Tuesday, May 10, 2011

God and the King James Bible

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Deuteronomy 6:4-7

The King James Bible is four hundred years old this month.

The King James Version, also known as the “Authorized Version,” was not the first English translation. That honor belongs to William Tyndale, who produced an English translation in 1525. Unfortunately for Mr. Tyndale, his understanding of the biblical perspective on divorce did not suit Henry VIII, and the king settled the matter by arresting Tyndale for heresy and having him both strangled and burned at the stake. Apparently, when it comes to heresy you can’t be too harsh on the heretics.

The language of the KJV is spectacular. It has a poetic resonance which other translations simply cannot equal. Unfortunately, its poetry is not matched by its accuracy, and there are many passages where the original meaning is lost or obscured.

In John Wesley’s sermon, "On Charity," based on the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth, he explains at great length that the Greek word agape, which in the King James Version is translated as “charity,” should really be translated as “love.” The mis-translation reduces Christ’s sacrificial love to a hand out.

The problems of accuracy are important (not to mention ironic) because many of those who treasure the King James Bible are also biblical literalists. The Bible they believe literally is known to be an inaccurate translation.

In a recent edition of “Word A Day,” editor Anu Garg celebrated the language of the King James Bible, but added a critical note:

If there's a god, I don't think he/she/it would care what book or which version (or any book) you read, or what name you addressed him/her/it with, or how many times in a day you bowed, or what direction you faced, or how many rituals you observed, or which animal was clean and which wasn't, or what day of the week you did what, or how many people you "saved".

Any entity worthy of being called a god would be above it all and would probably care more about how kind you were to others, and whether you left the world just a little bit better.

Sadly, we know that there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians for whom that criticism is completely valid. And they make all of us look foolish. But I want to respond in a different direction.

Just for the record, I don’t believe in “a god,” or an “entity worthy of being called a god,” or even in “a God.” I believe in the One who is revealed to Moses as the Ground of Being (Tillich’s phrase). A unity beyond our words and our understanding. The One who brings light out of darkness and life out of death. The one who is beyond every attempt to define or contain.

When the Samaritan woman met Jesus at the well, and asked him where the holiest place to worship God was, he said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” God is not contained in words. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

Words, even the best and most poetic words, cannot hold the Spirit.

1 comment:

  1. Bill;
    am in agreement and (very nearly) on same page even ( I'm tryin'; May our hearts be open").
    I might say that I believe Mr. Garg to be correct; to a point. I am not sure that one's acts of kindness supersede the concept of obedience to God's will / commandments. We, as Methodists, recognize our shortfall in this regard and purport to be living our lives as student / apprentices who labor towards true obedience as we attempt to become and entreat others to become disciples of Christ.
    I, like you (apparently) believe in God (Yahweh, El Ohim, Jehovah...by name[s]) who brought forth and sustains creation, who spoke to Abraham, Moses and through The Prophets. He whose being IS beyond our limited (mortal) understanding BUT for his wisdom, mercy, grace and love which provide, for us, but a glimpse to "whet our appetites", as it were, that we would "hunger and thirst" to know God ever more intimately (also a piece of Wesley's "going-on to perfection" a goal which we shall, in THIS LIFE approach, perhaps, but not attain.
    Truly God's nature can be contained accurately by no human means. ..."through a glass but darkly"...
    I feel strongly (although not as do our brethren, The Baptists among other denominations,) about the love of the KJV language and even regret that I rarely, if ever, treat myself to a read thereof in favor of my ever-at-hand NRSV(s). May our Heavenly Father reveal Himself and His will to us, regardless of the version of His word we expose ourselves to. May His Light open our eyes to His truth and our hearts to His wisdom and love. AMEN