Poetry and faith

Well, Christmas is over for another year. The magic was slightly askew for me this year, through no fault of Christmas’s, but rather because of the habit some people have of dying right before the festive season.

But never mind about that. What was remarkable about Christmas for me this year was the dissatisfaction I felt in the most solemn part of the celebrations wherever I went. Before I go on, let me admit my age here. I have obviously reached that point in my life when I can look back on my formative years and creak “In my day …”. Forty might be the new thirty, but the difference between what people do between now and the 1970s is still enough to make one nostalgic for that appears to be wholly alien to what exists today.

What I’m talking about is the habit that we have here, in this resolutely Christian society, to read the relevant passages from the Bible about the birth of Christ. The only thing is that they are not the beautiful passages that I remember from my childhood, that haunted me with their music before I comprehended their meaning, that Handel immortalized in The Messiah, that taught me Latin without my ever having to learn it.

The offending passage this year was Luke 2:1-20, which in my head begins like this:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed …

The entire nation, it would seem, has moved from the King James Version of the Bible to plainer, apparently clearer translations. The overwhelming favourite appears to be the New International Version, which is considered the most accurate of the translations for the New Testament (the New English Bible, apparently, is the most accurate of the Old, or at least it was when I was dabbling in theology back in the 1980s; and its prose is admittedly pretty good). And so we had tales of censuses being taken of the entire Roman world, of people having to be registered, of God being pleased with people on whom his favour rests.

Now all this may be well and good, and accurate and all that, but it isn’t bloody beautiful. And if there’s nothing else the King James Version of the Bible was, it was beautiful. Like the scriptures from which it was taken, it was inspiring in the very quality of its writing — a quality so great that its prose was elevated to poetry.  These days, we appear to have sacrificed poetry for clarity, and in so doing, we miss half the message.  The Jacobeans and the Elizabethans before them understood that the form of something was as important as its content — something that we, in this cynical age of packaging and advertisement, where form is designed to entice and deceive, not illuminate the essential quality of the content, ignore, probably correctly. And so when they expressed their faith, they did so as beautifully as they knew how.

That’s why the King James Version, for all its inaccuracies, was the most abiding of all English translations of the Bible, and why, today, its passages stick in my head like quotations from Shakespeare. The music of them spoke for the faith as much as what they said; and today, with translations being prepared by scholars who are by no means masters of their language, the Scriptures are as dry and tasteless as crackers.

Give me the King James version any day, and a good commentary. I’ll do the work and get it right. In the meantime, I’ll glean the meaning from the music.


4 thoughts on “Poetry and faith

  1. Amen to all that. KJV rules! I have the same feeling about the Book of Common Prayer. The 1662 version. Not the creepy dumbed-down slang version that passes for the CBP in many a church these days.

  2. Quite so.

    We dumb everything down, and then are surprised when people display gross stupidity. As though we didn’t create their vacuity with our over-caution.

  3. The New American Standard Version is more accurate than NIV, which is a cross between a paraphrase and a translation.

    The problem is, NASV is rather less readable than NIV, being sometimes more of a transliteration than a translation.

    And neither comes close to the majestic prose of the KJV. It seems that writing now must be direct, inelegant, and ‘omit unnecessary words’ to be considered good, which is why I am not a StrunkWhittian. Between the influence of the CMOS and Strunk and White, the English language as an art form has sunk to a new low, and your blog is spot on.

    Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Darby’s Free translation. J.N. Darby was the only man in centuries to have made private translations of the Scriptures into more than one language: English, French, and German. The 1881 RSV translators (it is said) used his Free translation as a check on their own work.

    Darby’s Luke 2:1-5
    ‘But it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census should be made of the habitable world. The census itself first took place when Cyrenius had the government of Syria. And all went to be inscribed in the census roll, each to his own city: and Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city Nazareth to Judaea, to David’s city, the which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be inscribed in the census roll with Mary who was betrothed to him [as his]wife, she being great with child.’

    Note his beginning of a sentence with a conjunction, and his compound sentence structure, lol.

    I have a copy I can lend you if you can’t find one.

  4. Thanks, Z.

    I forgot about the NASV. I have a copy that was my, ahem, Bible some years ago, when I preferred accuracy to literature, and then I went back to the KJV.

    The Darby sounds interesting!

    Happy New Year to you and yours.

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