Can only a secular society appreciate the Words of God?

The Bible
The Bible

The Bible. Photo by Patrick Feller.

There’s a ker­fuffle over a new trans­la­tion of the Bible into Jamaican Patois that has helped throw what both­ers me about the British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, embrace of Christian val­ues into sharp relief.

David Cameron has recently given a speech cel­eb­rat­ing the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Some of this I like. For example:

…[T]he King James Bible has bequeathed a body of lan­guage that per­meates every aspect of our cul­ture and her­it­age from every­day phrases to our greatest works of lit­er­at­ure, music and art. We live and breathe the lan­guage of the King James Bible, some­times without even real­ising it.

It depends on how pedantic you want to be about this to say how true it is. There’s evid­ence that some com­mon phrases attrib­uted to the KJV are much older in some vari­ants. Likewise I was going to give The spirit is will­ing, but the flesh is weak Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38 as an example of some­thing very bib­lical that often appears in sec­u­lar speech, but if you fol­low those links you’ll see I’ve mod­ern­ised it a bit. For example in Mark the phrase is actu­ally: The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.. Now you’d have to be an utter cur­mudgeon to deny that the King James Bible pop­ular­ised the phrase, but equally trans­la­tions move on because lan­guages move on.

David Cameron picks another evoc­at­ive phrase:

One of my favour­ites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a bril­liant sum­ma­tion of the pro­found sense that there is more to life, that we are imper­fect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see bey­ond our own per­spect­ive. The key word is darkly – pro­foundly loaded, with many shades of mean­ing. I feel the power is lost in some more lit­eral translations.

The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflec­tion as in a mirror”

The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”

They feel not just a bit less spe­cial but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.

The cri­ti­cism of the Jamaican Bible is per­haps the oppos­ite. Bishop Alvin Bailey, at the Portmore Holiness Church of God near Kingston, says: “I don’t think the Patois words can effect­ively com­mu­nic­ate what the English words have com­mu­nic­ated. Even those (Patois) words that we would want to use to fully explain what was in the ori­ginal, are words that are vulgar.”

I’m not sure this is a fair cri­ti­cism. Here’s the same verse in three trans­la­tions See if you can guess which one is the KJV verse.

  1. My lover tried to unlatch the door, and my heart thrilled within me.
  2. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him.
  3. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

The pas­sage is from the Song of Solomon 5:4.* One trans­la­tion is — I’ll grant you — pro­foundly loaded, per­haps impart­ing a mean­ing that isn’t imme­di­ately obvi­ous from the two other ‘lit­eral’ trans­la­tions. But I also think in mod­ern terms it might be con­sidered vul­gar. When you look at what is in the Bible, I’m stuck won­der­ing what vul­gar­ity Patois inflicts that isn’t already there. I think some­thing over­looked is the power of a translation.

I thought the first full trans­la­tion of the Bible in the British Isles was William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, used to turn the Welsh away from Catholicism. I was wrong. A quick skim through Wikipedia shows me the Bishops’ Bible beat it by twenty years, and while the Geneva Bible wasn’t actu­ally trans­lated into English in the British Isles, it’s still an immensely import­ant trans­la­tion in the his­tory of England. In these cases trans­la­tion is a polit­ical and often rebel­li­ous act. The Geneva Bible was a Protestant trans­la­tion and gave them a Bible with which to fight the Latin of Catholicism. The Bishops’ Bible was offi­cially sanc­tioned so it’s hard to call it rebel­li­ous, but even so it was a Protestant Bible at a time when England was an enemy of strong Catholic power in Europe.

Translating a Bible into Jamaican Patois is a subtle, but strong, state­ment that cur­rent Christian author­ity has failed, at least to some degree. So what does a sup­port­ing an estab­lished trans­la­tion against new ver­sions mean? In the UK the gov­ern­ment is send­ing an offi­cial Bible with a fore­word by polit­ical heavy­weight+ Michael Gove. The media con­cen­trated on the pre­dict­able com­plaint by the National Secular Society and athe­ists, but even Christians are aware that offi­cial reli­gions can take dis­sent badly. The pre­tence is that eth­ics are derived from the Bible, but as Conservapedia is show­ing, people make Bibles to suit their eth­ics.

While I can see there are aes­thetic mer­its to vari­ous trans­la­tions, in this case elev­at­ing one trans­la­tion and dis­par­aging oth­ers car­ries a big polit­ical pay­load, even if the judge­ment is aes­thetic. It might be pos­sible to turn the book of Habakkuk into a thrill­ing page turner, but it would prob­ably involve some extremely loose trans­la­tion. But is any church leader likely to say: “My favour­ite book is Jeffrey Archer’s trans­la­tion of Habakkuk. It’s hugely inac­cur­ate, but it’s grip­ping from start to end!”? It seems unlikely you can divorce aes­thet­ics from truth unless you live in what Kelvin Holdsworth called a theo­lo­gic­ally neut­ral soci­ety.

Photo: Joshua 18, Abandoned Bible by Patrick Feller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

* It’s well worth read­ing the bib­lical com­ment­ary for clas­sic lines like: By the “door” is meant the door of her heart, which was in a great meas­ure shut against Christ, through the pre­val­ence of cor­rup­tion; and the “hole” in it shows that it was not entirely shut up…

+ Or paper­weight if you prefer.