Thought for the Day, 23 March 2011
The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser
I don’t know if there’s a church in the fictional village of Midsomer. But if there is, I bet they use the King James Bible. I say this because I’m beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable that the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, currently being celebrated up and down the country, has turned into some huge expression of cultural nostalgia for a world where it was so much easier to say what it meant to be British; that, in some way, the KJB has become a vehicle for those who yearn after a society that apparently existed before the advent of things like multiculturalism.
Of course, the King James Bible was a work of nostalgia even from the start. The language that so many adore – its “thee”s and “thou”s – was rapidly becoming old fashioned even as the text itself was being compiled in the early seventeenth century. And in fact, it wasn’t until the mid eighteenth century that the KJB really took off in popularity – something that was completely bound up with the nostalgia that Restoration England had for the past glamour of Stuart monarchy. It was things like Handel’s Messiah that really put the King James Bible on the cultural map – and it’s significant to note that the man who complied the libretto for Messiah, Charles Jennens, chose the King James words as a way of promoting his political commitments to the long-lost Stuart cause. Again, nostalgia.
Of course, one would have to have a tin ear not to be moved by the extraordinary phraseology of the King James Bible. Along with Shakespeare, the music of its sentences has given the English language some of its most beautiful expression. But precisely because of this there’s a danger that what many people value about the KJB has more to do with the world of Jacobean England than with the world of a first century Galilean Jew.
Thus I find it hard to resist the anxiety that one of the things being celebrated in this 400th year is a construction of Britishness of the sort beloved by American tourists and those who find modern Britain just too difficult or too diverse. Which is why the KJB can share the feel of other fantasy constructions like Midsomer – a place recently described by its executive producer as “the last bastion of Englishness” because of its all-white cast.
The irony of all this is that the Bible is, in fact, one of the most powerful forces for multiculturalism that the world has ever known. Those who worship the one God need nothing else in common in order to recognise each other as brothers and sisters. In Christ there is neither rich nor poor, Greek nor Jew, black nor white. Which is why the idea that we might use the Bible as a way of harking back to some lost world of simple monocultural Englishness is such a complete nonsense. It really ought to go without saying: God is not an Englishman
In his last sentence, Giles Fraser (Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London) enunciates what has long been a problem with the KJB as the definitive version of the Scriptures. Wonderful as the language may be (and I happen to be a Shakespeare afficionado) the interpretation of the time was inevitably connected with the socio-political influence of the era in which it originally appeared.
Like all original languages, the antiquated language of the KJB has, eventually, to be replaced by a continually updated under-standing of the message it was intended to convey. Also, in order to be of use to modern Christians, the Bible needs to be accessible to those who are intent on studying its primary message.
Having been present in Fiji in the 1960s, when the Good News for Modern Man was introduced into the multi-cultural congregations in that Island country, I observed the delight with which the locals were able to connect, at last, with a language that ‘spoke’ to them through a medium they were familar with through the modern school system. The pictures, of course, were also a great help.
What needs to be recognised, in this 400th year celebration of the King James Bible, is that it gave to the English-speaking world a comprehensive vehicle of understanding the Holy Scriptures in the context of the religious, political, and social conditions of the day.
In a new time of greater understanding of science and the humanities, the language of the KGB could be obfuscating and seemingly oblivious to the situation now obtaining in theological and sociological research which has been opened up to us in the continuing revelation of the consequences of the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and glorification of Christ – as seen and experienced in the life of the Church 500 years later.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch