Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Authorised Version

One of the finest and most consistently intelligent Catholic blogs The Thirsty Gargoyle comments unfavourably on Michael Gove’s apparent intention to send every school in England a copy of the King James Bible. Noting that Richard Dawkins is a fan of the KJV, The Thirsty Gargoyle continues:

It seems the Education Secretary is on the same page as Professor Dawkins on this matter. He may be an Anglican rather than an Atheist, but it can hardly be on confessional grounds that he proposes that Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and secular schools should have specifically Anglican versions of the Bible on their shelves. To him the King James Bible is a cultural resource around which all English people should be able to unite.

The problem, of course, is that despite what Mister Gove may think and what Professor Dawkins may claim, that’s not what the Bible’s for, and it should bother Christians to see any version of it being promoted as such. The King James Bible may well have supplied rhythms and metaphors for three centuries of English writers, but it was not created with such an end in mind, and it is profoundly disrespectful to the Bible to dragoon it into the service of a nostalgic nationalism or to reduce it to a mere piece of literature, no matter how beautiful…

If we care about the Bible, we should care about how it's taught. This is a bad idea.

There a few issues here that could do with being separated out. Firstly, there is the question of the effectiveness of sending one book to every school in England. Over the years, my own children have been subject to various dishings out of free books at school. I have a vague memory of at least one of them getting a book when a new born on the ground that it would encourage him to read. I’m not at all sure that such tokenistic schemes ever work, and, on that level, I’m not at all sure that sending a book to every school will lead to more than another random volume gathering dust somewhere in a school cupboard.

But putting aside the effectiveness of the suggestion, is it a good idea to promote study of the KJV within schools? If, say, schools were really encouraged to think carefully about how to bring the book into the school curriculum, would this be a good or bad thing? The Gargoyle is surely right in pointing out that some ways of teaching the Bible would be clearly wrong from a Catholic point of view. If, eg, a course was designed by the National Secular Society which studied the Bible simply to expose its internal contradictions and its childish world view, no Catholic would think this a good thing. But Gove’s suggestion doesn’t seem to be quite that:

It's a thing of beauty, and it's also an incredibly important historical artefact. It has helped shape and define the English language and is one of the keystones of our shared culture. And it is a work that has had international significance. Guardian

Now again, one could imagine using the KJV as a basis for a sort of extreme Christian British Nationalism, and, again, that would be something that no Catholic should accept. But Gove’s words don’t support this interpretation: instead he simply seems to be suggesting emphasizing a) its central place in English history; b) its literary beauty; c) its defining role in a shared (English? British?) culture. Of these, a) seem pretty unobjectionable: the Bible and in particular the KJV has been historically important. c) is clearly the most problematic, but to note that it is problematic is not to deny its truth. It has been a key element in promotion of a British, Protestant culture. To note that, and to think about that is not to endorse that. Gove presumably is going to be rather more favourably inclined to the idea of a Protestant, British culture than either I or the Gargoyle is going to be. So if the KJV is going to be used as a prop for the promotion of a rather dumb version of Protestant Unionism, it wouldn’t be a good thing. But that goes beyond anything that has been actually suggested. Gove will pen a couple of lines for an introduction. The Bibles will be sent out. Nothing appears to have been said about what schools should do with them and, whilst I would concur with the point that they shouldn’t use them to promote British, Protestant Nationalism, there are many other things that schools could do with them which are both serious and worthwhile.

So we are left with b): its literary beauty. Here, the Gargoyle seems to be worried about its being reduced to a mere piece of literature. Again, one can imagine ways in which this could be done badly: a course based on showing that it was just a well written piece of fiction, would be objectionable. However, what seems more likely is that any course of study would involve studying it (to use the religious studies jargon) as an outsider rather than as an insider who believed in its status as holy writ.

Undoubtedly, this can be corrupting of religious belief. Perhaps one of the key ways in which modernity eviscerates religious belief is by studying it. When I went round the Museum of Scotland with my children, I fumed (inwardly and out loud) about the sort of notice affixed to items of Christian worship which always managed to be expressed in the past tense: ‘Catholics used this in the Mass. They believed that…’etc. Little by little, we become that outsider, staring in at the bizarre and colourful antics of a long dead tribe. Charmed, perhaps, but only by the memory of a thing long gone. But such an attitude is so deeply involved in so much of the Western education system, both in schools and universities, that the addition of the KJV to the pile of primitive art to be scrutinized at an emotional and intellectual distance raises few new problems. On any assessment simply of historical or literary value, the KJV deserves a place in the curriculum, particular for any child destined to study the humanities beyond school. If the outsider attitude is the problem, then that is not solved by excluding the KJV, any more than it would be solved by excluding study of any British history.

Turning to the literary merit of the KJV, again, there are a number of issues to be separated out. There is much to be said for simply understanding and knowing the Bible: an acquaintance with its stories is at the very least useful in the appreciation of much Western art. To an extent, the archaic nature of the KJV both supports and undermines such an endeavour. It supports it by encouraging attention to its aesthetic rather than theological qualities. It undermines it by making comprehension more difficult. On the other hand, there is the aesthetic quality of the KJV edition itself. Parts of it are, straightforwardly, beautifully written. Parts of it have taken on a resonance by familiarity and being built into the foundations of the English language. As a document of modern English in a key formative stage, it is valuable simply as an exercise in historical linguistics.

The main suspicions about Gove’s use of the KJV rather than some more modern translation centre on the two issues of aestheticism and traditionalism in religion. Certainly, there are dangers in both. It is quite possible to become intent on cultural values at the expense of service to God. This is a danger that can be observed in modern Anglo-Catholicism (where a focus on form is sometimes achieved at the expense of any substantive tradition in ethics or theology) and in traditional Catholic circles where beautiful liturgy is sometimes purchased at the cost of embracing the attitude once referred to in Anglican circles as ‘spiky’. But to note that there are dangers in the aesthetic and the traditional is not to claim that they are essentially harmful. Any religion such as Catholicism which claims that God is manifest in the forms of the created world needs to think seriously about aesthetics. Any religion which is founded upon a deposit of faith given to the Apostles and to be handed on intact needs to think seriously about tradition. Abusus non tollit usum.

The establishment of the Ordinariate gives an opportunity for some of the fruits of the Protestant Reformation to be brought back into the mainstream of Catholic Christianity. The Protestant Reformations in the British Isles didn’t do much for the visual culture, and, arguably, not much for the musical culture either. But they did produce work of startling literary merit in the KJV and Cranmer’s Prayer Book with Coverdale’s Psalms. (And as a Scot, I would add to that the Metrical Psalms of the Kirk.) Bringing the literary merits of the KJV to a wider population would be no bad thing. I doubt that it will in fact happen through Gove’s modest proposal. But as someone who found God, in part, through the literary merit of writers such as Hopkins, I regard aesthetic value as a key way of seeing God, particularly in works such as the KJV where the beauty of the form is so closely intertwined with the content of the divine that it is hard to discern where one stops and the other begins.

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