The use of The Message as an authoritative text in Christian teaching is one such brain-file. I’ve driven it from common usage in our youth room, but it lingers in other spaces in our church. I can remember when The Message first hit; everyone was so excited about this new translation that was going to make the scriptures of our faith even more accessible to young people. “Sounds great,” I thought. But then I didn’t. When I read it, I found passages that felt weakened for the sake of easier understanding or softened to make them more culturally relevant. And sure, my preferred English translation probably does the same thing to the Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin that it was translated from. But then I learned that The Message wasn’t a proper translation with a room full of academics fist-fighting over every word, but an idiomatic translation by one guy, designed specifically to bring engaging, current language to ancient texts. To Eugene Peterson’s credit, he never intended for it to become an authoritative translation and he admits to cringing a bit when he hears it used from the pulpit as “the word of the Lord from The Message.”
Here’s the thing. Scripture is difficult to comprehend. The canon of our Christian Bible gets frequently misread as a novel from Genesis through Revelation, God’s love letter to you. While I speak out to our kids about not using The Message as their primary scriptural source, I’m equally against revisions that prop up “inclusive language” to make our ancient texts more palatable to a contemporary audience. I guess it’s fine if you want to do that to hymns (and they do), but if our ancient texts are gender-biased and racist in places, shouldn’t we be learning from that instead of covering it up? Should we also remove references to polygamy? Animal sacrifice? Our tradition is nothing but that from which we have come. As Methodists, much of our process revolves around scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Using The Message as scripture takes a serious poke at two of those four supports for our youth.
My final beef on this subject isn’t actually about The Message itself, but about its frequent users. More than once I’ve heard a staff meeting argument or a teaching moment hold The Message above other texts because “I really prefer the way The Message says _____.” Well, fantastic. Here’s a thought: why don’t you just say that? If you don’t like the way scripture says something, if you really need that last specific word or turn of phrase, then just freaking say it the way you want to and leave scripture out of it. People will probably still listen to you. You’re probably leading whatever it is. And it’s still probably truth, whatever it is that you want to say. Just say it. Don’t feel the need to drag scripture kicking and screaming into your point.
Otherwise you’re prone to the depth of credibility that I heard from a leader in my church arguing over salvation language. “I don’t care about John Wesley or John Calvin or any of that. I just think…” At least she was being honest. If you just want to make up scriptural text or your own particular blend of theology, please just stand up and own it. But please be clear with your audience that you’re your own source of authority.