How reliable are paraphrases?

I have pondered whether to get a Message bible. I had a Message New Testament but got rid of it and do not plan to get one in the near future. When I preach, I rarely quote from the Message or the Living Bible. And upon hearing a verse or passage quoted from the Message, I might suddenly get the feeling that something is wrong. When this happens, I will go to one of my trusty translations, NRSV, ESV or TNIV. The difference can sometimes be shocking. Sometimes, the whole idea of the verse has been completely changed. The purpose of paraphrases is to render a hard-to-understand verse more understandable and still remain accurate. Sometimes, in paraphrases, accuracy gets thrown out the for the sake of trying to be contemporary as possible. When accuracy is discarded, reliable is gone too.

Personally, I think many of us have a pretty big tolerance for what can be considered as reliable. As far as gender-accuracy or gender-neutrality is concerned: the difference between “brothers” versus “brothers and sisters” is minimal. I still consider both reliable. I would also consider both “fallen asleep” and “dead” as accurate. Where I draw the line is a complete change in idea. Let’s take a passage from The Message with the theme of food.

Isaiah 29:8

Like a hungry man dreaming he’s eating steak and wakes up hungry as ever, Like a thirsty woman dreaming she’s drinking iced tea and wakes up thirsty as ever, So that mob of nations at war against Mount Zion will wake up and find they haven’t shot an arrow, haven’t killed a single soul.

as when hungry people dream they are eating, but they awaken, and their hunger remains; as when thirsty people dream they are drinking, but they awaken faint, with their thirst unquenched. So will it be with the hordes of all the nations that fight against Mount Zion.

Where in the world did “steak” and “ice tea” come from?

The usefulness of paraphrases is debatable. It is useful for those who have absolutely no understanding of biblical language (or Christianese). Paraphrases can easily lead one into confusion and a dumbing-down in Christian theology. I can tolerate almost any difference in other translations but this is an example of where I draw the line.