On 25 November this year Britain’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced that every state school in England would receive a new copy of the King James Bible of 1611, to which he was to add a foreword, marking the 400th anniversary of this translation. The purpose of this was to “help every pupil access Britain’s cultural heritage”.
This may sound bizarre to American ears, but do not be fooled into thinking this has anything to do with the promotion of religion.
Although Britain’s National Secular Society decried this project as a waste of public money, as schools “were already awash with Bibles”, and urged the Education Minister to send out copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species instead, they needn’t have worried.
If one was to search for a way of inoculating young people against Christian faith, surely consigning them to study the sacred Scriptures in an archaic form, as “literature” instead of life-giving words, would work very well. Parked in the school syllabus along Shakespeare and the other greats of the 17th century, where it can be dismissed as ‘boring’, locked into language and thought-forms four centuries old, the Bible will be deemed an irrelevance, its insights buried in Jacobean-speak. Beautiful maybe, but also obscure, the force and potency of its message blunted by vocabulary and figures of speech no longer in currency.
The process by which the King James Bible is reclassified as ‘literature’ is well advanced. It is significant that whenever the Scriptures are quoted in the media, or in contemporary literature or film, it will be the King James version that is almost invariably used. There is scant regard for what the Church actually uses today. Rather, post-Christian society prefers its own nostalgic fantasy of things as they used to be, a picture in which the Church is tolerated as guardian of an almost-forgotten heritage.
This approach has been in evidence over the last 12 months in the various events organised in the UK by secular bodies to mark the 400th anniversary. Here the Bible-as-literature has been celebrated, understandably enough, by a considerable number of people, at occasions in which the context of faith or worship plays no part.
What is harder to understand is the way in which many churches and religious organisations have used the King James Bible this year is a similar way, organising events at which the whole text of the Bible has been either read aloud continuously, or written out verse by verse, separated out from the context of public worship. It seems a strange way to treat Holy Scripture, albeit a version no longer in widespread use liturgically.
Have not all of us, both inside and outside the Church, been missing the point? 1611 was a hugely significant year because it saw the launch of one of the most successful and widely loved translations of the ancient Biblical texts into the vernacular. It was not designed as a natural literary treasure (though it became one) but as a powerful means by which God’s people were to be edified and inspired, and the Church fired up with new vigour.
The aim of the translators then was to produce a version of the Bible that could be understood in the language of the day (just as Thomas Cranmer had striven to produce in 1549 an English Prayer Book in 1549 that could be understood by the people). Is it not perverse to celebrate the authors of such a bold and ground-breaking translation by dwelling on past glories and turning aside from the continuing process they set before us?
Surely we uphold and honour the work of the translation of sacred texts, not by getting fixated on one revered version now severely compromised in comprehensibility, but by continuing this unending task with renewed dedication, that in every generation, whether 1611 or 2011, as on the first Pentecost, “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11).