We want to congratulate Professor Esolen, one of our regular columnists, for being given the 2020 Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, which was announced earlier this week. Well deserved.
Yet another category of my revulsion at the New American Bible (NAB) and lectionary: the awkward, childish, muddle-headed, and often ungrammatical avoidance of the masculine pronoun, with the un-English the one as the preferred substitute.
Consider the following:
He who hesitates is lost.
The one who hesitates is lost.
These do not possess the same force, nor do they convey the same meaning. The first is direct and personal. That personal pronoun he causes us to imagine an actual human being – a man doing something. We understand, too, that he is universal; it applies to anybody. If you doubt that, substitute with the feminine pronoun:
She who hesitates is lost.
Even the feminist will experience a moment of confusion and irritation. Why are we picking on women, here? Aren’t men who hesitate also lost?
We don’t get personal import from the impersonal locution. But can’t we get that same universality across with the one? No, we can’t. The one, in English, immediately implies the other. We use the one only in such contexts:
I took the one and left the other.
From Jesse’s sons, God chose the one whom Jesse himself almost forgot.
I didn’t see him there. You’re the one I saw.
So what happens in the NAB and the lectionary, when the editors allow this irrational allergy to get the better of them? Here is a typical example (Heb. 5:7):
In the days when [Christ] was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.
The one? The one what? The one, as opposed to whom? The indefinite pronoun is – indefinite. Of course we need the personal pronoun, him, to clinch the sense that we are speaking of a specific person, the Father.
“Language changes,” I hear. Come down off that mountain, Moses, and tell us what else you have heard! Language does change. But the use of the one above, without any sense of some other, is not English. No one talks that way. No one writes that way. No one in English has ever talked or written that way. It is not contemporary, colloquial, traditional, gnomic, poetic, archaic. It is a stupid solecism, and that’s all.
Am I complaining about a small thing? Look at these words of Jesus: Give to him that asketh of thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away. (Matt. 5:42, Douay).
Set aside the early modern diction. Sure, it is out of date. But the gnomic diction is not. Consider these sayings:
Man proposes, God disposes.
A night not fit for man or beast.
He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.
The masculine universal, man, and the personal pronouns he and him, lend these sayings a dramatic immediacy. They are vivid, swift, and concise. They call up images of persons doing things. There is no confusion. No one thinks that the blizzard might be fit for a woman. No one thinks that a woman might cozy up to supper with Satan. There is no reason to alter the language.
To alter them is to spoil them, and you often end up sounding like nobody who ever spoke or wrote:
One may propose, but God disposes.
A night not fit for anyone, including a beast.
The one who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.
One small step for the one who takes it, one giant leap for humanity.
Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.
The one who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.
And that is what the NABers do to Jesus – and the Baptist, throughout the Gospels:
Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. (Matt. 5:42)
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matt. 7:8)
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. (10:40)
No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven. (Jn. 3:13)
The one who comes from above is above all. The one who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of earthly things. But the one who comes from heaven [is above all]. (Jn. 3:31)
Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. (Jn. 14:21)
What’s the deal? Is he an off-color word, to make Grandma blush? Since John above is speaking of Jesus and himself, why not simply say, “He who comes from above is above all”?
But no one has accused the NABers of having an ear for poetry. See how they ruin the climax of Saint John’s soaring prologue:
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (1:12-14)
Blood, flesh, will – got them? Now in NAB:
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
*Image: The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio (with Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1475 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]