Friday, July 27, 2012

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011, by Melvyn Bragg

Bookface has accepted a part-time job on the opposite side of Kuala Lumpur, which means an hour-long commute each way by bus. Lovely! That's about six hours each week blocked off for listening to audio books. I loved Melvyn Bragg's The Adventure of English, so I thought I'd give this a go. (Now if I can only read the notes I scribbled on the lurching bus...)

Sensibly enough, Bragg starts with the 16th- and 17th-century opposition to any translation of the Bible into English. Ensuring that the Holy Scriptures were available only in Latin guaranteed that it was accessible only to the educated, wealthy and powerful. It kept everyone else in his place at the bottom of the food chain, with "minds deliberately stunted". Early translators such as Wycliffe and Tyndale faced venemous persecution for their efforts to make the Word available in English. Bragg describes Tyndale as a humble, pious and erudite man with dangerously populist sentiments. One of the darker blots on the reputation of Thomas More was his fanatical persecution of Tyndale, the violence of which bewildered even his best pal, Erasmus. Tyndale and many others died martyrs' deaths for their efforts to make the Bible available in the local vernacular.

And, as it turns out, the royals and nobles in England had good reason to fear what might happen if the holy book were made available to the masses:  If they, the common people, were allowed to read it, they might in turn begin to think about and discuss it. Given the fact that only the wealthy had Oxford degrees, who knew what mischief the riff-raff would get up to.  Sure enough, when the riff-raff had reached its limits with royal corruption, they used verses from the King James Bible to justify arresting, trying and executing King Charles I. This was a stunning development, as it had previously been held that Kings ruled by divine decree, as was cited to no avail by Charles' defenders.

This is where Bragg first concedes the difficulty in using the Bible -- in any language -- to construct a legal system, to oppose slavery or social oppression, to advocate public education or women's rights, or to settle any number of other issues:  This great text is forever contradicting itself. The Yahweh of the Old Testament is often irascible; mercy is a word scarcely heard in the earlier books. Jesus' advocacy for gentleness, tolerance and kindness contrasts sharply with Leviticus' calls for smiting one's foes and neighbours. The debate over the fate of King Charles I was only an early example of both sides citing scripture to support their arguments.

Bragg devotes a chapter to William Wilberforce, a Christian convert who lobbied ferociously to end the British participation in the Atlantic slave trade, using biblical verses to pepper his arguments. He did succeed in the end, and the odds against him were steep, given the proportion of the English economy that depended upon shipping slaves from Africa to the Americas. Wilberforce's opponents, however, turned to verses from the Old Testament which either sanctioned slave-holding or gave examples of illustrious slave-owners. The same would be true in the United States when the abolition movement picked up there:  both sides of the argument found support in the Bible. So can we really credit abolition to the King James Bible and its Radical Impact? No.

As Bragg addresses the role of the King James Bible in all of these social debates in both England and the US, it occurs to me that the connection is tangential indeed. Yes, Christians were often the first to take up the cudgels for social welfare, education, and basic human rights, and the Bible was always a part of their weaponry or toolkit. But these chapters read more like a history of Christian beneficence than a history of the Bible's impact. Bragg also acknowledges that, just as there are conflicting texts in the Bible, Christian zeal has perpetrated a great deal of evil alongside the good.  These parts of the book are interesting, if not entirely topical.

For my money, Bragg's strongest points are the contributions of the King James Bible to the English language and literature. The text -- which went through various edits until the 1769 Oxford Edition -- is remarkably beautiful. By the 17th century, you and your had replaced thee, thou and thine in spoken usage, but the translators let the slightly antiquated pronouns stand to convey the august formality of the holy text. Bragg rattles off several litanies of now common words and phrases that first appeared in the King James Bible. Shakespeare was another neologist of note, but he too borrowed heavily from the old and new testaments, as have countless others since. Even those who don't consider themselves religious have been inspired by the style and content of the Holy Book -- William Faulkner and John Steinbeck are two recent examples. The Bible is itself fine literature, as Bragg points out, with stories of polygamy, war, infanticide, incest, betrayal, forgiveness, storms at sea, weddings, forgiveness, and of course love.  The Good Book is a great book, and the King James translation is perhaps the most elegant in our language. This is a somewhat rambling but highly enjoyable homage to its 400th year in print.

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