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Ken Taylor: Giving The World Good Things to Read

How the translator of The Living Bible and founder of Today's Christian has helped Christians of all ages grow.

This article was originally published in the September/October 1993 issue ofThe Christian Reader (which later becameToday's Christian magazine). We post it now in memory of Dr. Ken Taylor, who passed away on June 10 at age 88.

Thirty-one years ago, Ken Taylor published Living Letters—a fresh, exciting paraphrase of the letters of Paul. Those became the first chapters of his Living Bible, the bestselling version that has sold multiple millions of copies worldwide.

But there was another publishing dream Taylor realized a year later. In October 1963, he launched a digest magazine, The Christian Reader. In a recent conversation, we talked about his goals of producing Christian literature for all people.

Why did you start The Christian Reader?

Taylor: The idea wasn't original: Reader's Digest was there to imitate. I began thinking of how to implement the idea, especially financially. I knew most Christians didn't read many Christian books and magazines. But if the material were presented to them from a variety of sources in a shortened form, it would make it easier for them.

Where did you find the money to launch a magazine?

Successive printings of Living Letters, released in 1962, gave us enough working capital to print our first issue of The Christian Reader We displayed it at the 1963 Christian Booksellers Convention (CBA) in Washington, D.C.

Did you do all the editing yourself?

Ted Miller, who was an editor at Scripture Press, and I were acquainted from church. The summer of 1962, our families were picnicking at the same park, and Ted and I began talking. In casual conversation we discovered, to our surprise, that we had been dreaming the same dream: to start a Christian digest magazine. Ted agreed to be the editor.

What difficulties did you have to overcome?

Receiving our second-class mailing permit from the United States Post Office was the first obstacle. A couple of men from Washington finally responded to our queries about the permit's delay. Referring to Reader's Digest, our secular magazine model, I asked the postal officials why that magazine could mail second class and we couldn't.

"Because they revise material," they said.

"We do, too," I assured them. The permit came soon after the conversation.

In 1965, the circulation seemed locked at 20,000 subscribers. Your dream was for it to reach many more people. What did you do?

It was a cold Sunday afternoon in January, and I felt deeply burdened about the magazine. So I put on a heavy coat and went out to the detached garage and shipping room where I could be alone and pray aloud. I spent an hour in front of the heater, giving God all the reasons—in detail—why I thought he should give us 100,000 subscribers within one year. He had done many miracles in behalf of Living Letters, so I was encouraged to expect the same for The Christian Reader.

How did God answer your prayer?

An hour later, Bob Hawkins, who owned a Christian bookstore in Portland, Oregon, telephoned me. We had met at CBA, and I knew he had ordered a few copies of the magazine.

"How's it going, Bob?" I asked

"You know that little digest magazine you publish?" he said enthusiastically. "Well, it ought to have twice the circulation—and I know how to do it. Send me a thousand extra copies!"

Two weeks later, he ordered another thousand copies. It was time for us to talk. That's when I learned of his marketing strategy—provide the magazine directly through churches. Within a year the circulation had climbed from 20,000 to 100,000 copies each issue.

The pastors who were receiving the magazine began to recognize a need for their people to read good Christian material. What the congregation didn't purchase, didn't have to be returned, so the magazine found additional readers through pastoral visitation. That continues to this day.

You are best known for The Living Bible. What was the most difficult part of the Bible to translate for you? What was the easiest?

Galatians was the hardest book to translate because the line of reasoning in it is complex. Paul is not a modern journalist; as a rabbi, h is perspective makes the text hard for us to understand.

On the other hand, Old Testament books like Ruth and Esther, and the Gospels were the easiest because they are stories.

When The Living Bible first came out, some people criticized it. How did you feel about their comments?

The comments haven't affected me personally. But I felt angry that people who could be helped by an easy-to-read translation were being hindered from using it. Everyone should be reading it for their devotions.

Do you real it in your daily devotions?

Oh, yes. It's fresh and new to me every time I read it. It's almost like someone else's translation. It never was "my" project; God gave me the particular ability to do it, and I'm glad I had the privilege to be used by him.

I also use it for witnessing. Personal witness is not easy for me. But sometimes when I'm traveling on a plane, and my seatmate asks what I'm reading, I use the opportunity to share the gospel message from the pages of The Living Bible.

The Living Bible has now been translated into many languages. How did that begin?

In the mid-1960s, I began to pray about Living Letters being translated into other languages. I looked at an almanac that listed the major languages of the world and found that although five thousand languages are spoken throughout the earth, almost 90 percent of the world's population spoke in only 100 of those languages. To reach those 100 languages is still our goal.

Actually, the English Living Bible is only the model for the other languages' translation. It is not the source. In each language, we want to create a new thought-for-thought translation that is readable and fresh.

During the years you were working on The Living Bible, moments alone with your wife, Margaret, must have been few and far between.

That is one of my regrets. I didn't spend as much time with my family, Margaret included, as I should have.

I'm a workaholic, with writing projects going all the time. I actually have to discipline myself to relax.

When I do relax, our entire family—10 children and 28 grandchildren—tries to gather at our Michigan summer cottage each year. I spend time with each grandchild, and we all play "Capture the Flag," put on talent shows, or pull out the board games. Margaret and I love to play Scrabble ®.

Who usually wins?

Margaret would say we're 50-50. I'd say I win 60 percent of the time.

You are most well known for your translation of the Bible. What would you also like people to know you for?

The Living Bible came from my desire to make Bible reading more interesting and understandable to my children and myself. But before I started on that, I had already published five children's books with Moody Press. Stories for the Children's Hour, published in 1953, was a collection of stories—some based on my childhood experiences, some based on our neighborhood situations, and some on my own imagination, followed by Devotions for the Children's Hour, which is now in its 104th printing!

When The Living Bible was completed, I continued writing children's books. My First Bible in Pictures has crossed the 500,000 mark in English and is already translated into a dozen other languages. Because children learn so much from books, I haven't run out of ideas for them.

Also, in the last few years, I am more aware of the tragedy of unsaved people, which gives me an urgency to complete my current project—the revision of The Living Bible.

How will it be different?

It will read with the same vitality as the original. In a few cases, the writing style has been changed. Most significantly, it's not a one-man operation. A team of 80 biblical scholars is working with me—verse by verse. The scheduled release is 1995. It's something readers of the magazine can pray for—that this version of The Living Bible will be even more useful in bringing people to Christ.

In 1991 you decided to transfer The Christian Reader to Christianity Today. Why?

Tyndale House Publishers publishes Christian books and Bibles; our job is not to publish magazines. It has always been my belief that the magazine should have a wider distribution. By transferring Christian Reader to Christianity Today, which specializes in magazines, I feel strongly that will happen.

But I still consider the magazine one of "my children." When each issue comes out, I read it all from front to back.

What are you praying for now?

For readable Bibles and Christian books in many languages of the world. Recently, I was excited to hear that My First Bible in Pictures has been translated into Chinese for children who have never heard the name Jesus. It will be published in China with governmental permission. This pleases me very much.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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