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An Uncommon Bible

Guideposts' Executive Editor shares how he came to view a new modern version of the Good Book as his "go-to" translation.

By Rick Hamlin, New York, New York

As appeared in

I can still see Mrs. Clarke’s Bible. Passages circled or underlined, colored pen filling the margins, pages dog-eared. Mrs. Clarke, my fifth- and sixth-grade Sunday school teacher, would read to us from it every week, then look up and exclaim, “Children, these are words to live by.”

She had a big project for us. She was making a film of the Bible–the whole thing, soup to nuts, Genesis to Revelation. We’d go off to the park with a trunk-load of costumes, get decked out and stage a biblical scene. She’d talk to us from behind her Super 8 camera, giving directions, repeating words of memorized Scripture.

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With a natural dramatic bent and a willingness to wear a fake beard, I played Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac. My buddy Brian, aka Isaac, was splayed on a rock. I stood over him, knife in hand.

“Okay, Abraham,” Mrs. Clarke said, “you’re about to take his life when you hear God calling out, ‘Abraham, do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him.’” I put on a beatific expression and lowered my knife. The just-in-the-nick-of-time ram was later spliced in.

I have never seen the final cut of Mrs. Clarke’s epic film, encompassing decades of students, and don’t know if she ever got to Revelation, but her message was clear.

Just reading the Bible was not enough. We needed to inhabit the characters, understand their quandaries, feel their faith. That was how we’d see the way God spoke through the pages and worked in people’s lives.

Since then, I’ve owned more than one Bible, but none of mine looked like Mrs. Clarke’s. For years I bounced around between different translations, using one with my Sunday school students, one at the office (with multiple translations) and a King James version of the New Testament and Psalms that I read on my subway commute.

Then, three years ago, I picked up a copy of the newly published Common English Bible, “a fresh translation to touch the heart and mind,” as it says. I figured it’d be good for my reference shelf. But it quickly became my go-to version–at work, at home, on the subway.

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Something about the natural, unforced language made me highlight and underline like Mrs. Clarke.

If I turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans now I find pen marking passages like: “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up” (15:2) or “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (12:15). Doesn’t that seem like good advice?

I even found myself e-mailing a passage to a friend–“If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging” (12:8)–adding, “That’s who you are, pal, an encourager.” Words I hope he took to heart.

Guideposts once told a story about American POWs in North Vietnam and how they had survived years of imprisonment by sharing Scripture. They whispered passages to each other and wrote down verses on scraps of toilet paper that they left between loose bricks.

They had no Bibles; the words were whatever they could remember. Mrs. Clarke would have understood. God’s Word is not something that only exists in the pages of a book. It exists in us. It comes alive as we live it, use it, share it.