Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Retro-fitted grandeur: Bible Year 2011 (2)

Following yesterday’s post on the excellent BBC production The Story of the King James Bible a friend, Canon Martin Wood, drew my attention to an article in The Independent titled Battles of a Book by Boyd Tonkin. The piece was published on 31st December so may well have been missed by many gearing up for the New Year celebrations but it is well worth a read.

tyndaleThe article begins with an important reminder of the controversial and violent history that accompanied the early days of translating the Bible into English. It is easy to forget, as copies of myriad translations of the Bible lie unread on dusty bookshelves, that people like William Tyndale gave their lives to make the scriptures accessible to the ordinary punter or, as Tyndale would say, ‘the boy that driveth the plow’. 
After months in his fortress jail, he (Tyndale) went on trial and received the inevitable death sentence. He was strangled at the stake with an iron chain. Then his corpse was burnt. According to legend, the translator and reformer William Tyndale ended his life in September 1536 with the words: "Lord, open the king of England's eyes."
Tyndale’s prayer was realised with the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. Tonkin draws attention to something that many may not have appreciated, by pointing out that even when it was published the KJB employed a tone that would have seemed archaic in common parlance; he calls this ‘retro-fitted grandeur’ and comments:
In essence, the six companies ensured that the KJB was born an antique. They didn't make the Bible new; they made it old. Its celebrated majesty and sonority stem from a decision to ennoble the language with a melodic, otherworldy splendour. Note how Tyndale's "they were marvellously glad" from the 1520s becomes, in the much later heyday of Shakespeare and Donne, "they rejoiced with exceeding great joy". The KJB sounds archaic to many readers now. It sounded archaic to many readers in 1611.
As Gordon Campbell puts it, "the language of the translators reflects their conservatism". They use "thee" and "thou" with an old-fashioned enthusiasm which might have sounded strange on the teeming City streets outside Stationers Hall, where for nine months in 1610 a revising committee sat. Tyndale and his radical confrères aimed for the demotic language of street and field. The KJB crews retain much of that, but channel it into a new, refined and detached, language of pulpit and pew. Old verb forms such as "doth", "hath" and "saith" abound, whereas by the 1590s - in speech, at least - the modern endings would have become more common.
The article covers more familiar territory in reminding us of the cultural influence of the KJB:
Today it is a commonplace to note that the words and rhythms of the KJB and its source translations shape the speech of countless millions who never open a bible or enter a church. Somehow, the language of the 1611 version never falls from grace (Galatians 5.4) even if its message falls on stony ground (Mark 4.5). In a secular age where ignorance of religion goes from strength to strength (Psalms 84.7) among lovers of filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3.8) who only want to eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12.19), we know for a certainty (Joshua 23.13) that these resonant words endure as a fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10.1) and a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12.7) of the powers that be (Romans 13.1). They can still set the teeth on edge (Jeremiah 31.29) of those who try to worship God and Mammon (Matthew 6.24). But does this ancient book, proof that there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1.9), now cast its pearls before swine (Matthew 7.6), and act as a voice crying in the wilderness (Luke 3.4) – a drop in a bucket (Isaiah 40.15) of unbelief, no longer a sign of the times (Matthew 16.3) but a verbal stumbling-block (Leviticus 19.14) or else all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9.22) while the blind lead the blind (Matthew 15.14)?
However, Tonkin goes on to argue the greater influence of the KJB across the Atlantic:
What really marked a sea-change, though, was the acceptance of the "habitual music" of the KJB (John Ruskin's phrase) by Puritan writers and preachers quite out of sympathy with the king-and-bishop hierarchy that bred it. Soon, John Milton and John Bunyan would draw on the KJB: it colours Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim's Progress from first lines to last.
It crossed the Atlantic early in the 17th century, and came to fix the tones and timbres of American speech and writing even more firmly than in Britain. From Herman Melville to Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway to Allen Ginsberg, American literature could hardly exist without the pulse and flame of the KJB. Today, it suffuses the work of talents as varied as Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy and Bob Dylan – who, in keeping with the seam of radical prophecy that forerunners such as William Blake had mined from the Bible, told us that in changing times "the last shall be first, and the first last" (a direct KJB lift from Tyndale).
The piece has a rather sobering final observation which makes the challenge of promoting the reading of the Bible in 2011 even more stark as Tonkin concludes:
For anyone, religious or not, who cares about the continuity of culture and understanding, Gordon Campbell lets slip a remark to freeze the blood. A professor at Leicester University, he recalls that "When the name of Moses came up at a seminar I was leading, no one had any idea whom he might have been, though a Muslim student eventually asked if he was the same person as Musa in the Qur'an (which he is)".
"Let my people go" (Exodus 5.1), as Tyndale - and the KJB - has Moses tell Pharaoh. In 2011, we may need another kind of Mosaic injunction: Let our people read.
Reading Tonkin’s article I was left wondering how many of us would be prepared to go through what Tyndale faced in order to promote the private and public reading of the Bible?


Tim Goodbody said...

Good one Phil,
though I think Tyndale's prayer was answered a bit earlier when still in Henry's reign it was made a requirement that all Churches have a copy of the Bible in English. It will always amaze me how fast that happened - people were being executed for owning English Bibles one minute and the next they were required to use them in church!
I'm rather wary though of over-emphasizing the KJV this year, as I thought the original idea (from David Banting and Paul Wilkin) was to make this year a year of the Bible generally, not just the old stuff.
As a trained linguist and translator I've got serious problems with the way the KJV, through its imposition by missions and through its inaccuracies, has actually warped cultural perceptions across the world (read: Empire, though the points about America are valid), where the church ought much earlier on to have cottoned on to the importance of providing people with the Bible in their mother tongue.
As you/Tonkin point out, the KJV didn't even do that, as it employed archaisms - which is fairly typical of religious texts viz the Koran (which effectively defined classical Arabic) and Alcuin's revision of the Latin mass which effectively gave birth to spoken French.

Just as the enclosure acts of the early 19th century froze an idealised and false perception of what rural England should be like in the mind of the populace, the KJV (and Shakespeare)has provided the world with a marker to say "that's what English should be like", but it is a false one becasue we don't talk or write like that any more (if we ever did)and our faith has grown and evolved through improved translations since 1611.
In sum, I feel the KJV is a millstone around the neck of the English church in the 21st century, and while I'm ready and willing to mark 2011 as Bible year, I won't be encouragining anyone to read the KJV.

Philip Ritchie said...

Many thanks Tim for some important observations.

You are of course right about Henry's requirement.

Regarding not making too much of the KJV, the intention of Bible Year 2011 is to encourage engagement with the Bible in and outside the church, however, the anniversary is what prompted the idea of going for 2011. I've been part of the working party on this from the beginning and we have been clear from the start that the focus is not on the KJV.

That said, part of the way in to promoting the Bible is to emphasise the cultural importance of the Bible in general and KJV in particular. Quite a few of my other posts have avoided the KJV emphasis, though at the moment this is what is getting wider media attention because of the anniversary. During the coming weeks I will be drawing attention to a wide range of resources and suggestions for activities in support of the central aim.

I take your point about the problems with the KJV but come at it from a different angle. Like many things connected with our Christian cultural heritage (our ancient church buildings, the 1662 prayer book, sentimentalised Christian art... which are just as much a millstone round our necks), we can either creatively engage with it and use it when appropriate or pretend it isn't there. It's a bit like the couple demanding the 1662 wedding service (though they really mean the 1929 version), either I use it as a starting point or spend my time trying to get them to use Common Worship.

The final comment, and I think Tonkin's point, at the end of the post is not about the KJV but about knowledge of the Bible and our willingness to promote engagement with scripture both within the church and in the public square. I just wonder how many of us are as passionate about that as Tyndale was.