Joyce McMillan: Bible means more than just words

A fundamental part of faith, history and comfort in this country at risk of being lost

EARLIER THIS YEAR, before a family funeral service, I spent an hour or two struggling with the business of biblical translation and interpretation. I knew that I wanted to read the great, familiar text about love from the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels...”. And I knew that I wanted to read it in the King James Version, or something very like it; incredibly, some modern versions of this text do not include the great phrase, “For now we see through a glass darkly...”, and have replaced it with banal stuff about dim mirrors.

The difficulty, though, is that the King James Version contains one famous misjudgment, in that the translators of 1611 chose to use the cold word “charity” rather than “love”; and so I had to get typing, and create a version that retained all the poetry of the King James Bible, but made no mistake about the centrality of love. In doing this, I was being a little bold, of course; but I was also continuing my own living relationship with the language and thought of the Bible, which began when I was a Sunday-school child in the 1950s, and is still evolving today.

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And I thought about that deep, taken-for-granted relationship again on Wednesday of this week, when the Queen went to Westminster Abbey to lead a service of celebration for the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, commissioned by her ancestor King James VI and I.

In the abbey, she heard the Archbishop of Canterbury preach an interesting sermon on the Authorised Version, and how its poetry somehow reflects the “almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love” contained within the text.

The truth is, though, that both the archbishop, who is 61, and the Queen – who is two decades older – belong, like me, to those fast-fading generations who, without necessarily making any special claims to faith, were routinely offered the sound and sense of the King James Bible week after week, in public readings in church and at school services, and through the medium of familiar psalms and hymns; and who therefore absorbed its poetry as part of the bedrock of our experience, and of our common cultural inheritance.

Now, though, many people in our secular society grow up with no knowledge of the Bible at all; and two thousand years of rich cultural reference is lost to them, including the four centuries of shared language and poetry, in this one version of the Bible, that were celebrated this week.

And although this seems in some ways like a footnote of a story, far from the centre of current public life, the sheer depth of its cultural and poltiical resonances becomes obvious, as soon as we start to unravel some of the reasons for this abrupt break with a tradition which, only two generations ago, still seemed so firmly established in British society.

The most obvious reason, of course, involves the general secularisation of western culture, and the rapid shift – beginning in the 18th century, but gathering speed since the Second World War – from a broadly faith-based society, to one driven almost entirely by various forms of scientific materialism.

It’s also worth noting, though, that the coming of the King James Bible was profoundly associated with the revolution that saw Britain, in the 16th and 17th centuries, steadily transformed from a Catholic society to a strongly Protestant one, proud of its independent national churches, Anglican or Presbyterian. It’s no accident that this version of the Bible was enthusiastically commissioned by the wily James, the Scottish monarch who ascended the English throne in 1603, and who wanted to unite Scotland and England as two Protestant nations free to read the Bible in translation, yet without the excesses of religious radicalism associated with some earlier English versions.

In that sense, the commissioning of the King James Bible – started in 1604, completed in 1611 – was one of the founding acts of the cultural Union between Scotland and England; and the gradual fading of that text from its central place in everyday British life is an eloquent sign of the wider process of cultural change that has weakened the Union, and slackened the ties of allegiance and purpose that once bound it together.

It is likely, in other words, that there is no going back, so far as the King James Version is concerned. The old-fashioned, British-establishment look of this week’s Westminster celebrations marks it out one of the cultural buttresses of an old and fading political order. And even the most intense contemporary creative responses to the text, such as David Mach’s astonishing exhibition Precious Light, seen in Edinburgh this year, tend to come from slghtly older artists; Mach is 55 this year.

Yet it’s perhaps worth pausing to remember the story of this most influential of English texts, and its immeasurable global impact, before we finally consign it to the dusty library of history.

On one hand, the sheer speed of its decline, as a part of everyday life in Britain, offers us a key to understanding some of the most powerful continuing tensions in Scottish society, particularly among those to whom the Protestant and Unionist tradition mattered most, in terms of their identity.

And on the other, the power and beauty of the text remains as a reminder that nothing about the Union of England and Scotland was ever simple, in its balance of positive and negative consequences; and that the Union too – often dismissed as a mere heartless political arrangement – had its strong cultural dimensions, and its power, over time, to gather a rich set of emotional associations around it.

If King James’s pragmatic Protestantism was one of the foundation stones of that Union, then it is perhaps no surprise, in this post-religious age, that the whole structure now seems so uncertain. Yet still, it’s to that Bible that millions like me continue to look, for our deepest words of mourning, thanksgiving and hope; and if that inheritance is finally to fade into history, we would be wise to recognise the extent of our loss, even as we accept the inevitability of change.