The King James and the possibility of upward desecration


The 400th Anniversary of the King James is everywhere. And that’s fantastic. There’s perhaps a greater chance of it being read by British people this year than there has been for years.

The Word is God

One of the most intriguing developments has been the way that the media has taken up the cause – Radio 4 had a day of readings last Sunday with famous actors doing their bit (you can get them as a podcast here). And then Shakespeare’s Globe is going to have cover-to-cover readings of the KJV over the Easter weekend. And this is all great. The word will go out and not return empty, whoever reads it and for whatever purpose.

But as I pointed out in my thought at our Prayer Gathering on Tuesday, all is not exactly as it might seem. Initially, I was quite impressed that the Globe’s effort is called ‘The Word is God‘. But then you realise that, in fact, their whole season carries that banner – and it is a season that also includes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Much Ado etc, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn. It’s a clever punning title. For it is not actually claiming these words have inspiration in the theological sense. Merely that there is a profound glory to the language. It seems that it is following the old Romantic notions of extolling the power of language, and indeed all human creativity, to lift us to some higher place. So in fact, it’s arguable that the season’s title is making language (even the language of a famous biblical translation) into some sort of idol.

But this reflects the argument given by the BBC and others for giving what the National Secular Society whinges as ‘unfair religious privilege’. The defence is the language. The beauty and influence of the language. And that’s it. And fair enough at one level. There is something genuinely wonderful about Elizabethan and Jacobean English.

Authorised Myths

And so, while we have reasons to cheer at the 400th celebrations, we mustn’t get carried away. I was very struck by Wycliffe Bible Translators boss Eddie Arthur (on his Kouya Chronicle) pointing out a number of what he calls Authorised Myths (part 1 here and a follow up here). Here he clarifies a few misconceptions about the King James. Most notable amongst a number of really helpful points are these:

Now be clear – this is not to devalue the KJV or to underestimate the influence it most certainly has had – it is merely to put it into some sort of perspective. For if the Bible is truly living and active and a double edged sword, then it doesn’t necessarily matter what translation one uses, as long as it is faithful and readable.

So it was very refreshing to hear Rhidian Brook bringing some sense to the airwaves in his Radio 4 Thought for the Day. It’s worth listening to in full (it’s only about 90 seconds). But here’s an excerpt:

We need to be careful that by paying homage to the literary excellence and influence of The King James Bible we don’t become like the Pharisees, getting lost in the wordy woods and missing the tree altogether. Like the little girl who, after being read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, asked if is was true and her Father said “perhaps, but don’t you think it’s a nice story?” To which she replied: “Yes, but it’s a much better story if it’s true.”

Upward Desecration

Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve kept on being reminded of something Eugene Peterson wrote five years ago in his excellent Eat This Book. In his chapter explaining his philosophy behind his contemporary version, The Message, he notes:

But despite and in contrast to the pioneering and language-renewing colloquial translations of Luther in German and Tyndale in English, the King James translation with its smooth, majestic sonorities – an English least representative of the kind of language in which the Bible was first spoken and heart and written – continues after nearly four hundred years to be the most frequently purchased and widely distributed translation in the English-speaking world. The King James translators used Tyndale’s text as their baseline, taking over approximately three-quarters of its essentially unchanged. But what they did with that plagiarized text amounted to a violation of it – they put lace cuffs on Tyndale’s sentences. To use my earlier phrase, they ‘desecrated upward.’ They skillfully and thoroughly shifted the tone of the language from the roughness of Tyndale’s plowboy to the smooth speech of the royal court. Most of the translators, after all, were part of the ‘old boy’ network of King James, many of them bishops who lived in a comfortable and protected life among the elite of the age. Adam Nicholson, author of a thorough study of the King James translators and an extravagant of their work, is also explicit that

the King James Bible… is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever… These scholars were not putting the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into English. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishman would have written… Tyndale had produced a simple and plain man’s translation to be slapped in the face of the medieval church and its power-protective elite… [He was] looking for immediacy and clarity in scripture which would shake off the thick and heavy layers of medieval scholasticism and centuries of accumulated dust.

Eat This Book, (p161-162) – my emphasis

Now I’m not wanting to be churlish. 2011 presents us with many many opportunities. BibleFresh is a fantastic initiative – and we are doing a whole series of things throughout the year to make the most of it at All Souls. But let’s be realistic – thankful for what we should rightly be thankful for, and discerning about what we should be discerning about.