There were strange signs and ominous portents. Forget about the world burning up in a fit of global warming, or being destroyed by spreading popular revolutions or earthquakes, or being engulfed by tsunamis. No. We are faced with a far more anomalous and alarming phenomenon: atheists saying good things about the Bible.
I recently saw a debate between the Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist Christopher Hitchens, and I wondered, once again, why it was that Christopher Hitchens is always so much more compelling as a practitioner of English than his theistic opponents. How does he manage, despite the mistaken nature of most of his beliefs about religion, to sound so bloody good? Why, by comparison, do his opponents seem so slow of speech and slow of tongue?
Now we know why Hitchens can talk circles around his debate opponents: he reads the Bible.
But not just any Bible: it is the King James Bible in particular on which Hitchens shews forth his praise. In fact, he paid it gushing homage in a recent article in Vanity Fair magazine, where he argues that the dignity of its prose, the beauty of its expression, and the appropriateness of its linguistic form to its exalted subject matter make it one of, if not the, greatest works of the English language—a “repository and edifice of language which towers above its successors.”
Oh, and he also thinks our culture is better for knowing it:
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.”
Indeed, the huge influence of the King James Bible on English is difficult to measure. David Crystal, author of Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, counts 257 common modern English expressions that derive from it. He admits, however, that he may have missed some.
Is King James English still that prominent in the modern language and culture of our day? Take just one expression, says Crystal: “my brother’s keeper,” from the account of Cain and Abel:
“Brother’s keeper,” with or without the “my,” has named over a dozen episodes in television series, such as Knight Rider (No 203), Law and Order (No 250), ER (No 85), and Tales from the Crypt (No 23). It was actually chosen as the first (pilot) episode of Miami Vice. A whole US sitcom with this name was aired in 1998–9 on ABC. … Perhaps as far as you can get from traditional biblical connotations, an American hardcore punk rock band called itself Brother’s Keeper.
As Hitchens points out, the King James Bible not only does, but should inform our speech and thought:
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? And so bleak and spare and fatalistic—almost non-religious—are the closing verses of Ecclesiastes that they were read at the Church of England funeral service the unbeliever George Orwell had requested in his will: “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home. … Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was.”
It is an unfortunate irony that, as a prominent atheist comes forward to defend the King James Bible, so many Christians should be abandoning it. In his book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, Timothy Beal has his own word picture of the plethora of modern Bible translations, referring to them as “a distressed crop: [as] when a tree is about to die and puts out tons of seeds.”
In the Biblical strife of tongues we call the modern Bible translations, there has been an attempt to be more “understandable,” and this attempt has taken the form of the systematic elimination of the living metaphors in the original text in favor of the dead abstractions of modern technical speech.
Many Protestants and Catholics have bought into the intellectually debilitating theory that bald abstract prose is a better conduit for truth than living poetic expression. But man cannot live by rational prose alone. Hitchens calls this effort “rinsing out the prose”:
When the Church of England effectively dropped King James, in the 1960s, and issued what would become the “New English Bible,” T. S. Eliot commented that the result was astonishing “in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” … This has been true of every other stilted, patronizing, literal-minded attempt to shift the translation’s emphasis from plangent poetry to utilitarian prose.
“Utilitarian prose.” That captures the problem exactly. Only someone who has been linguistically inoculated against it by reading great literature such as the King James Bible would even be able to detect it.
To say that the best approach to truth is the direct route of bald prose not only goes against the approach of the original Biblical writers, who employed vivid imagery in their writings, but is also an example of what Richard Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences, once called the “quest for immediacy”—the idea that truth must be approached like a conquering mental army, besieged and taken captive. But truth is mystery, and tearing the veil off of it reveals little. It can only be approached indirectly. Modern Bible translators goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to slaughter.
“At my father’s funeral,” says Hitchens:
I chose to read a similarly non-sermonizing part of the New Testament, this time an injunction from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
As much philosophical as spiritual … this passage was the labor of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts. I now pluck down from my shelf the American Bible Society’s “Contemporary English Version,” which I picked up at an evangelical “Promise Keepers” rally on the Mall in Washington in 1997. Claiming to be faithful to the spirit of the King James translation, it keeps its promise in this way: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.”
Pancake-flat: suited perhaps to a basement meeting of A.A., these words could not hope to penetrate the torpid, resistant fog in the mind of a 16-year-old boy, as their original had done for me.
The translator of 1611 wrote with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond. The modern translator writes with Word, published by Microsoft. And it shows.
Both modern Protestant and Catholic translations suffer greatly from the misguided attempt to serve two masters. There are two selling points on modern translations: their readability (or understandability) and their accuracy. But any attempt at being “understandable to the modern reader” can become a threat to accuracy—at least if by accuracy we mean sticking with the original words of the text. All this talk is a vain oblation, Greek scholar N. T. Wright seems to suggest. Remarking on its lack of fidelity to the original Greek, he has called one of the most popular Protestant translations “appalling.” The favored modern Catholic translation is no better.
So how shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange modern land? The first thing to do is recognize the importance—nay, the necessity—of literary expression. The King James translators themselves knew the value of this, and it is exemplified in the very prose they used to explain their goal in translating:
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered.
I had a pastor once who preached out of one of the more popular modern translations. I often taunted him (in a friendly way, of course) about the inferiority of his favored version to the King James. One Sunday, when giving a sermon on I Peter 1:13, after reading from his linguistically etiolated modern version, he was forced to take a ten minute detour, going back to the King James to get the full meaning of the passage. Here’s how the KJV accurately translates the Greek of the passage:
I Peter 1:13: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind …”
Peter is talking in this chapter of the “trial” of faith that every Christian must endure in the “heaviness of manifold temptations” that the Christian experiences during his “time of … sojourning” on this earth. In other words, at least “for a season,” we are to see ourselves in a personal battle against the evil influences of this world. And to express this, Peter uses a word picture of the soldier preparing for war.
Here’s the text with which this particular modern translation replaces (not translates) the Greek:
I Peter 1:13: “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober …”
This is an absolutely wretched way of rendering this passage. It simply does not pick up all of the meaning of the original metaphor. It can’t. If this modern version (which shall go unnamed) was so great, I asked my pastor, then why did he have to go back to the King James Version to get the full force of the passage?
The problem seems to be that modern translators simply do not understand poetic expression, and since much of the Bible—even in what is otherwise prose—is given in poetic expression, they are ill-suited to translate it. If they did understand poetic expression, they would not assume that non-metaphorical language is somehow more “accurate” or even “understandable” than metaphorical expression.
Removing the poetry of the Bible, far from making it more understandable, does the exact opposite. This is why good writers like C. S. Lewis use frequent metaphors. People who write with clarity use more, not fewer, metaphors.
Many modern translations are works of linguistic taxidermy. They claim they can deliver to readers a Bible they can understand, and assume that readers can only understand dead language (which is what purely prosaic language is). Imagine a friend telling you that he has a real tiger. But when you arrive at his house to see it, he shows you a stuffed one. You say, “But it’s dead.” He says, “Yeah, but it’s real.” “Well, it may be real, but it’s dead,” you respond. “What’s the difference?” he asks. Maybe modern translations are real translations. I rather think they are paraphrases. But if they are real translations, then they’re real dead ones—stuffed and mounted for our hermeneutical convenience by scholars who don’t know the difference between a living and a dead language.
I’m sure the translators of modern versions of the Bible are quite competent in knowing how to read Hebrew and Greek. It’s their facility with English I question.
The Biblical scholars of the 17th century were more generally literate people. The classical education of their day, which involved a deep study of the Greek and Roman prose and poetic classics, would have given them both a deeper and wider exposure to literature than that possessed by the average professor of Greek or Hebrew who staffs the translation committee of a modern Bible translation team.
There were literary giants on the earth in those days.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Orwell had the passage from the King James Bible read at his funeral. As Anthony Esolen recently pointed out, the unconscious impulse at the heart of the attempt to modernize religious language is similar to that of the Ministry of Truth in 1984. Syme, the editor of the Newspeak Dictionary, explains to the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith the purpose of the Dictionary. The word “bad,” for instance, is redundant, and should be replaced by “ungood.” Likewise, words like “excellent” and “best” are to be replaced by the “plusgood” and “doubleplusgood.”
“You think, I dare say,” says Syme, “that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone …”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says, “the destruction of words.”
Traditional language, which Syme refers to as “Oldspeak,” has no role in the brave new utilitarian world, where all things must be judged at the bar of efficiency. It lacks simplicity. It contains too many words with too many shades of meaning. “Don’t you see,” asks Syme, “that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”
Syme explains where it will all lead:
By 2050 earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.
The antidote to Orwell’s Syme is Aldous Huxley’s ironically named John the Savage. In his novel Brave New World, Huxley introduces us to an illegitimate child born into a world where pregnancy is no longer allowed, and who lives with his mother on a reservation for people who have violated the law and given birth. Both birth and books are banned. One day, John opens his mother’s trunk and discovers a volume entitled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He reads it over and over. The poetry of its words take root in his soul, and the literary vocabulary he acquires not only equips him with words to express feelings he formerly had no words to express, but helps him to discover feelings he didn’t know he had because he had no words even to think them. While the effect of Newspeak acts to “narrow the range of thought,” the effect of the literary language of Shakespeare is to widen the range, not just of expression, but of thought itself. So it is too with the King James Bible.
It has often been remarked that the language of the King James Bible is archaic. “It may have been the language people used in 1611,” we are told, “but it’s not the language we speak now.” Well, yes and no. Yes, its language is archaic, but it was certainly not the language people commonly used in 1611. As Anglican scholar Alister McGrath points out in his book In the Beginning: How the King James Bible Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, the language of the KJV was already archaic by the time it was published. Expressions that people its pages, such as the distinct “thee”s and “thou”s, as well as the suffix “-eth,” had long been abandoned in common speech.
While at first the King James Bible had to settle for being second in popularity behind the Geneva Bible, it soon overtook it, becoming popular after the Restoration, according to Jacquiline Wylde, “because it was an echo of an earlier time of Kings; by then, the language of the King James was more than old-fashioned—it sounded ancient, hallowed, and mythic.”
This is as it should be. Our language today no longer soars on wings like eagles: more and more it simply limps along in our pedestrian prose—or is positively butchered in our text messages. As educators, we are charged with introducing students to something better.
Will they like it at first? Will they understand it as well on first reading? Maybe not. But we cannot be uplifted, as Mortimer Adler once said, by something that is not above us.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2011 edition.