Settle in and get the popcorn out for this very special episode of Amazing Pulpit Stories!
I guess it was about 1990 or 1991. There we were on a Missions Night, me and Biff, sitting in the way front-left section of the church that normally only the hoity-toity pastors’ families sat in because he was going to give his super-ultra-mega-dramatic testimony at some point. The (acoustic and piano only, of course) worship band was playing to beat themselves; the choir was wearing their most specialest red gowns and singing themselves hoarse; the roof felt like it was shaking fit to fall down with all the clapping and shouting. We’d even had a couple of runners bolting around the sanctuary, though normally people reserved those displays for the end of the service. The black ladies who sat in the middle of the front pews all had on their best hats, and everybody was dressed to the nines. We all loved Missions Nights.
Missions Night means that people would come and speak at a Sunday Night service about how their time in Africa or Asia or wherever was going. Like most Pentecostal churches at the time, my church’s people genuinely thought that there were these vast swathes of humanity that had never heard the Good News in 2000 years of Christians spreading it. Therefore, we had to spread it far and wide like manure on a garden. We paid for missionaries to go to faraway places and convert people, and these missionaries would come back from time to time to give speeches and raise more money for the next trip. They’d usually have slideshows of their church services over there, how they’d built their church, of them shaking hands with local leaders in full traditional kit or sitting down to traditional dinners of local foods, you get the idea, I hope. We were, as I recall, quite generous for being an inner-city Houston church full of lower-income people and retirees, so these were not isolated occurrences but regular events at my church.
I remember this night very vividly for one reason, and it’s the reason I’m about to share with you. It could have been any Missions Night; it could have been any revival. But this one was the one that made me go squinty for the first time, so it’s always stuck out in my memory. I will never tell you that my memory is 110% accurate because that’s not how human memory works, but this is how I remember it going down.
Biff and I were both at this point college students and newlyweds. We were sitting together in our nice clothes before he was to give his (complete pack of lies of a) testimony, and this red-faced white dude was up on the pulpit preaching so hard spittle was flying out of his mouth. He was doing the whole nine yards of putting “uh” at the end of all-uh his-uh sentences-uh, he was so excited-uh, and sometimes he’d even break into tongues-talking mid-sentence (which prompted the usual pack of “Hallelujah!” cries and similar outbreaks in the pews). In this manner, he wasn’t all that different from all the other preachers I’d ever heard on such evenings.
Then he did something curious.
He began ranting about new translations of the Bible.
Now, I was actually taking a class that used a newer translation–a Revised Standard Version–and the professor teaching the class (a Harvard Seminary M.Div.) had explained very carefully to his wide-eyed class why he’d chosen this translation. We’d talked about why Bible scholarship is an ongoing art and science; we’d discussed the various versions and how they maybe fell short, and how the newer versions took advantage of new advances and discoveries in manuscript study that older translation teams simply wouldn’t have known about. I used a KJV Bible in church simply because that’s the text the preacher read from and from which we also read aloud in services, but the gorgeous study Bible Biff had gotten me was an NIV, and the cheap little Bible I used in class was an RSV. Thanks to my class, I knew about the history of the KJV and about its potential shortcomings (as well as the considerable personal shortcomings of King James himself), but I’d long ago realized that there really aren’t any perfect translations of the Bible–and there won’t really ever be, either, I didn’t reckon then and still don’t reckon now. So when I heard this preacher go off like a rocket about the subject, I already knew he was dead wrong.
But then he cried aloud these words:
“If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”
You’re not mis-reading. Go read it again if you’re wondering. That’s what the man said. I remember it plain as day, clear as crystal, down to the flecks of white at the corners of his mouth as he shrieked the words. He began screaming about how evil humankind is to pervert the words of the original Bible like we have, and how it grieved our god that we had strayed from his original words and teachings to find newer sources that “tickled our ears” better.
Biff and I stared at each other. Even he knew, as I did, that the KJV had been compiled and written long after Jesus’ lifetime. I’d never even heard anybody at my church talk like this; version idolatry was actually frowned upon as far as I can remember (we weren’t like the Independent Fundamental Baptist churches that are proudly KJV-only). So my confused husband and I didn’t know what to say. But everybody else went crazy with cheering and hollering and shouting and jumping up and down. I realized this dude wasn’t kidding. He really meant what he’d said. He said it again, even, and everybody went even crazier.
Then he was done and Biff had to go up and give his testimony, and I think Biff totally forgot about the incident in his excitement and eagerness to perform his act.
But I never did. It went into the “deal with it later” pile almost immediately because I couldn’t even contemplate how this could be–that a Jesus-touched, God-infilled, Spirit-possessed preacher who by his own admission had converted hundreds and thousands of Africans to Pentecostalism did not know the history of his own Bible? And if he was wrong about something that elementary, what else was he wrong about?
What else, indeed.
So next time you hear that urban legend about a Christian saying that, well, I’ve heard it with my own two pretty pink ears.
This wasn’t even the only time a preacher said something on the pulpit that I knew for absolute, categorical fact was flat-out wrong, but it was the first time that I caught it happening.
By the way, after that night, Biff began calling my class Bible the “Reviled Slandered Perversion.” I’m not kidding. He thought he was being so very, very clever.