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.