On the King James Bible

Much beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth recently at the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Knowing little about the man, I found myself little moved. He seemed to have had an open mind, not given to dogma, and that’s certainly to be admired. I find myself less impressed with his flamboyant espousal of atheism, which I consider a puerile, rather adolescent intellectual pose, ungenerous, dishonest, and hypocritical in the main.

Have the great religions caused great injustices, great miseries? I was about to say “undoubtedly”, but realized that this isn’t actually the case. Religions are human institutions, based (sometimes debased) on human ideals. Institutions are only instruments. The miseries (as well as the good works) are caused by the people who run them. Trashing the church for its long list of atrocities seems like pretty disingenuous stuff from an admirer of Lenin, whose atheistic legacy includes millions dead, tortured and oppressed in the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern bloc, China, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam etc. etc. etc. And at the same time, discounting the good work religion does on a billion fronts daily seems like willful blindness. Does religion cruelly divide us? Yes. And if it didn’t, don’t worry. Human beings would draw some other convenient lines to divide them. Color, class, nationality, favorite radio station – we’re very good at that. And tell me, what, WHAT offers the troubled soul solace like religion? The comforts of atheism? You’re joking, right? If you don’t like it, don’t join, but you don’t have to spoil my party.

Anyway, I am rather chagrined that while this guy’s death seemed to produce thousands of online lamentations, little ink seems to have been spilt about an occasion this year that’s actually worth marking and celebrating: the 400th anniversary of the completion of the King James Bible.

With the works of Shakespeare and Milton, the King James Version of the Bible is the greatest work of literature in the English language. Its influence on me as a writer has been incalculable. You do not even have to (as I have) read it extensively or even be religious to be under its sway. Its idioms, proverbs and turns of phrase so utterly permeate the language that most people are quoting it all day without even realizing it. It is the thread that makes up the fabric of our language. “A drop in the bucket”, “the handwriting on the wall”, “the leopard can’t change its spots” – there are thousands more like this.

Like many theatrical people, I value ritual and this kind of rich language. I was raised an Episcopalian. I like robes, incense, pipe organs – and this 400 year old version of the Bible. Modern translations, with their quotidian jargon stripped of all mystery and majesty, are enough to make me turn into, well…an atheist. .

The Sunday after September 11, my family and I made our annual visit to church (just so you know where we stand. I’m not exactly a fanatic here.) But never had I been more appreciative of the old rituals of my boyhood. During the service, fighter jets were screaming overhead. This, I thought, is why people call religion “a rock.” When the moorings seem to give way, you can cling to the very ritual of it. It is a comfort.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. These words of Ecclesiastes kept going through my head that day. I’ve certainly encountered no comparable words of wisdom or poetry in what I’ve read so far from the pen of Christopher Hitchens.

Here are a tiny handful of Biblical quotations famed for their conciseness of expression, beauty and power:

Matthew 6:28-29
And why are you anxious about what to wear? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed like one of these.

Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Daniel v. 27
Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

Peter IV. 8
Charity shall cover the multitude of sins.

Ecclesiastes 2:26
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.

Psalms 119:105
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

Romans 12:21
Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

Matthew 16:26
For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?

And lastly, in honor of the day, this account of the Nativity, well-known to you atheists from Linus’s recitation of it in the Peanuts Christmas special:

Luke 2:8-11

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

You don’t have to be a believer it to admire it or find it beautiful.

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2 comments

  1. When we were at mass last night and the reader shared the famous passage from Luke in the New International Version (or whichever it was), my thoughts also turned to the KJV. Sure, it’s a little like reading Milton or Shakespeare: you have to understand how the syntax works and the archaic language is a stumbling block for some but the poetry of it is incredibly powerful. No matter what version of the Bible is used in the service, in my mind I translate it back into the Old English: the shepherds marvel as “the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid;” the angel assures them “I bring you good tidings of great joy;” and also “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

    Thanks for sharing that, Trav! And Merry Christmas!

    Like

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