Bureaucratic language is the normal outcome of writing by committee.  A document produced by not one but six committees should be an unreadable literary morass.  Yet that was how The King James Bible, even to this atheist reviewer the most uniquely mellifluous work in the English language, was produced.
Melvyn Bragg, in his The Book of Books (Hodder & Stoughton, £20 RPP) starts from a different place.  Raised in the Church of England, a boy chorister for whom the text of the Authorised Version was, in church and school, the weft and warp of a maturing intelligence, his attachment to it is utterly genuine, far from uncritical but hugely personal.  “The language of the King James Version flowed into me, its stories and characters fed the imagination and its various promises and threats provided both meat for argument and grist for guilt.”
He chronicles the production of the King James Version, its influence in history, social change and literature.  It may have supported his task better had he compared the Bible to similar texts, particularly the Koran, the creation of one man and, by definition therefore, the product of one historical period.  The Bible however, is the product of countless authors, several singularly different cultures (Hebrew, Roman, Greek) and several millennia.  Add the problems of translation and internal contradictions are inevitable.
Despite Bragg’s assertion that the King James Version is a ‘magnificent work of literature’, only one chapter out of twenty-five analyses its literary content.  Bragg quotes D.H. Lawrence’s description of the Bible as ‘a great confused novel’ but he is ultimately silenced by the Christian response that it is ‘a sort of sacrilege’ to recommend the Bible as culture and resorts to a weak default position: he does not judge the Bible as literature but exalts it as a source for literature.
Bragg examines history selectively.  He briefly considers the reformation.  He expends considerable effort on the English Civil War, referring to it as the British Civil War, an odd reversal of the English habit of denominating all things British as English. The point is reasonably made that both royalists and parliamentarians used the same bible to justify their position.  He gives fair coverage to the radical sects on the Parliamentary side, the Diggers and Levellers, noting the scriptural justification of their democratic and egalitarian ideologies.  He entirely ignores however the use of scripture to justify Cromwellian genocide in Ireland and the subsequent role of the King James Version in sustaining Unionism’s Protestant supremacism.
The pervasive influence of the King James Version on America is covered extensively, from the Mayflower settlers to Martin Luther King.  Both the language and the content of the Declaration of Independence are rooted in the Puritans’ bible reading traditions.  The use of scripture to defend both slavery and abolitionism is also high-lighted.  Again, he illustrates a civil war in which both sides used the same bible to justify contrary political ends.  That a source of wisdom which can direct forces in opposite directions is riven by internal contradictions, and cannot therefore be infallible, is skirted rather than acknowledged.  Similarly, in a book with a very substantial emphasis on Biblical influence on American culture, there is a stunning silence on the politics and theology of America’s contemporary and conservative evangelicals.
Bragg tends to take the statements of Christians at face value.  His chapter on Christian Socialism reiterates the frequently quoted credo of Keir Hardie: “The impetus which drove me first of all into the Labour movement and the inspiration which has carried me on in it has been derived more from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined.”  Hardie certainly expressed his radical politics in Christian terms, but his life experiences can hardly be ignored.  Born illegitimate, in poverty in industrial Lanarkshire, at work as a message boy at the age of seven and down the pits at ten, Hardie had a harsh, personal knowledge of the iniquities of capitalism well before his conversion to Christianity.  Yet Bragg skims over, indeed dismisses, this experience.  “To Keir Hardie, born in 1856, the memory of children as young as six working in the coal mines would have been still been current in the talk and oral history of his community.”  For Hardie, child-labour was no folk memory but a personal reality.  What the Bible gave Hardie and the Levellers, as it gave the eighteenth century American patriots, the nineteenth century slaves and the twentieth century civil rights marchers, was a language to express their aspirations and dreams.  The same metaphors can serve both religious and political millenarians.
Bragg arrogantly dismisses Anglicans opposed to the ordination homosexuals as ‘the traditionalist Nigerian faction’, as if this issue had not riven the Anglican communion across the globe.  (And that is to ignore the debate on the same issue within the Church of Scotland, which is indeed ignored in Bragg’s work.)  The injunctions in Leviticus and in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans against homosexuality are characterised as ‘unsustainable’ Biblical prejudices.  To the enlightened liberal they are precisely that.  To those who cleave to a literal interpretation of this work which Bragg glorifies as more than literature, they are divinely delivered, eternal laws.  What the Bible gave to the Cromwellian troops who massacred ‘idolatrous’ Catholics at Wexford, to fissiparous Scottish Presbyterians with a long history of splits and secessions, to contemporary American evangelicals and to ‘Nigerian’ Anglicans, is a language in which to express their conviction of being part of a justified elect, graced with biblical truth and a perception of those outwith the fold as damned sinners.
Perhaps Bragg set himself too grand a task.  Perhaps he lacks the necessary distance from his subject.  His starting point, adherence to the pragmatic Anglican ethos but without an anchor in Anglicanism’s underlying theological beliefs, has left him floundering.  His very English liberalism precludes harsh judgements.  He might otherwise have created a more telling critique of this work of human genius.
 
This article first appeared in Scottish review on 16 August 2011: http://www.scottishreview.net/Backpage157.shtml

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