“A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek relentlessly 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?”
This was spoken about the King James Version of the Bible, which celebrates its 400 anniversary this year. It was spoken by one of the Hitchens men in a recent article in Vanity Fair; not Peter, the returned prodigal, but his brother Christopher, the persistent unrepentant.
It might seem strange to have Biblical virtues extolled by a non-believer, but Christopher Hitchens is not the only skeptic praising the King James Version of the Bible. And why not. Even the most atheistic must acknowledge the impact the KJV has had on the English language. It is common at this point to recognize the contribution of the KJV to our idiomatic expressions: “by the skin of his teeth”; “a man after his own heart”; “the land of the living”; “the salt of the earth”; “give up the ghost”, and many more.
But the literary contributions of the KJV are not limited to pithy phrases. Some of the most captivating speeches of American history were written with the rhythm and cadence of Elizabethan English. Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural address virtually drips of its influence:
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therin any departure from those attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope- fervently do we pray- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it should continue, until all the wealth of the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.
And even today there may be more accurate word-for- word translations available, and there are certainly more that are easier on 21st century ears, but as a people we desire words of the King James Bible to be read as the foundation of our fidelity;
‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife: and they two shall be one flesh’, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’;
as a source for courage,
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me’;
and as we stand by the open sepulchre,
I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
But there is a bigger issue here than language. If images and allegories of people can disappear over time and produce a “hip-hop Shakespeare” that leaves the culture “perilously thin”, how much more damage is done when the moral code of a culture has been eroded and separated from its authority?
Every generation has its encounter with the Tower of Babel. Ours comes in the form of a desire for a totally humanistic ethical standard, an amoral chimera that promises good behavior guaranteed by man himself. For 400 hundred years the King James Version of the Bible has been a faithful stand against such “Twitterization” of truth.