Random links on the Bible–the past and future of the text

We just ended 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (officially the Authorized Version) and there continues to be reflection on the translation and on its significance for the English language and on English-speaking Christianity.

An article from The Chronicle offers insight into the translation process and on the translation itself. The great Robert Alter is quoted:

Alter describes the King James Bible as a masterpiece, but a flawed one. “It is not as seamlessly eloquent as everybody remembers it is,” he says. “There are beautiful lines of poetry, and then lines which are clunky, lines which run on to a multiplicity of words and syllables, which is not only unlike the original but pretty much lacking in poetic rhythm. I don’t think they paid much attention to the sound.”

A review in the Washington Post of books by Harold Bloom and David Jeffrey on the text and its significance.

Alan Jacobs writes a provocative essay on the relationship of technology and scripture, from scroll, codex, and printing press, to the use of electronic media. Of the latter he has to say:

Thus the primary way many millions of Christians today encounter Scripture: seated a hundred feet or more from a screen on which they see displayed fifty or so foot-high letters. (Yes, these Christians know that they’re supposed to have their own personal Bibles and study them diligently when at home alone, during their “quiet time.” But how many do so?) When you consider how thoroughly such a presentation decontextualizes whatever part of the Bible it is interested in — how completely it severs its chosen verse or two from its textual surroundings — how radically it occludes any sense of sequence within the whole of the Bible — it becomes, I think, difficult to worry about the pernicious effects of iPads and Kindles. And impossible to see all screens as having the same effects.

 

And he concludes:

It is the book, largely as it emerged from the early Christian Church’s understanding of its own Scriptures, that has enabled much of the best that has been thought and said in the past fifteen hundred years. And its key virtues can be preserved, and perhaps even extended, in forms other than the paper codex. By contrast, screens that allow only minuscule chunks of text to be displayed at any one time — and that effectively remove from perceptual awareness context, sequence, and narrative — do violence to the book qua book. If Christians forget, or forget more completely than they already have, the integrity and necessary sequentiality of their holy Book, and of the story it tells, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity.

As much as I want to agree with him, my own experience is that I rarely access the text of scripture except in electronic form. He’s right that doing so decontextualizes it, but the ease of access, and of reading is so much better. And that’s not the case only for study or sermon-prep. I also do the daily office primarily on line.

For an example of violence done to the text, see John Shelby Spong’s recent piece.

 

The ABC on the KJV

There was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version in Westminster Abbey this past week. Queen Elizabeth was in attendance. Rowan Williams preached a sermon that is worth reading.

He alludes to the problems inherent in translation and the importance of interpretation but he is much more interested in the role of the text in the life of the community:

But what the 1611 translators grasped was that hearing the Word of God was a lifelong calling that had to be undertaken in the company of other readers and was never something that left us where we started.

 

it was meant to be read aloud. And that means that it was meant to be part of an event, a shared experience. Gathered as a Christian community, the parish would listen, in the context of praise, reflection and instruction, to scripture being read: it provided the picture of a whole renewed universe within which all the other activities made sense. It would not be immediately intelligible by any means, but it marked out the territory of God’s work of grace.

 

The Guardian’s report on the celebration is here.

Williams reminds us of the open and unfinished nature of translation, to use other language, that translation always involves interpretation. That means scripture always eludes our efforts to capture and contain it, to define and fix its meaning. More importantly, he also urges us to take seriously our obligation to devote our lives to engaging the text, wrestling with its meanings. As Williams puts it, scripture invites us “to a pilgrimage further and further into the mysteries of [God’s] mind and love.”

Divers Diseases: Or why I don’t lament the passing of the KJV

As this past Sunday was the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, we read, as we do every year, Psalm 23. At the 10:00 service, the choir sang a setting of it. At 8:00, we read the BCP version. It stuck in my craw, as it did for most of those in the congregation, our average age being well over 50. We wanted to recite the version we had memorized: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

This is the 400th anniversary of the KJV, something I have already mentioned more than once on this blog, and an anniversary deserving of attention. There’s a great site here, with profound essays by the likes of Robert Alter. I agree with those who praise the beauty of the translation, the power of the words. But the Bible is also meant to be understood. And I, for one, am grateful for modern translations that bring the language and ideas of 2000 or 3000 years ago to life for people in the 21st century.

For all of the power and beauty of the KJV, what I remember most as a child is listening to people trying to read it out loud and make sense of it for themselves and convey that meaning to a congregation. More often than not, it came across as a foreign language. The words I remember best after forty years are hearing farmers struggle to read Paul to a congregation. I puzzled then, and I’m sure everyone else did, over Paul’s list of afflictions that included “divers diseases.” I wondered what they were, and how he acquired them by diving into the Mediterranean.

The KJV, for all of its beauty is as alien a language to the twenty-first century, as Latin was to the people of England in the 16th.

The Archbishop of Canterbury on the Bible

In his New Year’s message this year, the ABC used the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible as a starting point:

Perhaps someone some time has said to you that you shouldn’t hide your light under a bushel. Or told you to set your house in order. Maybe you only survived a certain situation by the skin of your teeth. Perhaps it’s time you listened to the still small voice within.

All those everyday phrases come from one source – a book whose four hundredth anniversary we celebrate this coming year, the King James Bible – or the Authorised Version as it’s sometimes called.

He points out the important role the KJV had in shaping the language and the vision of the English-speaking world; that it provided generations with a story in which they could locate themselves. It may not play that role any longer, but Archbishop Williams went on to say that we all need some such story with which to orient our lives.

The full text of his message is here: Scroll down below the video and the summary for the full text.

A couple of things to point out. First, he acknowledges that the language of the KJV was already somewhat archaic by 1611 and purposely so; to add gravitas, no doubt. What he doesn’t point out was that the translation was both a political and religious act. King James VI, recently crowned king of England, wanted a version that would supplant the “Geneva Bible” preferred by Puritans.