Given the deeply traumatic nature of this book’s subject, this word seems entirely incongruous. But I can’t it out of my head as I try to sum up Emma Scrivener’s new book. And that’s the word beautiful. This is not because of a superficial or white-washed treatment. Far from it. In fact at times Emma is searingly, wincingly honest. And as she writes, we weep. Read more
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.
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:
- it is not the first translation into English
- it is not necessarily the best (ie most accurate) translation
- it is not necessarily the most culturally valuable translation
- english speakers are not necessarily as important as we like to think we are.
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.”
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.
The mace (left) is the symbol of the Sovereign’s power – and in Parliament, it represents her delegated authority. When the Commons is in session, it sits on the table just in front of the Government and Opposition despatch boxes. Without its presence, parliamentary activity is invalid and even illegal. For any Government in this country will always only be (while the monarchy remains) His or Her Majesty’s Government.
But these are of course just constitutional niceties. As everyone knows, power (real and moral) lies in the hands of elected representatives. The presence of the mace could therefore symbolise the power delegated by voters in a way, which means that the government of the day has a mandate legislate and govern. And I do actually believe that politicians can make a difference for good or ill, and that they are not universally on the make or entirely self-serving (despite what has happened in the last, so-called ‘Rotten Parliament‘).
Yet we mustn’t be naïve or unrealistic. Who knows exactly what the situation will be come Friday. Hung Parliament most likely – though there are still so many undecideds in the marginals that there could possibly be a slim Tory majority. Who knows? Whatever happens, the situation will be different from how it has been for the last 5 years.
But it has been depressing to see how vitriolic and vindictive many have been, whether about a Tory return to power or about the record of Labour’s last 13 years… and I’m actually talking about Christians here (in their tweets, blogs and conversations). I certainly have my views on that, and they are reasonably strong. But I just wonder what the sense of desperation by some on all sides says about us.
It reminded me of some of the things Tim Keller wrote in his superb Counterfeit Gods about the idolatry of political power – and it is worth quoting at length (bearing in mind that he is obviously talking about the US situation).
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!”
This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admin how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.
Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election [i.e. 2008 election which Obama won], my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?
Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizaes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of soemthing that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:
The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior.
This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.
(Counterfeit Gods, pp98-101)
Now I’m by no means qualified to assess whether or not the philosophical precis given in the quotation from Wolters are valid – but the key point surely still stands up. And we would all do well to remember this on Friday morning…