Reading the Bible through a Glass Darkly

By Fulford, Robert | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Reading the Bible through a Glass Darkly


Fulford, Robert, Queen's Quarterly


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When I take a few moments to read in the King James Version the stirring, poetic and sweetly reasonable wisdom of Ecclesiastes, or the often disagreeable but brilliantly pronounced theology of St Paul, I feel, for a moment, both awkward and self-conscious. I'm sure I'm not alone. Every unbeliever who spends time reading the seventeenth-century English version of the Bible, the one we familiarly call the KJV, must at times feel like a kind of intruder. There's something slightly perverse in the private, impious and altogether worldly way we adopt, as if it were our own possession, a book for which millions of people fought and died and which many more embraced as their lifelong guide to existence. Those who set down the text of the KJV, and those who spent generations carefully spreading it through the English-speaking world, did not intend it for such as we.

The KJV harbours a multitude of qualities that turn writing into art. Its hundreds of pages are filled with metaphors, symbols, analogies, rhetorical speech, and tribal sagas, braided into a long and rewarding series of mythologies. But what right have we to call it literature when it was first of all something quite different--and, in a sense, more serious? When new editions of the Bible appear, usually for the purpose of clarifying scripture and sorting out mistakes made in the KJV, what right have we to demean these earnest projects by comparing them with the KJV?

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Why did Christopher Hitchens (that eminent atheist) feel entitled to brush aside "the flat banality of the so-called New English Bible"? In 2003, reviewing God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson, he said that in revising the Bible these "committees of English and American Protestantism came together and threw a pearl away richer than all their tribe," the KJV. He was taking his stand as a friend of literature, grateful to organized Christianity for giving him the KJV and prepared to defend its virtues against any inferior replacement.

Literary people have often protested against offences committed by biblical scholars in the interests of religious understanding. Consider a famous passage from 1 Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly." In 1961 the New English Bible put it this way: "When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and my thoughts were childish. When I grew up, I had finished with childish things. Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror."

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Dwight Macdonald, a sharp-eyed American essayist and a KJV partisan, said that coming upon those words was like finding a parking lot where a great church once stood. In the seventeenth century the KJV translators seem to have decided that St Paul's Greek meant we all, even as adults, can see life (this life or the next one) at best partially. But they may have had other meanings in mind. When they were doing their work, from 1604 to 1611, "darkly" could be a synonym for secretly, sombrely, mysteriously, dimly--or gloomy. Like many KJV passages, that brief translation has enjoyed a spectacular secondary career on the farther shores of modern culture. Perhaps because it seems to our minds both attractive and ambiguous, "Through a Glass Darkly" has become the title of at least two rock albums, at least four TV episodes, a chamber symphony, a mystery story by Donna Leon, an American priest's book on US policy in Guatemala, a report on alcohol from the British Methodist Church, an Ingmar Bergman film--and a poem by General George Patton. Perhaps St Paul was in fact referring to the relatively primitive mirrors of his time; perhaps the 1961 scholars felt they were putting things right, but in the last fifty years "puzzling reflections in a mirror" has made no similar impact on anyone's imagination.

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