Wednesday, January 04, 2017
More Hitchens on the King James Version
I recently did a post citing Christopher Hitchens’ admiring comments on the King James Version in his memoir Hitch-22.
This week I ran across his May 2011 article in Vanity Fair on the KJV titled When the King Saved God, which offers more expansive insights into the celebrated atheist’s admiration for the Authorized Version [the article also appears in Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2011): 687-696].
Near the beginning, Hitchens writes:
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.
He expresses his admiration for the King James Version’s timelessness and its contribution to a unified field of reference for English speakers:
Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, o King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, o king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
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 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?
He closes by lamenting the proliferation of modern English translations:
Not to over-prize consensus, it does possess certain advantages over randomness and chaos. Since the appearance of the so-called “Good News Bible,” there have been no fewer than 48 English translations published in the United States. And the rate shows no sign of slackening. Indeed, the trend today is toward what the trade calls “niche Bibles.” These include the “Couples Bible,” “One Year New Testament for Busy Moms,” “Extreme Teen Study Bible,” “Policeman’s Bible,” and—somehow unavoidably—the “Celebrate Recovery Bible.” (Give them credit for one thing: the biblical sales force knows how to “be fruitful and multiply.”) In this cut-price spiritual cafeteria, interest groups and even individuals can have their own customized version of God’s word. But there will no longer be a culture of the kind which instantly recognized what Lincoln meant when he spoke of “a house divided.” The gradual eclipse of a single structure has led, not to a new clarity, but to a new Babel.
I’ve noted before the odd contemporary circumstance we find ourselves in in which the King James Version is vilified in the Religion Department but praised in the English Department. Another modern oddity is that the use and admiration of the KJV in evangelical Christian circles is somehow associated with obscurantism and anti-intellectualism.
Can we learn something from a skeptic like Hitchens about the value and beauty of the Tyndale/KJV tradition and our stewardship of it?