Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A plea on behalf of the King James Version

There have been a great many articles about the King James Version of the Bible during and since last year's 400th anniversary, but to my mind none more eloquent and convincing that the one by Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian (!) Literature at Stanford, which appears in the Feb. 9 issue of The New York Review of Books. (You can't read the whole article unless you subscribe, so I will append a few excerpts.)

I suppose it is no use trying to persuade anyone--even St Thomas Fifth Avenue seems to have given up consistent reading from the KJV--but it is important to note that so many of the eminent thinkers and literary critics who have lamented its passing have appealed not only to the aesthetic quality of the great translation but also, and even more important, to its role in shaping our American culture at its strongest points. Prof. Harrison does a particularly good job of presenting this argument. He says, for example, that the "style of the King James Bible, which resonates so deeply in Martin Luther King's most distinctive speeches, conveys in its linguistic texture values and sensibilities that have permeated America's sense of its moral and spiritual identity." He quotes Robert Alter, writing in Pen of Iron, who observes that Cormac McCarthy, in The Road [not incidentally, one of my most favored books] "draws on the structures and something of the diction of the KJV to forge without pathos a reality whose harshness beggars the imagination." Harrison continues, "Yet [The Road] also draws on those same sources to envision restoration and renewal." [This is also true of McCarthy's lesser novel No Country for Old Men.]

As a preacher I have special interest in the shaping of sentences for maximum impact, and Prof. Harrison has a lot to say about this. For example, "...[the King James Bible] ends most of its verses with emphatic metrical stresses or resounding words..." I have struggled to impart some of this to students of preaching, but with limited success because most of them have never heard sentences like the ones Harrison is describing. He illustrates with verses chosen "more or less at random" from God's address to Job in chapters 38-39 [almost any verses from those chapters will do] and then comments,

Compared to the strong lineaments of verses such as these, most [writing] in English today shows precious little [strength] in its phrasing. Some of the factors that have contributed to the drastic decline of the art of bringing phrases to closure are clear enough. They include... our dogmatic insistence on open-endedness and the bland tones of everyday language; our predilection for understatement and uneasiness about rhetorical display; our aversion to affirmation and our cult of the whisper.

I have added italics for emphasis. I feel certain that these particular ailments have had a noticeably deleterious effect on preaching in our time, and I see little hope of that changing unless someone decides on a massive infusion of reading from the King James (and The Pilgrim's Progress is another source for learning powerfully constructed sentences--not to mention Thomas Cranmer's Prayer Book).

Harrison continues:

[Robert] Alter declares that all the subsequent, more “accessible” English translations “happen to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects.” Coming from someone who has published highly acclaimed new translations of many books of the Hebrew scriptures...that statement says quite a lot.

And I will just quote one more paragraph:

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became part of America’s sacred scripture because the sonority of its words, the dignity of its diction, and the cadences of its sentences reprised and incorporated the rhythms and tones of the King James Bible. Lincoln’s deliberately archaic opening phrase—”Four score and seven years ago”—in its echo of the King James Bible’s “three score and ten,” gives a rhetorical weight to the span of time that had elapsed between the Republic’s founding and its Civil War, in a way that “Eighty-seven years ago” could not have conveyed. Likewise his closing phrase, “shall not perish from the earth,” with its echoes of Job, Jeremiah, and Micah, confers on the sacrifice of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg a moral elevation that their cause, in the American psyche of the time, could not have derived from any other source.

The essay continues with an astonishing assessment of the way St. Paul uses language. Indeed, what Harrison writes about I Cor. 1 is extraordinary coming from someone who, as far as I know, has had no theological training. If this analysis is any guide, Harrison understands Paul a lot better than many who have had such training.

It is my hope that these few reflections and quotations from a remarkably impassioned and well-argued essay will persuade at least a few to rethink our wholesale abandonment of the King James Bible.