I learned a new word this morning – bowdlerize (pronounced bohd-luh-rize).
It’s a transitive verb that means to remove material from a work (such as a book or a play) that is considered improper or offensive, with the result that the work becomes weaker in some way. It started being used as a word a few years after the death of a guy named Thomas Bowdler. Surprise, surprise – the word is based on his name. Here’s why:
In 1807 Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare, in which he (or possibly his sister) edited out all the parts “which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” On one hand, it made Shakespeare accessible to a huge number of 19th century women and children who otherwise might not have been allowed to read his works due to some of their racier content. On the other hand, though, the resulting work was much less… Shakespeare… than the bard’s originals.
When I learned the word bowdlerize, it made me think of something that happened to me a couple of months ago. On a Sunday morning I got called into our 3-4 year old room because there was a poop emergency in the 2-3 year old room. It was near the end of service, so I figured I’d spend a few minutes just hanging with the kids and shooting the breeze.
One of the little girls brought me her tiny little pocket New Testament and asked me to read her a story. I thought that was a great idea, so I grabbed a stool and flipped to the Gospel of John. I happened to flip straight to John 8 and the story of the woman who is caught in adultery and brought before Jesus to be stoned. I really didn’t want to explain to a group of 4 year old girls (several more had gathered by this point) what adultery was. Or why people wanted to kill this woman by throwing rocks at her.
So I flipped again… to Mark 5, where Jesus encounters a man who is demon-possessed and runs around a graveyard naked, cutting himself with stones. I didn’t want to try to explain even a bit of that to these 4 year olds.
So I flipped again… Matthew 14 – John the Baptist is beheaded. I didn’t want the girls to be scarred by a story of a man being beheaded because a wicked king wanted to sleep with his sister-in-law’s (who he had also been sleeping with) daughter.
So I flipped again… Luke 22 – Jesus is arrested and Peter cuts off a guy’s ear. Geez…
By this point the girls were getting restless, since they’d been sitting patiently and I hadn’t actually read them anything. In desperation, I flipped to the book of Acts, where I knew there were a lot of good stories about the early Church.
I happened to flip to Acts 5, where a guy named Ananias and his wife Sapphira are struck dead because they were greedy liars.
I flipped again… to Acts 16, where Paul and Silas are in jail because they cast a demon out of a girl, and while they’re there an earthquake hits, and the jailer is about to kill himself because he thinks all the prisoners will escape…
Mercifully for me, the service ended and parents started showing up at that point.
That episode really reminded me that the Bible is not a children’s book. There is some heavy stuff in there, everything from theft and murder to rape and incest to suicide and demons. It is definitely a book written for adults.
So, back to bowdlerizing stuff… I think when people talk about something being bowdlerized, they usually mean that it’s been censored to the point of being weak, watered-down, having less meaning. I wonder how much we do that with the Bible. I wonder how much we should do that with the Bible. Is it better to share the whole Bible, even the difficult to explain parts, with everybody (including younger kids)? Or is it better to give young kids and people who aren’t believers yet a more sanitized, easy to digest, version?