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Should We "Dumb Down" or "Teach Up"

Last summer while listening to Andrew Sandlin speak at a conference in San Jose on "Big Brother and the Abuse of Language" I was struck by this thought: if the "dumbing down" process has affected English-speaking Christians how has it affected other languages.

  • Larry Bailey,
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Last summer while listening to Andrew Sandlin speak at a conference in San Jose on "Big Brother and the Abuse of Language" I was struck by this thought: if the "dumbing down" process has affected English-speaking Christians how has it affected other languages. For the past five years my wife and I have served as trainers and advisors to Cambodian-speaking Christians here in the California Central Valley. We have been friends with Sam Blumenfeld since he stayed at our home in 1985 in the middle of a speaking at Washington State University, which is located in Pullman, Washington. It was through him that we became more fully aware of the "dumbing down" process taking place in the public schools. As Mr. Blumenfeld has often explained, years ago our schools used to challenge our children more by "teaching up" with progressively more difficult English literature rather than "dumbing down" to the lowest common denominator. The King James Bible itself, of course, is not easy reading. God gave us his written word to ponder, grapple with, and put into action. Of course, the Holy Spirit—who is called alongside to help—is vital in illuminating our understanding to propel us toward obedience to his word. With many of the newer English versions it is obvious that many are paraphrases and not translations. In the process of simplifying the Holy Writ scholars have "dumbed down" some of the potency of the word of God. In some cases it seems to have blunted the spiritual effect in the level of obedience seen in believers' lives.

In the Cambodian Christian community we have observed a similar "dumbing down" taking place in Cambodian Bible translation. Portions of the original Cambodian translation of the Bible were completed in 1954. The Cambodian translation of the entire Bible was completed in the early 1960s by Arthur Hammond, a dedicated Christian and Missionary Alliance linguist and missionary.1 Like the King James Bible, the Cambodian Bible is an almost literal translation not a paraphrase. It isn't an "easy read" but requires the reader to fully engage himself with the unction of the Holy Spirit to discover God's truth and to obey it.

Currently there is a debate going on between Cambodian-speaking church leaders about a new simplified version of the Cambodian Bible that has recently been completed in France. In the revisers' attempts to communicate by simplifying the scriptures into modern Cambodian they have unintentionally "dumbed down" the content and potency of the word of God. Unfortunately this new Cambodian Bible version has not borne good fruit. Many well respected Cambodian-speaking pastors in Cambodia and elsewhere are sternly warning their people to stay away from it. They say it is better to struggle over a challenging more literal translation than to regularly read a more shallow version of the Scriptures. The difference has been compared to food. The original Hammond literal translation has been compared to a hearty oriental chicken dinner while the modern Cambodian paraphrase is more like steamed white rice. Both are filling but only the meat gives lasting sustenance.

Now wiser Cambodian-speaking Christian leaders are "teaching up" to challenge their people to grapple with the blunt commands and promises of God as stated in the Hammond translation of the Bible. We've observed that it is better to improve our Christian literacy, by wrestling with and fully embracing God's commands and claims on us rather than accepting a "dumbed down" version of his Truth. Modern paraphrases of Scripture may have their place as a commentary on Scripture but they should not replace more literal translations. As teachers of his word it should never be our intent to show our intellectual prowess through a "high brow" approach to the Scriptures where only scholars understand us but common people do not. Instead we should continue to seek his face as revealed in the word of God to clearly communicate, explain, and obey his word by our own life example. Perhaps some will learn from the sad lessons that have occurred in the "dumbing down" of the level of our Christian literacy in the English-speaking world in part due to the numerous modern English Bible paraphrases and their watered-down interpretation of Christian truth. Easy believism based on shallower modern paraphrases of the Bible can never replace a challenging full orbed instruction and application of God's Word to all of life.


1. It is interesting to note that the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Khmer required the production of a new higher level Cambodian typeface which was eventually used by the Cambodian media and by scholars.