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Saturday, February 24th, 2007
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The Voice of Matthew (The Voice Series)

by Lauren Winner

He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear

A review by Chris Faatz

Let's face it: the Bible can be a difficult book to approach, unless you're raised or grow into a tradition that embraces it. There are accessible translations, but for the progressive, thinking person who wants to explore the moral and spiritual importance of scripture, it's often difficult to get started. The text is often dry, the stories often contradict one another, and the moral teachings at times can seem to fluctuate radically from book to book.

Now, a small group of people who are involved in the controversial Emergent Church movement have begun working on their own Bible version. The Emergent Church is a group of mostly younger evangelicals, influenced by post-modernism, who are raising significant questions within their movement about some of the verities that have defined evangelical faith. They're discussing such taboo issues as sexuality, the role of women, and the place of social action in a world unraveling at the seams. And, they're doing so without claiming any a priori answers.

Specifically, it's the New Testament that they're working with at this point, and the thing that sets it apart is that each book is being retold in a fresh, new paraphrase by a noted artist, writer, or musician in the progressive wing of the evangelical world. Their project is called "The Voice," and there are three books so far available. The first to come out was The Dust off Their Feet: Lessons from the First Church by Chris Seay, Brian McLaren, and Friends. This is a retelling of the Book of Acts. The second book is The Last Eyewitness: The Final Week, by Seay and David Capes, which tells the story of Jesus' last week as depicted in the Gospel of John. The third book, which has just become available, is the wonderful The Voice of Matthew by Lauren Winner, a convert from Judaism, multiple book author, and a lecturer at Duke Divinity School.

The Voice of Matthew, let me assert dramatically, is a really cool book, very accessible, and filled to the brim with ancillary information to the text that helps flesh out the gospel story. There are three types of text in this book: the regular story of the retold gospel, which is lovely and lucid and easy to follow. (Compared with some of the more turgid Bible versions, this stuff is a fresh mountain stream.) Then there's text in italics, which eases along and adds fluidity to the commands and narrative of scripture. Lastly, there are boxed in segments which include commentary.

Now, I can hear the argument of heresy now, but let me assure you that Winner did not compile this book totally on her own. While it does indeed bear her name, before publication it -- and all the volumes in The Voice series -- went through a rigorous review process, not only with her artistic and academic peers in the translation group, but with Bible scholars and theologians. From gospel story to commentary, the series apparently meets the criteria for a good, solid Bible.

And what a Bible it is! It reminds me somewhat of J. B. Phillips's The New Testament in Modern English, an extremely popular project of the last century that aimed at making the Bible relevant to contemporary readers. This is exactly what Winner does with Matthew. This book is meant to be read, to be understood, to be proclaimed in churches, and to be applied to one's life. And, the lessons it holds, as put forth in this version, make it emphatically easy to do so.

Take this from Matthew 5:17:

Do not think that I have come to overturn or do away with the law or the words of our prophets. To the contrary: I have not come to overturn them but to fulfill them. I ask you not merely to follow the Commandments, but to give Me your heart, your body, and your very life.

Heady stuff. Note the italicization and its contribution to the fluidity of the text, while drawing out the meaning. Here's the same text in the King James version: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill."

And the same verse from The Message (a contemporary paraphrase):

Don't suppose for a minute that I come to demolish the Scriptures -- either God's Law or the Prophets. I'm not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God's Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after the stars burn out and earth wears out, God's Law will be alive and working.

The Voice of Matthew neither carries the stodginess of the KJV, as revered as that text is, nor goes overboard into bubbling effusion, as does The Message. It's exciting and timely, and delivered in a way that, as the Quakers put it, speaks to the condition of the reader.

Here's the "Parable of the Sower" in the Voice version (Matthew 13:3-9):

Once there was a sower who scattered seeds. One day he walked in a field scattering seeds as he went. Some seeds fell beside a road, and a flock of birds came and ate all those seeds. So the sower scattered seeds in a field, one with shallow soil and strewn with rocks. But the seeds grew quickly amid all the rocks, without rooting themselves in the shallow soil. Their roots got tangled up in all the stones. The sun scorched these seeds, and they died. And so the sower scattered seeds near a path, this one covered with thorny vines. The seeds fared no better there -- the thorns choked them, and they died. And so finally the sower scattered his seeds in a patch of good earth. At home in the good earth, the seeds grew and grew. Eventually, the seeds bore fruit, and the fruit grew ripe and was harvested. The harvest was immense -- 30, 60, 100 times what was sown.

Straightforward, challenging, and invigorating. There you have it. What more could one ask in a Bible translation? "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

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