Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. (2 Cor. 2:17a)

Recently, Doug, a friend from Michigan, wrote to me and included the following observation:

I received a lovely Christmas card today from a friend. In it is this verse, "Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end." Isaiah 9:7 NIV

I was flabbergasted to read this on the back, "Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV® ©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan."

Wow, and I bet Jesus isn't even getting a piece of the action!

That's a good observation about Scripture that I've wondered about too: whose property is it that we need copyrights on it? And who gets the royalties from the copyright? I'll return to this latter point in a minute.

But Zondervan, et al., would argue, no doubt, that the translator, etc., need to be compensated for their work -- fair enough. But it begs the perennial question, made somewhat more pointed here by the fact that this is the Bible and is not 'owned': how much is enough? The Bible is the bestselling book ever; do we market it (in seemingly infinite iterations) just for the sake of profit? (And isn't that a problem? Can one legitimately enrich oneself through selling the Bible?)Or is it meant to be given away just as it was given to us? Could publishing companies -- or at least putatively Christian publishing companies such as Zondervan -- actually agree to a flat rate to pay scholars, artists, and the lot, and after that only sell the Bible for the cost of the paper, ink and transportation?

Actually, I think that the King James Version is free of copyright. I have seen it in dollar stores in America. So, even though in ways this is not a felicitous translation, this is an example of what I am suggesting.

The question of who gets the royalties from the copyright is also an interesting question, theologically. The Bible is a product of the church* and the Holy Spirit -- do they get any residuals? What I mean is not, literally, paying the Holy Spirit (God doesn't need money -- maybe that's why we have trouble taking him seriously, he evades our economic analysis: but that's for another time.), or even, perhaps, paying the church (although, why not?); what I mean instead is this:

The Word of God, when it is spoken of in Scripture, is holy, righteous, glorious, loving, effective in what it means to do. It is not a neutral word, which might do this or that, depending. It is not a word which is articulated, and then people make up their minds about it. It actually effects these things, and cannot do otherwise, for if it did, it would be less than God's word. So it seems that when it is disseminated, spread throughout the world, it would have these same properties and effects.** That is, rather than contributing to the personal wealth -- probably not riches per se, but wealth -- of individuals, it would serve to spread righteousness, holiness and love***, even while also convicting people of sin. Put briefly, the dissemination of the Bible ought to have godly, world-changing results, and not merely deprive the world of another tree and some ink while contributing to a private individual's (and private corporation's) wealth.

To put it another way, let's assume that the money for every Bible sold went somewhere else, rather than a private person's pocket. If for every Bible that were distributed, someone were convicted of sin and repented; or a child were properly educated and well cared for; or an alcoholic sobered up; or the wealthiest 1% decided to share with the least-wealthy 10%, or a politician put aside self-interest (and partisan interest) to see greatness in governing in serving his constituents well; or the rulers of a third-world nation decided to institute proper labour laws; or an orphan were taken in and given a home; if a homeless person were given a home, job training, and dignity -- or a place to receive proper care****; if one more person worshipped the Blessed Trinity; if something like that happened with every Bible distributed, then the world would be changed.

Now I don't mean to sneer and jape at Bible scholars -- I know enough of them to know that they (typically) do their work out of love, not greed. They don't get rich -- and may not even profit***** -- from their work on Bible translations.

Nor do I have access to the accounting books of Christian publishers. Perhaps they are single-handedly bankrolling the Sisters of Charity, although I'm not optimistic. One thing I do know about Christian publishing, though, is that it often isn't profitable, at least if you are publishing serious books about things that matter; I love the sorts of books that Brazos Press puts out, but I don't imagine they do much more than cover their costs. In their case, it is pretty clearly a ministry as well as a business. Of course, dreck such as the Left Behind series is massively profitable, and (if nothing else) a judgement upon us. I do not know what the profits are like on Bible sales and licensing, but I suspect they are good. The Bible is consistently the largest selling book in the West. And I doubt that so many different versions -- CET, NLB, NIV, NRSV, NKJV, et al. -- and so many different versions of versions -- the Precious Moments Bible, the Men's Study Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, et al. -- would proliferate if there were not some profit in them. And what public good arises because of these sales?

And it does seem worth raising this question about copyright on the Bible and who profits. There remains more theological reflection to be done here, and this post has been more desultory than I intended, but Boxing Day is upon us. Perhaps another day.

*Well, the church and Israel.
** No, I don't mean to conflate God's Word and the Bible, just to observe the close correspondence.
*** Three of God's communicable attributes; this quickly becomes (as nearly everything does) a doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
****In the case of the many mentally ill who are no longer taken care of.
*****I know several who would, in these situations and for the very reasons I have mentioned, donate any money they received for their work.

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Blogger Peter Young said...


You seem to be missing a link in your chain. Let's not forget this whole thought began with a purchased Christmas Card. Someone's making some scratch off that as well.

But besides that, they are many ways someone can get their hands on scripture for no cost. Some churches and other organizations give them out for free.

But you are paying for some service, perhaps some concordence and some art from Zondervan.

However, don't just look to Bible publishers. Is their duty to spread the word any different than clergy? How much should clergy be paid? What is too much? What if you didn't get paid for the sermons you preached but instead the church found a very worthy charity and sent the money to them?

Of course I'm taking this to an extreme. As one who lists many clergy in my immediate family and friends, I'm not suggesting that we stop paying clergy. But I know that the package my church provides; salary, housing allowence and car allowence, to our pastor is approx. $85,000. Pastor Matthews has 35+ years in ministry and has help guide the growth of our church. Could he do with less? Yes. But the congregation votes every year on his compensation. So the people most influenced by his work agree to that level of compensation.

Saturday, December 30, 2006 7:50:00 PM  

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