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The King James version of the Bible is being appropriately celebrated as a great and influential literary achievement, says Donald Feist, of Dunedin. But he questions its religious relevance today and its effectiveness in feeding Christian faith in the 21st century.
The 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible (KJB) is being widely celebrated this year. And there is much to celebrate. It was, and is, a great literary achievement that has had an influence on English language and literature that deserves to be widely celebrated.
But the primary function of any Bible translation is not to make a contribution to literature. Rather it is to nourish people in their Christian faith.
So those who have been singing the praises of the KJB would have done well to have paid more attention to how much it has contributed, in its time, and in following centuries, to the faith and understanding, the private devotion and public worship, of English-speaking people. Where does the KJB stand in this respect after 400 years?
Here are some reflections of one person of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The poetry I was taught at school 60-70 years ago was all written by dead people, who had lived in a world very different from the small town New Zealand that I knew. History, too, was mostly about things long ago and far away. The same thing was true for me of the version of the Bible we used.
To take an example from it more or less at random: "Unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid him not to take thy coat also." These words could roll magnificently off the tongue when read aloud in church on Sunday, but the language and form of it told me clearly that it did not belong in my Monday morning world. Just as the God I heard about belonged in a heavenly world that was totally outside my experience, so too I felt that the Bible belonged somewhere long ago and far away.
The copy of the KJB I use, with imitation leather cover and gilt edges, was given to me by my parents the day I left home to start university. After more than 50 years, it is still in quite good condition, because it has mostly stayed on the shelf, untouched.
Indirectly, the KJB has certainly had enormous influence on me, because it has so much influenced the hymns and prayers of the Church, as well as English language and literature more generally. It has almost been part of the air I breathed.
But I find it hard to be sure about its direct influence, and about how far that influence has been positive, and how far negative.
Part of this difficulty is that I have nearly always chosen to bypass the KJB ever since I was able to. Knox Church, here in Dunedin, presented me with a copy of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) when I was licensed as a preacher of the Gospel at the end of 1956, which was just four years after it had been published. It was for me a big advance on what had been the best available before that. It said, for example: "To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well."
The Good News Bible, and the Jerusalem Bible became available 10 years later (1966), although I remember that with a 4th form Scripture class at John McGlashan College in 1955, the boys' attention was very much better than usual when I read to them Old Testament stories from James Moffatt's lively and idiomatic Bible translation, which had been published 30 years before.
At issue here is not merely updating the language or keeping up with fashions in typeface and printing, but rather, taking account of the major changes in our world view that have come with the huge developments in the sciences and in history since the 17th century.
This is the main reason modern versions have helped me to see that the human experience of the psalmists and of Job was no different from human experience today. In them, the passion in the preaching of Amos or Jeremiah, the direct down-to-earthness - and at times the sly humour - of many of Jesus' stories, or the deep human concern of Paul for the friends he was writing to, have come through to me, unclouded by the archaic layout, style, vocabulary and world view of the KJB.
Essentially the same thing has been happening for me, more recently, with hymns. I have found that those written by Colin Gibson or Shirley Murray, in particular, are grounded in and relate to my New Zealand world and my 21st-century experience, more directly and more deeply than European hymns from the 13th or 17th or 19th centuries ever did. No matter how well suited the Bible translations and the hymns of earlier centuries may have been to their time and their part of the world, they have been markedly less effective in communicating with me.
I do not doubt that there are some people today for whom a living and relevant Christian faith can still be expressed in, and nourished by, the beautiful language of the KJB. But for me, and for many others who are, or who used to be, within the Church, the KJB - beautiful as it certainly is - is less effective and less useful than modern versions are. And for people of the 21st century who have not grown up within the Church, it is even more likely that the KJB is now, in 2011, well past its "best before" date.
The eulogising of the KJB that I have read this year has mostly been praising the beauty of its language, its influence in our literature, and on our greatest speech-makers - and I agree with them about all of that. But let's be honest with ourselves about the specifically religious relevance today, and the effectiveness in feeding Christian faith in the 21st century, of this great 17th-century literary achievement.