Sunday, January 25, 2015

Carry The Light - A Short History

One of the more odd stories of modern Christian music is the one regarding the song, “Carry the Light.” It likely has its beginnings in 1984, when a super group called Band Aid was formed with the intention of uniting musicians all over the UK to raise charity funds for famine-ravaged African nations. The result was the song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which is still a holiday-time favorite today. The following year, a similar super group formed in the U.S. called USA for Africa. Spearheaded by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, it produced a hit single called, “We Are The World.” Scores of artists participated in what became the most popular example of celebrity charity ever put forth at that time. The song sold over 20 million copies worldwide, and did much to help alleviate starvation in the African continent.

Right about this same time, the relatively new phenomenon of Contemporary Christian Music was catching on. So, when it was seen what marvelous things could be done when scores of various musical artists get brought together for a single cause, many of the Christian artists in this new sub-industry wanted to do something similar; a kind of “We Are The World,” but for saving souls. After all, they reasoned, it’s important to feed children’s bodies, but how much more important is it to save their souls?

By 1988 they got their chance. A group founded by Billy Graham called the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism commissioned a project called, “Target 2000: The Great Commission Torch Run.” Young people in various countries would carry torches symbolizing the Gospel of Jesus in a worldwide long-distance relay. The initial torch would be lit on the Mount of Olives in Israel and from there be carried by runners to every nation on earth in a publicity-raising and spearheading effort aimed at evangelizing every country in the world by the year 2000. The runners did successfully visit every recognized nation extant at that time.  The evangelizing part – not so much.

The project wanted a musical anthem for the event, and the person they found to write it was one of the brightest rising young stars of Contemporary Christian Music: Twila Paris. She wrote the anthem, called “Carry the Light,” and quickly began to collaborate with as many of the biggest names in gospel rock that she could corral to make it as big an event as possible. Dallas Holm, Wayne Watson, Bebe and Cece Winans, Margaret Becker, John Schlitt (lead singer of Petra), Sandy Patti, Take 6, Steve Green, Steve Camp, Larnelle Harris, the Bill Gaither Trio, First Call, Crystal Lewis, Geoff Moore, Rick Florian, Eddie DeGarmo, Dana Key, Mylon LeFevre, Kim Boyce, Greg and Rebecca Sparks, Jessy Dixon, and Michael W. Smith, among others, all participated. Conspicuously absent was Amy Grant, who, although she was far and away the biggest name in Christian music at that time, was considered by many to have gone too “secular.”

The song and music video were released in 1989. The similarity it bore to “We Are The World” was quite stark, and struck many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, as a ham-handed “me too” effort at copy-catting the earlier idea. Some people also saw it as a complete failure of pragmatism; why spend so much time and effort on the hereafter when so many people are in need of help in the here and now? Nevertheless, “Carry The Light” has stood the test of time, being continuously played and re-played in churches all over the nation. Meanwhile, “We Are The World,” has been all but forgotten, even among die-hard Michael Jackson fans.

Perhaps the underlying lesson is this: If you sing for someone else’s supper, you’ll make an impact for a day. If you sing for someone else’s soul, you’ll make less of an impact today, but a bigger impact tomorrow.

Personally, I don't see that as a positive thing. I strongly feel that celebrities who gather together to feed the hungry are far more noble than those who gather together to make themselves feel better about their spiritual status after they’re dead of starvation. In fact, I wonder when celebrity musicians will stop being so preoccupied with American Idol and come together for worldwide charity again.

In the immortal words of Robert Green Ingersoll, “Hands that help are better than lips that pray.”



SWiFT Radio: Sacred Cow Wursthaus 01/24/15

SWiFT Radio: Sacred Cow Wursthaus 01/24/15

Here we are!  The latest episode of the Sacred Cow Wursthaus, and the first time I've posted a link to it form this blog.  I will try to faithfully do this each week going forward.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bill Cosby vs. Bill Cosby

Friends, let's have a chat about Bill Cosby.

Recently, I picked up a DVD of 'Bill Cosby: Himself,' and reveled in the old jokes from that 1970's on-stage performance. I used to like hearing from that comedy routine when I was a kid (even though some of the more adult material went over my head). He'd already come a long way from his near-starting point as one of the original cast members of the PBS kids show, 'The Electric Company.' Of course, we all watched his career go on from there, with further comedy skits, Jell-O commercials, appearances with the Muppets, The Cosby Show, and on and on. When his only son died, killed tragically by the perpetrator of an attempted robbery in 1997, I felt certain that a future great leader had been denied all of us. When Bill subsequently started doing tours and talks, donating generously to charities and exhorting young black men to take responsibility for their lives, I was one of his biggest cheerleaders.

What the hell do I do now?

I've previously called him a "giant among men."  His image has been on my wall as part of my "wall of mentors" collection of heroes I look up to - one of only five African Americans to have ever graced my home in this way.  (The other four are Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass.)

I must also confess, I have been among those who have made him the butt of jokes lately.

But where should we really stand regarding the man? Under the law, we regard people as innocent until proven guilty. But while that's granted, statutes of limitations prevent us from ever proving things one way or the other. It's frustrating to all concerned, perhaps even Cosby himself. But he IS innocent under the law.

The court of public opinion works a little bit differently.

I like to think I'm a little bit fairer minded than the court of public opinion. Nevertheless, I am overwhelmed by the many women who have come forward, accusing Cosby of rape with no expectation of personal or financial gain. The stories they tell are chillingly similar: A few drinks, a few pills, perhaps something slipped into the drink itself, and then a rape while the poor woman is in her drug-induced stupor.

Because these women have little, if anything, to gain, and quite a bit to lose in some cases, many people believe Bill to be guilty.  Somewhat fewer others (in my opinion) believe him to be innocent. Some even say there is a conspiracy to assassinate Bill's character because he tells hard truths to black youth. There is something to be said for not taking the similarity of each woman's story as evidence in and of itself. After all, it's easy to mimic a story once the first one's been told. (That's how all the alien abduction stories evolved into the same tale of oval-eyed greys with large heads.) But even if the stories were made up, there are many other, better targets to choose from than Bill Cosby for character assassination.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson, for example. Or President Obama. Also, without a clearly established money trail leading up to these women, any claims about the rape stories being made up are merely conspiracy theories.

On the other hand, drugging a woman and then raping her is the sort of thing that only complete losers do to get laid.  Rich and famous men like Cosby simply don't need to cheat in this way. The women come to them! There are plenty of fame-chasing women out there who are willing to sleep with men of wealth and stardom just for the thrill of it, and comedians are nearly as coveted for such sexual trysts as rock stars. There's probably not a single woman who has accused Cosby that the man couldn't have had without any drugs! So why on earth would he do something like that?

I try to envision scenarios how someone with Cosby-level fame and fortune could want to resort to the low-down, dirty tactics usually reserved for ugly and broke men, and to be honest, I can't think of a good one. Could he simply be a sociopath? I doubt that very much. Sociopaths don't have much of a sense of humor. Could he simply be awkward around women when he's off stage? Maybe. But that probably wouldn't affect his ability to get laid, not with his level of fame and fortune. Women like shy-famous guys even better than the cocky-famous ones. Are there just certain women who fancy him so much that, on occasion, he feels he has to eliminate the element of chance so that he can definitely have her? That doesn't make sense to me, either. When you're rich and famous, things come easy to you. Just throw money, and... problem solved! So for men of wealth, the risk inherent with the seduction of beautiful women is an essential part of the appeal. She has to have the ability to get away, or else it's no fun luring her in!

The only possibility that seems to make any sense to me is that, just possibly, way back before he became a household name, Bill drugged up a woman or two in order to have sex with her while she was passed out, and it became an acquired taste. But this is the worst possibility of all. It means that he was like this from the very beginning, possibly even doing things like this as a college freshman. It means he did it repeatedly, very early in his life and career. It may even have been his very first sexual experience. (They say you never forget your first.) If that's true, then all the fame and fortune that happened afterward, happened to someone who was ingrained with this behavior, and kept repeating it all throughout his long life.

I really, really don't want to think that! But it's the only thing that makes any sense in my thought-experiments.

His silence is damning. It's just not how an innocent man would react. Were it me, I would be screaming bloody murder that these women were lying, and be suing them for defamation! But Cosby just sits there and takes it! Letting show after show, contract after contract, be cancelled rather than address the accusations. We know that he was taken to court for this sort of accusation before, and it ended in a plea deal. Could part of that plea deal have been a gag order on one or both parties? Could Cosby make himself vulnerable to another lawsuit if he talks? That's again the only thing that makes any sense to me. After all, throughout his entire life, Cosby has been anything but silent!

Ultimately, it's his comment about how he felt that only the black media would treat him fairly that makes me believe he is guilty. A man who has spoken against racism his whole life suddenly playing the race card? That's an act of desperation if I ever saw one! And a de facto admission of guilt.

(Anybody want a used portrait of Bill Cosby?)

So now what? I really want to make him a pariah, but damn it all, I love him too much! Even if he has been a deplorable rapist ever since his first lay! He has done a lot of good in spite of being a closeted shit. He's done his best to improve the condition of the inner city. He's given generously to charities. He's given young black men the kick in the ass they so badly needed at times - and which the rest of us are too terrified to do.

But mostly, he's made us laugh.

He even made a joke out of the accusations recently. During his (latest?) stage performance, when a woman in the front row got up to leave during one of his recent shows, Bill asked her where she was going. (It's common to include the front row of the audience in the comedy act.) She said she was headed to the bar to get a drink. Bill responded by saying, "You have to be careful when drinking around me."

The audience laughed, and rightly so. It was a clever joke. Cosby, like all good comics, has the ability to poke fun at himself. But some women aren't laughing, and for good reason. They're his victims, and they don't appreciate it.

So how do I square this circle? Can I forgive him? That's out of the question! Can I say that the good he's done washes away the bad? Certainly not! That's just empirically false. Can I at least give him credit for drugging his victims first to spare them the trauma? (I'm sure the damned fool rationalized something like that to himself.) Not a chance! I'm condemning him for rape, not sadism, and rape is rape!

To my mind, there can be only one solution to this situation. From now on, there are TWO Bill Cosbys. The first one is the one we know and love from stage and screen: The clever, witty and nice gentleman, good with kids, loves Jell-O pudding, and can make us laugh at the trials and tribulations of parenthood. The other one is the private monster: The college kid who slipped some girl a little something at his first frat party (my own reenactment, mind you - I have no footage), had sex for the first time with her, and from then on found that sex any other way just didn't have that secretive little thrill for him.

At my age, I know perfectly well I won't ever be a stage performer or television personality. Even if I somehow manage to do that, chances are, Cosby will already be dead before I become so lucky. As such, if Bill and I ever cross paths, I will not be meeting the first version of him. I can never meet the on-stage Cosby. Instead I will only be meeting the second version, the off-stage version, the one who is not only a caught-in-the-act rapist, but won't man up about it or even apologize. I would feel quite awkward around such a guy. Who wouldn't? And it's really quite a shame. The first Cosby sounds so much better.

I would have really loved to have met that man.



New Mascot: Mohammed the Teddy Bear!

Introducing our new Sacred Cow Wursthaus mascot, and co-host of the SCW podcast, our teddy bear, Mohammed!

Yes, he's named after the embarrassing incident in Sudan in 2007, where a British school teacher named Gillian Gibbons was arrested and nearly beheaded for letting her school children name a teddy bear Mohammed.  She eventually had to be smuggled out of the country for fear that an angry mob might lynch her.

As you can see, Mohammed is sporting the latest fashion statement - solidarity with our fallen brother and sister freethinkers in France who were pointlessly gunned down by imbeciles who actually thought that this would prevent people from insulting Mohammed in the future.  Now, their heinous acts have opened the floodgates of Mohammedan insult.

Extremists of the world, prepare to be mocked like you have never been mocked before!  Vivre Le France!



Monday, January 12, 2015

Atheist Men: Snap Out Of It!

This week we’re telling YOU to snap out of it, men and especially leading men, of the freethought movement. No, we won’t name you, but you know who you are, and WE know who you are.  While the rest of us are doing our level best to bring women under our big tent, you are doing your level best to chase them away.

You might think that atheism and feminism would go together like baseball and hot dogs, Halloween and jack-o-lanterns, or catholic confessionals and masturbation.  After all, religion has done more to oppress women and rob them of their rights than any other institution.  Women have always had leading roles in the fight against the clergy which, of necessity, often meant fighting for their own rights as well.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Sanger, Mary Wollstonecraft and even Madalyn Murray O’Hair are heroes of feminism and the atheism which naturally flowed from it.  So ingrained is feminism as a part of freethought as a concept that it would take a nearly impossible amount of masculine casual dismissiveness to piss it off and drive most women out of the movement.  But us guys have managed, somehow! 

Hey, you, Mr. Bicycle Guy!  Don’t think we’re not on to your “he-said, she-said” soap-opera convention dramas.  Even if every one of the women who accuses you of sexually accosting her at a convention is lying, it behooves you to never get into situations where that sort of thing is possible.  Do your talk, then go to your hotel room.  Leave the young people to get drunk and tell tales without you.

And you, Mr. Blind Watchmaker!  Do you really have to belittle women like Rebecca Watson, who get accosted in elevators by creeps at SkeptiCons, just because there are still women having their genitals mutilated in East Africa?  Aren't they both wrong behaviors, even if one is far worse?  Don’t you think a guy as bright as you can at least figure out that the ones who should quit whining are the guys who are willing to do crap like that to women who are nice enough to hang out with us?

Hey, Mr. Letter-To-A-Christian-Nation Dude!  It shouldn't take a philosophy degree to figure out why women don’t join the atheist movement.  It’s not because they are inherently disinclined, or intellectually not wired for it, as you tend to argue.  The feminist movement is at least as large as the atheist one, larger even, and that’s where all the female atheists are.  It’s not that there are fewer atheist women out there.  They’re just doing something else.

They’re not joining us for good reason:  What self-respecting woman would want to hang out with a bunch of sexually impolite dickheads like us?

This is our movement, and we have to maintain it together.  And our conventions are especially places where we can’t let ourselves get carried away with inappropriate sexual advances on women.  Orgies are orgies and Cons are Cons, and we appear ridiculously stupid when we confuse the two.  Far be it from me to be anything other than a sexual libertine, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about getting a woman in your life, and clearly the wrong way is being too-forward at the atheism gatherings.  Want to join a swingers club?  Then join a swingers club!  Don’t try to make TAM into one! 

Fellow men of the freethought movement, by being a bunch of dicks, we've made our movement into a sausage-fest!  I hope the worst offenders among us are satisfied, because the rest of us guys sure aren't going to be!

Yes, I know, most men at freethought gatherings and conventions don’t act this way.  The vast majority of us are nice guys who wouldn't harm a fly.  But if we are to argue that a few bad apples spoil the barrel within Islam (and we should!) doesn't that same standard apply within our own camp?  We are capable of policing ourselves, and that means violating the guy code from time to time in being a cock-blocker.

After all, men will always outnumber women at freethought conventions if every woman who attends needs to bring along her own bodyguard!

Just be certain to treat our atheist comrades and sisters-in-arms with the respect they deserve!  With them, we must always play for keeps!  Let’s treat our women the way they were meant to be treated:  As equal partners and dearest of friends.  Let’s respect their wishes when it’s late and they just want to go sleep.  And let’s not invite them to play drinking games hoping to get lucky.  What are we, a bunch of frat-boys who need officials to lecture us about “yes meaning yes”?!  We don’t shit where we eat!  It’s not a difficult concept.

So, men and leading men of the freethought movement, we at the Sacred Cow Wursthaus take great pride in taking the jock strap you were too nerdy to wear, using it to give you the mother of all wedgies, and then letting it go to give you a well-earned snap where it hurts most!  You've earned it!  Fellow males of the freethought movement, SNAP OUT OF IT!



Friday, January 2, 2015

Mayim Bialik: Snap Out Of It!

This week we’re telling YOU to snap out of it, Mayim Bialik!  When you played Blossom, we watched your young career, well, blossom.  And then you warmed your way back into our hearts as Amy Farrah Fowler, kindling your odd relationship with Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.  And when you did we in the rational and skeptical community lauded you as an ideal role model for young girls everywhere, for unlike most actresses, you are a degreed neuroscientist, and your Ph.D. hangs proudly on your wall at home.  But then you had to go and ruin the ride.  You publicly stated that you don’t vaccinate your kids – something no responsible parent would do, much less a responsible scientist.  You belong to this creepy thing called the Holistic Mom’s Network, as if any person who belongs to an organization with the name “holistic” in the title doesn't instantly lose her scientific membership card.  Having a science-promoting actress is one thing, but when that science turns out to be pseudoscience, you end up being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Or rather, a true sheep, as only a mindless sheep could be herded into crackpot thinking in this way.  You are a sheep in wolf’s clothing, in sheep’s clothing.  And that, by the way, is a holistic metaphor!

Yes, we once were pleased that someone with a Ph.D. in science would turn to acting instead of breaking new ground in the laboratory.  But now we know the truth of why you came back to the studios.  No, it wasn't for the money.  It was because you can’t hack it as a true scientist with all your woo-woo thinking!  You can’t be a real scientist, and so you pretend to be one on TV instead!  You are not the idealized role model for young girls we thought you were.  You are instead the poster-child for, “Don’t let this happen to you!”  You studied neuroscience, but weren't able to figure out your own neurons!  In a world where skeptics and freethinkers are stocked full of lonely males hoping for more women to embrace science and reason, you were their greatest light of hope, and are now their darkest shadow of letdown.  At least you are an ideal role model in one sense:  You are a shining example that achieving a Ph.D. is no guarantee against being flat-out wrong.

But it’s not too late, Mayim.  You don’t have to wait for one of your precious children to die of whooping cough in order to come to your senses.  You can take heed from the many women who once belonged to the Holistic Mom’s Network, and left after they became sick of seeing their children get sick.  You can then very publicly tell the HMN to go take a long walk off a short cliff, vaccinate your precious children, and take a stand for real science.  And when you do, I’ll convert to Judaism and FedEx you my ring and marriage proposal.

So, Miss Amy Farrah Fowler, we at the Sacred Cow Wursthaus take great pride in grasping the polka-dotted back-strap of your Victoria’s Secret brassiere, yanking it back and letting it fly to give YOU a well-earned snap between your scapulae!  Mayim Bialik, SNAP OUT OF IT!

Neil Says: Read The Bible! But Which One?

A recent blog post noted how, back in 2011, Neil DeGrasse Tyson participated in Reddit's 'Ask Me Anything' series of public Q & A.  When asked which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet, Neil suggested eight books.  The first book he listed was, interestingly, the Bible.

I'll list the other seven books Neil recommended in a little bit. But first, I wanted to spend some time on this blog post helping people out with his first suggestion. I wholeheartedly agree with it, of course. I became an atheist largely by learning what the Bible really says, and so I enthusiastically recommend everyone read it - especially Christians. (The polls tell us that only about 20% of Christians have ever read the Bible all the way through at least once, which explains a lot about why they are so clueless.) But there are some pitfalls to reading the Bible which the layperson might get tripped up by.  Certain versions of the Bible are incomprehensible. Others are so watered down that they don't constitute scripture at all. And the different kinds of versions out there are a veritable alphabet soup of confusing titles.  There's the King James Version (KJV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), The Living Bible (TLB), the New American Bible (NAB), the New International Version (NIV), the American Standard Bible (ASB), the Good News Bible (GNB), Today's English Version (TEV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB), among many others. Which, if any, truly constitute a "good" bible over a not-so-good one?

First, if all you want is the general gist of it, any one of the above might suffice. But most people want the authoritative version. After all, we're talking about what some people consider to be the Word of God, here! It might help to get it absolutely right. Paraphrasing might make something more comprehensible, even accessible, but it also might alter the meaning to such an extent that you aren't really reading what the original author intended to convey. On the other hand, if you read a version which is not paraphrased at all, but written in a style which is too closely matched to a language other than English, or worse, written in a version of English which is too old to be understandable, then most of what you read will be missed. To make matters worse, some Bibles use source texts which are outdated.  The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, while the New Testament was originally written in ancient Greek. Older, more reliable manuscripts of the earliest versions of the Bible have been unearthed by archaeologists in recent years, such as the Nag Hammadi library, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But many Bibles do not incorporate these manuscripts into their translations and in so doing leave out the best possible source material. What criteria should be used when selecting a Bible?

Let's establish some basics. The ideal Bible:
1.) Should be written in a clear, comprehensible, modern version of the English language.
2.) Should utilize the oldest and most reliable Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic source texts.
3.) Should be a literal word-for-word translation of these original texts as closely as possible, something scholars refer to as "formal equivalence."

Most Bibles meet the first criteria. In fact, making the Bible more understandable has been something of a crusade for many scholars, as they want as many people as possible to understand what it says. We find far fewer candidates which meet the other two criteria, but there are some good ones. Let me evaluate several popular versions of the Bible using the above three criteria.

The King James Version. No version of the Bible carries as much weight with certain Christians as the King James, or KJV. In certain circles, anyone who quotes the Bible using anything other than the King James is not truly quoting the Bible at all. But how does it truly measure up?
1.) Clear and understandable English? Not even close! Most of the King James is written in a classic Elizabethan style of English which is not used anymore, and so the reader is often left baffled. Here's a great example: A classmate of mine was once reading, along with the rest of us in the class, a passage from John 19:24, "They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots."
The student then raised his hand and said, "Lots of what?"
A few of us giggled at the question, but I helped him out. "Lots as in lotteries," I told him. Then he understood. The Roman soldiers were essentially rolling dice to see who would get Jesus' clothing after he'd been crucified. But this poor student had no idea at first what the text was talking about. And that's just one of thousands of such misunderstandings which can occur when a modern speaker of English tries to make sense of the Elizabethan. Unless someone happens to be well schooled in Shakespeare, the King James is somewhat baffling. And yet there is something to be said for the old-style language. It carries with it a certain beauty and poetic style which modern English does not. Perhaps therein lies some of the appeal.
How about 2.) oldest and most reliable manuscripts? Again, not even close. The source text used for the King James is the Textus Receptus (Latin for 'received text'). Back in the 1500's, this was the best Hebrew and Greek text available, but it was far from perfect, especially for the book of Revelation. Segments of the book of Revelation had rotted away from the only extant Greek text, and so had to be replaced by taking the Latin Vulgate translation and translating it back into Greek. Thus, there are segments of Revelation which were translated from Greek, to Latin, back to Greek again, and then finally translated into English! But the older texts which archaeologists have found since do not factor in at all.
Finally, we evaluate 3.) to see if it has a clear, word-for-word translation from the original manuscripts. Here, finally, we have a winner. The King James does translate literally, perhaps better than any other English version. That, and it's pretty language style, are its primary saving graces.
Final Grade: 1/3; D+

The New International Version. This version of the Bible has won the popularity contest among most Christians. Outside of the King James, it is the most often-quoted text among evangelicals. How does it do? Well, in some ways, its an improvement, and in other ways, an abject failure.  Let's go through the criteria.
1.) Clear and modern English? You bet! The New International Version is among the most understandable Bibles to be found. But this is both a blessing as well as a curse.  We'll see why shortly.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts used? Again, yes! The New International Version does, in fact incorporate translations from the oldest manuscripts to be found.  This is quite forward-thinking, and is one of this version's strongest points. But alas, it almost doesn't matter, because:
3.) This version does not give a literal, word-for-word translation. Not even close! Ostensibly, the translation technique uses something called "dynamic equivalence," which means a sense-by-sense translation instead of a word-for-word translation. But the method used when determining how the English text was to be phrased was to assemble a committee, comprised of scholars from all leading Christian denominations, and then take a vote as to the best way in which to phrase certain passages! This makes the NIV the proverbial camel-as-racehorse more so than any other version of the Bible, and thus erases any of the benefits involved with using the oldest, most reliable source texts.  What good does the correct source text make if the paraphrasing thwarts this advantage anyway? On the other hand, if what you want is a Bible to quote errors and contradictions with, you would do well to use the NIV, because the phrasing committee has already done its level best to erase as many contradictions and errors as they could find! If the contradictions are still there in the NIV (and they are!) then they're genuine! As such, this is always the version I use when "Bible battling."
Final Grade: 2/3; C+

The New American Bible. This is the official version of the Bible used by Catholics. As such, it has a very scholarly approach, and is not bad as far as content is concerned. Perhaps this is because in Catholic doctrine, it is the Pope which is infallible, rather than scripture, thus leaving scholars more free to revise what needed revising while staying true to the original source texts. Let's evaluate this one:
1.) Clear and modern English? For the most part, yes. The text tries to retain some of the flavor of the original manuscripts while being careful to use modern terminology. For example, Jesus always heals the "mute" rather than the "dumb."
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts? Not entirely. It utilizes the Textus Receptus, but also incorporates some things from the Septuagint (an older Greek text) as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is somewhat better than the King James, but not by much.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation? Yes. For the most part, the NAB utilizes formal equivalence. Only occasionally does it depart from this in certain passages which are uncomfortable to Catholic doctrine.
On the whole, this isn't a bad version to use, especially if you will be discussing the Bible with family members who were also raised Catholic. This version also has some interesting books in the Old Testament which are not included in the Protestant Bible, such as the books of Judith and Tobit. On the other hand, it is not a popular version among Protestants, and lacks acceptance by certain evangelicals who are suspicious of the Pope and Catholicism. As such, I find it to be of use only in certain situations.
Final Grade: 2/3;  B-

The Good News Bible and The Living Bible. These are two different versions, but I conflate them here because they are functionally very similar.  The Good News Bible was originally known as Today's English Version, but was changed to The Good News Bible in the mid 1970's.  Sometimes it was published as a paperback book titled simply as, "The Way." This title still occasionally turns up in used book stores and rummage sales. The intention of this text was to simplify the New Testament in such a way as to make it easier for missionaries to translate it into exotic foreign languages. But the paraphrasing of the text had an unintended consequence: it made it highly accessible for children to read. As such, the Good News Bible has been popular in religious grade schools and Sunday schools. A similar story lies behind The Living Bible. A paraphrase of the American Standard Version, it proved a quite handy Bible for children. However, it was not a translation, and did not pretend itself to be. Because both GNB and TLB are paraphrase versions, the results in their evaluations are identical.  Here they are:
1.) Clear and understandable English? Certainly! In fact, this is their one, redeeming quality. In the GNB, there are even cute little stick-figure drawings which illustrate the stories for the benefit of the youngest readers. But this is also its biggest drawback.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts? Not even close. Both versions are quite blunt in their use of paraphrasing, and the original versions are all but abandoned in the quest for understandability.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation? Obviously not.
Final Grade: 1/3;  F

Revised Standard Version. The RSV has been popular in Protestant denominations, primarily for glossing over certain uncomfortable Old Testament passages which don't fit in with certain dogmas, but which does so in such a subtle way that none but the most ardent of Biblical scholars usually notice. It has been considered to be denominationally liberal. Here's how this one measures up:
1.) Clear and understandable English: Yes, for the most part. The RSV was first made a little after the beginning of the 20th century, and so sounds only slightly dated, but still has modern enough English to be comprehensible.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts: No. It primarily relies upon the Textus Receptus, Septuagint, and limited use of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation: Almost, but not quite. It does take some liberties with paraphrasing, but only situationally.
Final Grade: 2.5/3;  C+

New American Standard Bible. I saved the best for last. This one is a little off the beaten path, but is quite popular among professional Biblical scholars, primarily for the reasons I'm about to list here. The American Standard Bible was not especially well done, but revisions to it in recent years have updated its status, and its standing, making it one of the better Bibles to be had, especially if you are of the type to insist on getting the straight dope. I personally find this version to be most popular in Episcopal churches. Here's how it meets the criteria:
1.) Clear and understandable modern English: Bingo! The NASB has always aimed at being both clear in its language usage while also being grammatically correct.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts: Again, yes! After 1995, the NASB was revised to incorporate the oldest and most reliable manuscripts available.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation: Absolutely! This has been a standard goal for the American Standard Bible (first published in 1901), and has been maintained with the New American Standard Bible. Students of both Greek and Hebrew will find it easy to compare with the English text on a word-for-word basis, making it an ideal study aide for those who pursue Biblical languages.
Final Grade: 3/3  A+

So there you have it! My preference is for the NASB, and whenever I'm studying the Bible on my own, that is the version I most turn to. On the other hand, when I'm debating with Christians and quoting scripture at them, I most often use the NIV, both because it's more popular with the masses, and because any errors I find in there are doubly legit. But I'll admit, I do love reading the KJV on occasion as well. There's just something about that old style of Shakespearean English which is beautiful to me.

One thing further: Beware of "Study Bibles!" The "Defender's Study Bible" is a good example. Basically, a Study Bible is one which is riddled with commentary below each and every Bible passage, and usually that commentary is aimed at twisting the scriptures towards right-wing politics. If you happen to find such a Bible, ignore the commentary! You want to determine what the Bible says for yourself. You don't need someone else's spin-doctoring getting in the way.

Oh, yes! Neil's other book recommendations! Here they are:
2.) The System of the World, by Isaac Newton.
3.) On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin.
4.) Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift.
5.) The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine.
6.) The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.
7.) The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.
8.) The Prince, by Machiavelli.