My Grandmother’s Bible
Until her death at the age of ninety, my maternal grandmother was the most important influence in my life. Her warmth, intelligence, and good humor, were balanced with a healthy sense of right and wrong (she had a devilish swing with a hedge switch) and a deep faith. She was a big woman, with a bosom ample enough a small child could disappear into it without trace. Her kitchen and her garden drew her family to her house, making it a kind of domestic shrine.
Several months ago, as we were packing up my childhood home (which was roughly a hundred yards from my late grandmother’s), preparing for my mother’s move to Saint Simons Island, we came across my grandmother’s Bible. Since then I’ve kept it on the desk in my apartment in New Orleans. It is my primary go-to resource each week as I write the call to worship and various prayers for our Sunday worship services.
The English translation of her Bible is, of course, the Authorized Version (as it is known in the Church of England) or the King James Version (as it is known in most of the world beyond the Anglican Communion). Contrary to some old (and one hopes apocryphal) jokes it was not the version spoken by Jesus. And contrary to what I’ve heard some folks believe, it was not translated by King James I of England (who was also King James IV of Scotland). I’ll leave all of that to one side, however, because the less said about King James the better. The translation miraculously was produced by a committee. Miraculously, I would say, because of the beauty of its language.
C.S. Lewis has noted that most divinity students have a better grasp of New Testament Greek than the KJV translators, which means that either the committee’s Greek was pretty bad or the divinity students Lewis knew at Oxford were better linguists than those students I’ve been acquainted with in Presbyterian seminaries. Lewis also observed that the committee’s Hebrew skills were even less developed than their skills in Greek. That seems a shame since there were rabbis all over Europe who could have helped them with the Old Testament. The translators were schooled in Latin, the lingua franca of the church and academy of their time; their English, therefore, was a hybrid of the vernacular and the sacred, the Anglo-Saxon and a Latinized English liberally infused with French.
What the translators excelled at were the things that have made this translation endure while other translations (sometimes much more technically competent) have come and gone: an unparalleled and unerring poetic intuition; a profound reverence in the presence of the Holy as given expression in the witness of scripture; and an ability to render the heart of the biblical message in an English which communicates in a way that no other texts have ever accomplished before or after. Not even Shakespeare could rival the cadences and distinctive rhetoric of the King James Bible, though both date roughly from the same era.
When national leaders have reached for the stars, as Abraham Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Address, it was the King James Bible that built the ladder. And when we wish to speak to the broken human heart in our own broken tongue, it is the King James Bible that provides the words, from “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”(Ps. 23: 4) to “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”(Rom. 8:37)
When “The angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” we know it’s really an angel. The language and the punctuation tell us so. Nobody talks like this but angels! And nobody but an angel can get away with those oddly placed commas and colons. The grandeur and holiness of the moment demand something more than “Look!” Or worse, “See,” as though the angel has been replaced with Edward G. Robinson playing a gangster ready to pull out a Thompson machine gun to blow away the Holy Family.
Some of us received our first lessons in irony (though we were unconscious of the fact), not from reading Jane Austen, but by reading passages like, “Suffer the little children to come unto me” (Matt. 19:14), which convey just the right sting of exhortation to a group of clueless disciples. “Let the little children come to me” doesn’t carry the double-edged sword of ironic goading, anymore than “If you would only let God guide you,” which has replaced the more subtle, “If thou but suffer God to guide thee.” (But, let’s not get me started on the modern reworking of classic hymn texts, which could only have been done by laconic civil servants on Valium.)
Our Anglican friends know that the only text which has ever rivaled the King James Bible in lyrical holiness is the “Book of Common Prayer,” which, until it fell under the spell of those committed to making all language as hollow and pedantic as IKEA instructional guidelines, gave us phrases of almost magical power.* There was something admirable about those church leaders, like Thomas Cranmer, sometimes fatally compromised by their high positions, who did their work under the constant threat of capricious and cruel monarchs itching to light a match to the next bonfire of clerical trouble-makers. Their struggle to render unto Caesar his (or her) due, while rendering under God that which belongs solely to God, gave us texts that not only soar into the clouds, but bleed real blood.
Affection for the King James Version of the Bible is not universal, of course. Several years ago, I caused a New Testament scholar to start rolling in the aisles, barking at the pews, and having conniption fits when I explained at the beginning of a sermon at Austin Seminary that I had chosen to use the King James translation of the text instead of a translation directly from the Koine Greek, because the King James translation mis-translated the passage in an interesting way. He almost came unglued when he didn’t get a chance for rebuttal; such is the privilege of the Protestant pulpit.
Of course, I’m not arguing that linguistic scholarship and historical critical studies are unimportant. They are fundamentally important. Otherwise I would not have gotten my B.A. degree majoring in biblical studies and minoring in New Testament Greek even before going to seminary. But I am arguing that there’s something missing in the reverence and awe department when not only does a biblical translation render our prayers to God as though we were talking to a fishing chum, but when it renders God’s Word to us as though it was our fishing chum responding.
Clive James once wrote, “The King James Bible is a prose masterpiece compiled at a time when even a committee could write English. The modern versions, done in the name of comprehension, add up to an assault on readability. [T. S.] Eliot said that the Revised Standard Version was the work of men who did not realize they were atheists. The New English Bible [which is commonly used in many Church of England and Church of Scotland parishes today] was worse than that: Dwight Macdonald [in his review of the NEB] had to give up looking for traces of majesty and start looking for traces of literacy.” Then Clive James goes on to explain why the majesty of the Bible matters so much to him.
“For me, the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against the pervasive falsehoods of advertising, social engineering, moral uplift, [and] demagogic politics.” But, even more than this, he continues: “Those of us brought up as Protestants, but who later lapsed, found out, when the doors closed behind us, that we hadn’t lapsed quite as far as we thought. We had lapsed into unbelief, but not into stupidity, and the spectacle of our one-time cradle rocking to the clappy-happy rhythms of half-witted populism was a betrayal of something that had once impressed us at least enough to invite rebellion. I don’t want the teachings of Jesus taken from me. He might no longer be my redeemer, but he is still my master…. It is true that Jesus never spoke the language of the King James Version of the New Testament. But the language of the King James Version is of a poetic intensity congruent with the impact Jesus must once have made on simple souls, of whom I am still one: simple enough, anyway, to need my sins forgiven.”**
When I read my grandmother’s Bible, I am struck by the fact that I am turning the pages of the holy book that belonged to a person who believed with her whole heart that she needed redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness, not just advice on self-improvement. She depended on grace, mercy and loving-kindness, and she believed that loving God is related to loving our neighbors as ourselves, and that no matter how hard the commandments handed down by Moses are to obey, and even harder the summaries of the law placed on the lips of Jesus, believing and obeying are not just matters of custom, but of life and death, eternal in both cases. My grandmother would have been the first to confess that she wasn’t a biblical scholar, but she had schooled herself to trust where she couldn’t understand, and to love even when she would have preferred not to. And I’m not sure she could have developed a faith that was able to resist her own strong preferences had it not echoed the ancient Temple through the voice-box of a seventeenth century Anglican Cathedral.
Someone once told me that the best way to learn to pray extemporaneously is to write long-hand each morning copying-out a few pages a day of the Prophet Isaiah or of the Psalms or of the Sermon on the Mount from the King James Version of the Bible. He was right. And it did shape my life of public prayer. I have a hunch it didn’t hurt other parts of my life either.
*Allow me to site just one random example from a “pre-modernized” prayer from The Book of Common Prayer: “O God, who declared thy almighty power most chiefly in shewing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakes of thy heavenly treasures; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
**Clive James,”Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts” (New York: Norton, 2007), pp. 488-490.