In my last letter from the manse, I mentioned that the Queen had spoken about the anniversary in her Christmas broadcast. Since then the BBC has given over a Sunday on radio 4 to readings from the AV.
Literally hundreds of events are planned across the UK, and indeed the world, to mark the anniversary.
Celebrating the Authorised Version
It’s all very odd. A society that for decades has sidelined the Bible suddenly wants to shout what a wonderful book it is (at least when it’s read in a 400 year old translation). Hospitals refuse to allow Bibles to be placed in bedside lockers, children in schools rarely hear the Bible read or quoted, open-air preachers who quote “offensive” passages from the Bible are arrested. And yet, in 2011, broadcasters and politicians are falling over themselves to point out that the Bible has been the single greatest influence in shaping our national life. The King James Bible Trust was established last year to celebrate the anniversary of the AV (or as they prefer to call it, the King James Bible). Its website declares boldly: “There have been few more important single publications and its impact through history has been colossal”.
A galaxy of celebrities, with Prince Philip in their midst, gathered at the Banqueting House, Whitehall on the 23rd November last year for the launch of the Trust. BBC presenter Katie Derham opening the event, declared that the King James Bible is “a work of such enormous social and political significance…” and a host of the great and good clapped their agreement. Many well-known public figures have lent their support to the Trust:
- Melvyn Bragg (broadcaster and writer) “There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible, not Shakespeare, set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.”
- Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) spoke of : “the supreme place it plays in our history and culture… one of the greatest pieces of world literature…”
- Andrew Motion (till recently the Poet Laureate): “The Bible is read by people of all ages and backgrounds… to read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity”.
- Ben Bradshaw (Labour politician and homosexual activist): “The influence of the Bible on our cultural and literary life is impossible to exaggerate and it’s wonderful that it’s being celebrated here today”.
- Richard Dawkins (evolutionary scientist and campaigner for atheism): “You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible… people don’t know that proverbial phrases which make echoes in their minds come from this Bible. We are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture and not to know the King James Bible, is to be in some small way, barbarian”.
Some surprising names in that list! Who would have guessed that Richard Dawkins was so keen that children should be familiar with the Bible? As far as I know, none of these figures who love the KJB so much has shown any affection for the Christian gospel or for Biblical morality. Yet they applaud the KJB for its literary power and its historical significance.
Listening to lovesongs
“As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD’. My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice… indeed to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice…” (Ezekiel 33:30-32).
The Israelites loved to listen to Ezekiel’s preaching. They admired the beauty of his language, the power of his oratory. But they never took his message to heart. They never believed his warnings or put his exhortations into practice. They listened to him just the way they would have listened to a fine musician singing love songs.
It is possible to listen to any part of the Bible with just that attitude. The celebrities who gathered at the Banqueting House applauded the readings from the KJB. Why? Because they found the 400 year old phrases so beautiful? Or because they were conscious that this was a word from God to them?
It reminds me again of King Herod. He loved to listen to John the Baptist’s preaching (Mark 6:20). He too could admire profound ideas and the passionate preaching. But he had no intention of applying John’s message to himself.
And what about the people who thronged to hear Jesus? Jesus was conscious that many of them listened to him, found his words interesting or moving, but never put them into practice. How often we’ve seen that as we’ve gone through Luke’s gospel on Sunday mornings.
I’m told that Dr Lloyd-Jones once said, “The word of God is to be applied not applauded”. How tragic it would be if in this anniversary year, God’s word is applauded up and down our land, but never applied. How sad if folk celebrated the King James Bible as a work of literature rather than as the living Word of God.
A providential masterpiece
The King James Bible/Authorised Version is a great translation of the Scriptures. It is an amazing example of God’s overruling providence that such a translation should have come into being in the way that it did. A foul-mouthed and homosexual king commissioned the translation for his own corrupt ends. His chief motive was to undermine the cause of Puritan, Biblical Christianity. He hated the Geneva Bible with its evangelical, Calvinist notes, and wanted to supplant it with a Bible that would uphold his claims to semi-divine status. He drove out from the Church of England the consistent Puritans who could not accept the anti-evangelical elements in the Prayer Book. He ensured that the list of translators was dominated by anti-Puritan clerics who would obey his instructions. At many points, the translation betrays that anti-Puritan bias. And yet it remains a masterpiece.
Though it took many years for evangelical Christians to accept it, it became the Bible of the English speaking world. Countless men, women and children have been saved listening to the words of the “King James Version”. And as our friends from the King James Bible Trust have declared, it has shaped our language, our culture and our national identity. It is a powerful, dignified, moving, beautiful translation.
The Authorised Version: too beautiful?
So why don’t I use it when I’m preaching? After all, I grew up on it and until I was in my late teens, I never used any other translation. And yet when our work began in Stockport, from the start I chose to preach from a different, modern version. There were a number of reasons for that. (I gave some of those reasons in a letter from the manse in October 2002 – gbcstockport.org.uk/manse/which-bible-translation).
But one of the most important reasons was this – I had realised that the Authorised Version is too beautiful. Many people are lulled and soothed by its poetic wording and cadences, when they should be cut to the heart by the sharp edges of God’s truth. It’s too easy for people to admire its literary grace when they should be wincing at its uncomfortable challenge.
If you saw your child about to knock a pan of boiling water over himself, would you shout “Get back! Don’t touch it?” or would you say “I beseech thee, stretch not forth thy hand toward that vessel”? Which would be more effective in making him realise that he’s in danger? We need to use the clearest, plainest words we can to make people aware of the seriousness of their situation before God. Why use the word “trespasses” when we mean “sins”? Why tell people to “take heed” if we want them to “pay attention”? When the Bible is read, we don’t want people to say, “how beautiful, how poetic”. We want them to go away, shocked by what it actually says. Even the story of the cross can become “beautiful” and “poetic” when it’s wrapped in the language of the AV. It can become a story (as Dorothy Sayers put it) of “sacred personages, living in a far-off land and time, using dignified rhythms of speech, making from time to time restrained gestures symbolic of brutality”. But when Paul told the story of the cross people didn’t think it was beautiful – they thought it was stupid and shameful. And yet, to those who were being called, it was “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). If we want the message of the cross to be powerful, we need to tell it in the simplest, plainest language we can.
The more that Richard Dawkins and Boris Johnson praise the AV for its beauty and cultural importance, the more sure I am that it’s not the translation we should be using week by week!
An opportunity not to be missed
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m glad if people’s attention is being drawn to the Bible, regardless of what translation is used. I’d prefer for them to hear it in a plainer (and more accurate) translation than the AV. But I was thrilled as I listened to the gospels being read on radio 4 two weeks ago. And I am excited that schools, university departments, public libraries, town halls will be hosting events highlighting the importance of the King James Bible. I hope countless people will knock the dust off grandma’s Bible and start to read it. I’m praying that God will awaken many people as they read the KJB, or listen to it being read. And I want us to think of ways in which we as a church can use this 400th anniversary. Should we organise a Bible exhibition and invite in the local schools? Should we produce a leaflet with select passages from the AV, and deliver it round the doors? Should we simply order lots of copies of the Authorised Version and give them away to all our friends? Please, give us your ideas. Talk to the deacons, or to Geoff or myself.
It was a wonderful act of kindness to our nation when God stirred a wicked king to commission the Authorised Version. Let’s not forget to give thanks for it. It’s a remarkable providence that God has stirred so many public figures to celebrate the Authorised Version four hundred years later. Let’s not fail to make use of the interest that’s been generated. But above all, whether we choose to use the AV or another version, let’s make sure that we treasure the words of Holy Scripture, store them up in our hearts and obey them.