Should We “Dumb Down” the Bible When People Don’t Get It?

wheat field

I was trying to turn Psalm 1 into a singable song for the Bible club boys (6th grade on up) from the neighborhoods around my church. These were not young men with extensive church backgrounds and full-ride scholarships to elite Sunday schools. Their mastery of rap lyrics was, let’s say, somewhat superior to their knowledge of Scripture. But they had a capacity—and sometimes, I could swear, a desire—to learn.

So when I got to Psalm 1’s statement that the wicked are not like the righteous, “but are like the chaff that the wind drives away,” I balked. Randall, Jimenez, and Javante aren’t going to know what “chaff” is, I thought. They’re going to be distracted and put off from learning because of this word. So for the purposes of this kids club song, I changed “chaff” to “dust.” We sang,

The wicked are not so,
But are like the dust which the wind drives away.

I did this because I want people to understand the Bible. I agree with Augustine of Hippo:

What is the use of correct speech if it does not meet with the listener’s understanding? There is no point in speaking at all if our words are not understood by the people to whose understanding our words are directed. The teacher, then, will avoid all words that do not communicate; if, in their place, he can use other words which are intelligible. (On Christian Doctrine, 4.10.24, trans. Green)

It was part of my duty as an outreach worker, and as a servant of the Word and the people (in that order), to choose words which communicated the truth in intelligible language. I was proud of changing “chaff” to “dust” in the song, and I told my grad school friend, another seminary student, what I had done. I was expecting kudos.

Instead, I got that look. You know the one. The I-know-something-you-don’t-know-and-I’m-trying-to-decide-if-I-should-tell-you look.

Well, he decided. And I knew immediately that he was right and I was wrong: you can’t just change “chaff” to “dust.” Something essential is lost. In technical literary parlance, the “vehicle” of the chaff metaphor carries more than one “tenor.” The chaff metaphor points to at least two real-life truths, and I had summarily dropped the most important one. Here’s the one I kept:

1) Chaff is insubstantial and easily blown away.

That’s the part of the truth that made “dust” such an appealing substitute. If that’s all the meaning were going after, “dust” would be suitable—especially for my audience.

But then there’s the second part, the part that I omitted when I blithely let the word “chaff” float off on the breeze.

2) Chaff is commonly separated from wheat kernels in order to be discarded.

Chaff is a powerful image of judgment in Psalm 1 (and in some other passages such as Hos 13:3; Mat 3:12). Right after he compares the wicked to chaff, the psalmist says, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” Chaff is a powerful judgment image because the winnowing process leaves you with precisely two kinds of material: “saved” and “unsaved.” You hold on to the wheat kernels; you get rid of the husks. The chaff metaphor is like the sheep vs. goats metaphor of Matthew 25: you can change it to dogs vs. cats for a modern audience, but that would disconnect the statement from the rich sheep imagery in the rest of Scripture. And the cultural overtones would get muddy.

At a certain point, making the Bible easier to read can cause you to lose something essential. The Bible will never be so easy to understand that it places no burden on readers. The Bible itself says this: Peter speaks of things that Paul wrote that are “hard to understand.” And it is precisely the “unlearned” who, Peter says, “twist” these difficult things. The solution, then, is not to remove the difficulty but to learn the people, and learn ‘em good.

There is both a terrible literary beauty and a forceful theological verity in that little word “chaff.” “Dust” just won’t do. This is poetry, after all—“the art of charging words with their utmost meaning,” as the former poet laureate of the U.S., Dana Gioia, once said.

Explaining the context

I decided that I didn’t want to be guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations, that in this case, at least, I would try to raise the boys to the level of the poetry rather than assuming they couldn’t grasp such a high bar. So I did what teachers are supposed to do: I gave them a leg up. I put a picture on the Keynote slide used for the song, and I took a little time periodically (we sang the song on a regular basis) to explain the imagery:

image00

I believe I was following Augustine’s dictum: he said I should avoid words that don’t communicate—and chaff is certainly one—if I have intelligible words available. And I didn’t. Only the word “chaff” can get across the full weight of the metaphor.

If you get in the habit of removing or altering biblical metaphors, you get yourself in a mess. Psalm 1’s “The wicked will not stand” is a metaphor, too. Its “tree planted by streams of water” is, too. Depending on how you count, I see about 11 metaphors in this brief psalm. Every one of them requires some measure of interpretive skill: walking in counsels, standing in ways, sitting in seats, trees, water, non-withering leaves. If people can’t understand metaphors, this psalm will be an impossible morass.

Should we dumb down the Bible if people don’t get it? No.

But come back next week for Yes.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. ManilaDave says:

    Great blog, Mark. I have come to recognise that every field of human endeavour has its own language, whether that is medicine or ice-hockey. We learn the language of the field because we are interested and involved in that field. So part of our pastoral responsibility, as you have correctly pointed out, is to “learn the people and learn ’em good.” The image you used was brilliant for that process. (A+)

  2. Jeff O'Neal says:

    Great insight, Mark. What a joy it was to see you benefited from the admonishment of another brother in Christ. Eph 4:11ff tells us not to dumb-down the Word but to use our gifts to raise each other up to full manhood and fullness in Christ.
    When I was 4 or 5 years old, my dad taught me to memorize the 1st Psalm and took me out to ride with him and in the grain bin of the combine when he harvested the wheat and maize.

    • Very cool little story. And I really enjoyed that video. I’ve always wondered how those big machines work, especially now that I live in farm country. I never thought to ask YouTube.

  3. Excellent post, Mark! Such a wonderful reminder to respect the Word, as is. :)

  4. Thanks, Mark. About 30 years ago the late, lamented Paul S. Minear made this point to a D.Min. class at Union Presbyterian Seminary. While commenting on attempts in the 1920’s to remove “royal” language in attempts to “democratize” Scripture he pointed out the chain of related metaphors.
    The most recent example to catch my eye/ear is the replacement of “Christ the King Sunday” (for us more liturgical types) with “Reign of Christ Sunday”. I think the price is too high – a loss of Christological focus in the shift from our Lord’s person to his active office.
    You and other responders certainly stand ready to clarify things for me, for which I thank you all.

  5. Wayne Donald Baker says:

    Good thoughts. When you come to a passage you expect your audience to have trouble to understand, you have several choices. The first is “dumb it down”. Is that a great idea? I doubt it is a great idea at any time, but it might be adequate for a short time to get a particular point across, but as you indicate you may miss another great point being made. A second idea is as you did later, change the method by explaining the difficulty through illustrative pictures and or explanations given in later lessons. T third alternative is to ask for help. Since you knew this problem before presenting the song, (you realized it as you were making it into a song), maybe bringing some bible study books (enough for each kid) and ask each if they could do you a favor. “Will you each take one of these books home? Write a part of the song you have difficulty understanding, out on paper, and find some way to explain it to me from the book you borrow? Please return the book.” Now you may find more than just the one problem you thought they had. You may even learn something from them. You also help to start teaching them how to study the bible for themselves. Another option is to tell them of the change for the first time you sing it, and why you made it. It opens up coming back making a lesson on the difficulty and restoring back to the original unchanged line. A final way, is to find a way to paraphrase the scripture in a manner more attuned to the current population you are dealing with. This would be paraphrasing the entire passage, not just one word. Tell them what you are doing, and then it again opens up returning to the original passage at a later time to discuss it and how well you paraphrased it. A couple of these alternates may even present you with lessons you did not know., I should talk, I have falied to do these things, but your discussion pointed out the errors of mywa, as I thought about your answer and your reasons. Thanks for the lesson.

  6. Gregorio Billikopf says:

    Mark, I particularly loved this blog. I guessed you had written it just from the title. My favorite line was, ” The solution, then, is not to remove the difficulty but to learn the people, and learn ‘em good.”

    • I’m real glad, Gregorio—but don’t hate me when I come back next week with a “Should We ‘Dumb Down’ the Bible? Yes!” post. =)

  7. David Egolf says:

    I had a parallel experience a few years ago. Our church sent a team to Switzerland to conduct an ESL camp for high school German and French students. The camp was organized by Teach Beyond at the Black Forest Academy. So all attendees knew that it was a Christian based camp, but most campers were not Christians.

    As part of the English curriculum the students were given Bible verses to memorize. They were required to get staff members to listen to them recite the verses in order to get each verse checked off their progress report. Even though I was a cook I was asked many times to listen to kids recite their verses.

    I was thrilled when it occurred to me that I had a unique witnessing opportunity. Thus, when a verse was recited correctly, I would choose particular words and ask the student to explain their meaning. My warrant to quiz them on the meaning of ‘mercy’ was based on the ESL premise of the camp. It made discussions of God’s love, mercy, requirements for holiness, and provision for salvation very non-threatening and natural.

    Opportunities to witness can come during the explanation of terminology.

    • Excellent. Thanks for sharing. I had a friend who worked at the Black Forest Academy, too.

      Boy do I miss Germany and Switzerland.

  8. Stephen H says:

    Thanks for the post! Very helpful. We are still singing Psalm 1 in Teen Club at MCBC!

    • In the interest of full disclosure, I got most of the tune from a book I was given, and I simply don’t recall how much I changed the words or the tune…

  9. Unlike the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff are not separate entities, but one. As Christians, we are each of us composed of wheat and chaff. God’s winnowing does not separate good people from bad, but the good from the bad in people. Or so I’ve heard it preached.

    • It’s the psalm that separates the good people from the bad—the “righteous” and the “wicked.” It’s the rest of the Bible that clarifies that the wicked are made in God’s image and thereby retain some good and do good (Gen. 20:5–6; but cf. Rom 8:8), and that the righteous, too, are touched deeply by the fall (1 Jn 1:8).

  10. Steve DAgostino says:

    This was a great post! I tend to do the same, but I try to keep the context accurate. This was clearly an instance where the word changed had a specific meaning and purpose, but I’m interested in the next article that shows where it WOULD be appropriate. I believe wholeheartedly that Augustine. If people can’t understand you, then what’s the point?

    • Thanks for reading, Steve. Preliminarily, I’d say that you “dumb it down” (though that’s probably not the best language to use to describe it) when you judge, in fact, that your hearers will not be able to understand. There are truths in Scripture that I skip over every time I teach, sometimes because I myself don’t fully grasp them, sometimes because I’m teaching my toddlers and I’m just going for the most obvious points. I’m writing the follow-up post today; it’ll be out next week! Come back and leave another comment!

  11. Rev. Christopher Garcia says:

    I appreciate this article and the experience shared, I minister to a broad demographic but the largest group I teach or preach to have little to no education so I do use words they would be familiar with that still are valid to the text yet I explain why the certain word was used before moving on, also depending on the group I’ll use certain translations: not so strong readers I’ll use (NLT,HCSB) and for stronger readers (ESV,NKJV,KJV). I’m intrested in the next article…

  12. I am afraid I have to disagree. My parents when serving as missionaries in Singapore found a youth group singing bringing in the sheaves – when questioned they didn’t know what a sheaf was and when it was explained they had never seen one. There are real issues about forcing people into understanding God’s word by making them engage purely imaginatively with a remote farming society. You identify one of Chaff’s meanings is that it is discarded. That means its garbage -that’s another biblical image – it may not feel churchy but the wicked will be like KFC styrofoam holder blowing down the street. Dynamic translation is NOT dumbing down it is contextualising. And let’s not forget Isaiah describing our righteousness like used menstrual cloths – the bible writers are bold poets – we need to be bold translators to take God’s word into the world of those who are waiting for it

    • A great comment. But let’s be careful of the false dichotomy here: why not have a more contextualized Bible translation and a less contextualized one? That’s what we have in English. (I know English is a national language in Singapore.) If a given culture can’t support a “literal” and “functional” translation, then we’ll have to ask the tricky questions and make the difficult judgment calls.

      When it comes to “Bringing in the Sheaves,” it does seem a little silly to have a bunch of Singaporean kids singing it, doesn’t it? American kids barely know what sheaves are; I’ve never seen one in real life. But I’m arguing, following D.A. Carson here (who is all for appropriate contextualization), that the burden of a certain historical and cultural distance must necessarily fall on every Bible reader, and we can’t contextualize blithely. Biblical images connect across the testaments and tap into themes. I’ve never seen a lamb in real life, I don’t think, but I wouldn’t support changing “Behold the Lamb of God” to “Behold the Puppy of God.” If I did, I would create a domino effect in which every other sheep and shepherding image in the Bible would fall. There really is no equivalent cultural symbol for us. We’re stuck having to learn the import of the ancient and foreign one. All across the Bible I face the various kinds of distance between me and the events described. Strange names, unfamiliar cities, unintelligible customs. Since Christianity is a historical religion that makes historical claims—preeminently, “Jesus died and rose again”—I’m not eager to reduce that historical distance any more than I have to. Some of it has to be preserved.

      But… I’m finishing up an article today arguing for situations when we should in fact “dumb things down.” So come back next week and let me know if you think I struck the balance right!

  13. Interesting thoughts. I would only try to help those serving God’s Kingdom to be careful not to be so close to the text that they stop outreaching those who need the Gospel. Growing up in a KJVO church culture they were so strong on biblical text that they forgot the love and compassion it took to reach a person on their level. I understand context and literal text but also see a difference between “chaff” and “Lamb of God”??? I would agree to be careful and teach when we can, but not to lose the chance to share just because we might not say it “super” accurate!! Thanks for other thoughts…it was a good article.

  14. Years ago when I first started teaching Precepts upon Precepts by Kay Arthur, she always encouraged the students to answer the questions with the words from the bible. Using your own words gave you freedom to change the meaning or metaphor. I have always remembered that. Pick the bible that matches your understanding and use Gods Words for your answers to life as well as bible study.

  15. jay jay chijioke says:

    thank GOD i have learn t something here, some days back i use to teach with Biblical paraphrasing just for my listeners to understand me better.