar with those little, tiny, green or orange New Testaments handed out for free by the Gideons to any and all takers. Those are "nice" in the sense that they contain the Authorized Version, which is beautiful in spite of being a translation of the wrong text, but the books themselves, from an artefactual standpoint, are an abomination. They're too small, for one thing, defeating even my $960 graduated lenses, and to call the green and orange colors of the cover butt-ugly is to insult the beauty of butts everywhere. In fact, I'm looking at one right now as I write this, and it's all I can do to keep myself from flinging it out the second-storey window of my office onto the unsuspecting pagans passing by below. They seem to me to constitute an exception to an otherwise universal rule. But the book I picked up today, while not so beautiful on the inside, was very well put together, and I just had to have one.
I asked the man at the table what translation was in the book, hoping for either the Authorized Version or the older Revised Standard Version (if anyone prefers the New Revised Standard Version, let him be anathema). He said it was the "Recovery Version". I was a little startled, but I assumed that what he meant was that it was a special study edition of the bible intended for folks in recovery. Technically that kind of thing would not be called a "version", however, since the word "version" refers to the "turning [from one language to another]" that is a translation. So I just said that I'd never heard of it, and I asked him what was being recovered. To my surprise he said "Certain truths that have been lost or left out of other versions."
Now this really piqued my interest. I was dying to ask him what those "truths" were, but I have a class to teach at 9:00 and a latte to drink before then, so I didn't want to get into any extended dialectic regarding "truths" as defined by Living Stream Ministry, the publisher of the "Recovery Version" ("Outline, footnotes, charts, and references by Witness Lee"). The sorts of people who hand out free bibles tend not to be the sorts of people who are impressed by credentials in epistemology; if anything, being a philosophy professor is likely to garner one some rather unkind eyebrow raising and pointedly spoken words such as "Really?" and "Oh." So I just grabbed a copy and was about to abscond with it when I was asked to fill in a form with my name, address, telephone number, and email address. Now, lest you think me a complete sucker, I will say that I knew immediately that this was going to generate a lot of junk mail, both of the electronic as well as the gastropod kind, and probably a fair amount of junk phone calling as well, but every purebred bibliophile out there will already know that of course I filled out the form, and I even used a fair approximation of my real name and address, because, well, hey, there's a free book at stake here, people!
Sadly I had to run off to teach a philosophy of science class before I could start my grand quest for the missing truths that have finally been revealed by Witness Lee and the Living Stream Ministry (the "Recovery Version" was first published in 1985, so I suppose these freshly recovered truths are technically not all that fresh any more). When I returned to my office I began to peruse the book, along with the Living Stream Ministry website. They have a "Statement of Faith" there (a phrase that always sends fundamentalist chills down my spine), and so I checked it out. I noticed that it was varguely Niceno-Constantinopolitanish in its details, but I couldn't help notice that there was a peculiar use of the word "Trinity" in there, and I began to suspect that I was on the trial of the missing truth.
Living Stream Ministry is connected to the so-called "Local Church" movement, a quasi-Christian sect that had its origins in China in the early 20th century under the leadership of "Watchman Nee" and "Witness Lee". Both had been influenced by Anglican missionaries and, as a consequence, their theology is not entirely wacko, but, like many sects that get their principal impetus from a kind of cult of personality surrounding a founder or founding group, it is not exactly what I would call a mainstream sect. They are vaguely trinitarian and decidedly "reformed", if by that one means "has no conception of what a proper ecclesiology, christology, or theology of sacraments should look like". After reading through some of the commentary in my new "Recovery Version" of the New Testament I have to say that I found little to surprise me. On many issues it said rather standard things, on questions having to do with the important and meaning of the sacramental life for Christians, it was decidedly heretical. Oh well; it's still a nice book. The translation was not terrible, but it wasn't very nice, either. It read rather like the old "New American Standard Version", an excruciatingly literal translation that appeared about 30 years ago and is great if you're learning to read Hebrew or Greek and need a crib but is worthless for general reading, liturgical use, or inspiration.
So what will I do with this book, now that I see that it is basically useless as a New Testament? It's only value is aesthetic, and even that is rather low. I can't give it to a student, because I don't believe in giving students books that are misleading or otherwise bad to try to learn from. I realize that this is a rather paternalistic attitude, but given what happens when I try to be paternalistic towards my own son why not just be paternalistic towards kids who aren't going to fly off the handle at you? It's pretty much my only venue these days. So I'll continue to hand out those little Gideon New Testaments that have been collecting in my office, even though they are ugly as sin; at least their contents are not sinful. And at least that way I can get one more ugly book out of my collection of beautiful books.