Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Why would anyone forego the glory of the King James Version of The Bible when commemorating the start of World War One?

At 10.30 on Monday evening, having dutifully switched off all the lights in the house and lit a candle, we switched over to BBC Two to watch the last half hour of the Westminster Abbey candlelit service leading up the centenary of the moment Britain entered the First World War. It was all rather moving. There were some minor irritations. When an enormously moving version of The Lark Ascending – the nation’s favourite piece of classical music - is being performed, it’s probably better not to have purely factual commentary over it. And I do wish they’d stop inviting Nick Clegg to these things - let alone "Baroness" Khasi - (mercifully, if surprisingly, neither Doreen Lawrence nor Shami Chakrabarti were in attendance: someone must have slipped up).

There were several readings from The Bible, including passages from The Book Of Joel, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians and The Gospel of St John. But, instead of opting for the King James version - sonorous, majestic, poetic, mysterious, utterly beautiful – we got the prosaic, unpoetic and terminally unstirring New Revised Standard Version instead.

There is a place for new versions of the Bible. For instance, if I want to figure out the literal meaning of what’s being said – as I needed to do only last week while reading St. Paul’s mighty Epistle to the Romans - a modern version comes in very handy. But when the context of the reading requires solemnity, a sense of the sacred, and the expression of universal human truths who else but some trendy Anglican prelate would forego the glories of the King James Version for some no doubt more accurate but emotionally uncompelling variant? After all, the words of the King James Bible are the ones the men in the trenches would have heard in church or chapel or in their homes. Why willingly break that link with the past?

My favourite passage from the Bible is the deeply mystical opening of  St John's Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The power and the mystery of those words never fail to send a shiver down my spine. What we got instead was this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,a and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” fills me with a deep and lasting sense of awe. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” is so bloody dull, it’s as impossible to remember as a mobile phone number.

Still, at least they didn’t get some DJ in to do acid house remixes of Bach’s Passion Chorale and Vaughan Williams's heart-rending Kyrie Eleison. The music and the non-Biblical readings were wonderful.

4 comments:

  1. " . . at least they didn’t get some DJ in to do acid house remixes of Bach’s Passion Chorale and Vaughan Williams's heart-rending Kyrie Eleison"

    Don't give them ideas

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    1. Sorry, Umbongo - but I've already submitted a proposal for the next BBC Three commissioning round, pointing out that it would be extremely "inclusive". I don't see how they can turn me down. (Mind you, I'm still bemused by their refusal to commission my idea for Linton Kwezi Johnston and Benjamin Zephyr Zodiac to rewrite Shakespeare's plays, resetting them all in present-day Lewisham.)

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  2. A critical comparison between the King James and N.E.B. versions of 1 Corinthians was a seminal Frank Miles moment for me, and I suspect several generations of aspiring Leavisites. You included?

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    1. I can’t remember it, Martin D, but I was probably looking forward to cigarettes and coffee at morning break during that particular exercise. It would help explain why I feel so angry whenever I hear “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” instead of “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” As for the tone-deaf nincompoops who replaced “through a glass, darkly” with “in a mirror, dimly”, I hope demons are poking their self-satisfied bottoms with red-hot pokers through all eternity. I know English has changed more dramatically than most other major European languages during the past 400 years, but I wonder if go-ahead Euro-bishops have also mutilated their versions of the Bible in the name of relevance and accessibility.

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