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Charles Bridge, Prague

“Four hundred years ago, just as William Shakespeare was reaching the height of his powers and showing the new scope and variety of the English language, and just as ‘England’ itself was becoming more of a nation-state and less an offshore dependency of Europe, an extraordinary committee of clergymen and scholars completed the task of rendering the Old and New Testaments into English, and claimed that the result was the ‘Authorized’ or ‘King James’ version. This was a fairly conservative attempt to stabilize the Crown and the kingdom, heal the breach between competing English and Scottish Christian sects, and bind the majesty of the King to his devout people. ‘The powers that be,’ it had Saint Paul saying in his Epistle to the Romans, ‘are ordained of God.’ This and other phrasings, not all of them so authoritarian and conformist, continue to echo in our language: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child’; ‘Eat, drink, and be merry’; ‘From strength to strength’; ‘Grind the faces of the poor’; ‘salt of the earth’; ‘Our Father, which art in heaven.’ It’s near impossible to imagine our idiom and vernacular, let alone our liturgy, without them. Not many committees in history have come up with such crystalline prose…

A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it [The Bible] or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. ‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’ says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter? And so bleak and spare and fatalistic—almost non-religious—are the closing verses of Ecclesiastes that they were read at the Church of England funeral service the unbeliever George Orwell had requested in his will: ‘Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home. … Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. / Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was.’

Charles Bridge, PragueAt my father’s funeral I chose to read a similarly non-sermonizing part of the New Testament, this time an injunction from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: ‘Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’

As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative ‘ifs’ and its closing advice—always italicized in my mind since first I heard it—to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labor of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts. I now pluck down from my shelf the American Bible Society’s ‘Contemporary English Version,’ which I picked up at an evangelical ‘Promise Keepers’ rally on the Mall in Washington in 1997. Claiming to be faithful to the spirit of the King James translation, it keeps its promise in this way: ‘Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.’

Pancake-flat: suited perhaps to a basement meeting of A.A., these words could not hope to penetrate the torpid, resistant fog in the mind of a 16-year-old boy, as their original had done for me. There’s perhaps a slightly ingratiating obeisance to gender neutrality in the substitution of ‘my friends’ for ‘brethren,’ but to suggest that Saint Paul, of all people, was gender-neutral is to re-write the history as well as to rinse out the prose. When the Church of England effectively dropped King James, in the 1960s, and issued what would become the ‘New English Bible,’ T. S. Eliot commented that the result was astonishing ‘in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.’ (Not surprising from the author of For Lancelot Andrewes.) This has been true of every other stilted, patronizing, literal-minded attempt to shift the translation’s emphasis from plangent poetry to utilitarian prose…”

Charles Bridge, Prague

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From Christopher Hitchens’s essay about the beauty of the King James Bible and the triviality of so many modern Biblical translations. When the King Saved God: a recommended read for anyone with an interest in Christianity, literature, history, words, language, or the church.

The photographs were taken on the Charles Bridge in Prague.