We will be hearing a lot about the King James Bible in this year of its fourth centenary. The issues of its political provenance have been set out by Simon Barrow in his blog The curious politics of the King James Bible http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13854 , and this seems an opportune time to take a look at the way in which words and the written style may influence our spiritual lives.
Cadences from the 1611 Bible linger somewhere in the mind's ear of most people over 40. In his New Year address, Rowan Williams spoke of it being “in the bloodstream of the people of this country” and of being the “long-lasting furniture of our minds”. However, that is probably true of a diminishing number of people. Like the man who, on seeing Hamlet for the first time, remarked that it was “full of quotations”, there is an increasing tendency in what is sometimes called an 'unchurched' society, to dissociate familiar phrases from their context and thus to miss the meaning, perhaps failing even to understand that there is a whole from which the odd or striking phrase has been taken.
The beauty - and generally the plainness - of the language of the King James Bible owes a good deal to it not being the way we speak and write today. There is no danger of it being confused with popular speech or with adspeak. The element of quaintness is both its strength and its potential weakness.
If we have to work a little harder to get the full meaning of something, it is more likely to stay with us. That is one of the virtues of poetry. I will probably struggle with the Wreck of the Deutschland for the next 30 years and not exhaust its riches nor fully master its 'difficulty'. But this is the response of a certain level of education and of a mind and ear inclined that way – a product of the nature and nurture which is unique to each individual. But for many, oddness and unfamiliarity will present a barrier which acts only to reinforce the idea that religion is something old-fashioned and irrelevant to the lives they have to live in 2011. It would be profoundly ugly to ignore their needs in pursuit of beauty of expression.
Others will bewail the pedestrian and unimaginative language of much contemporary liturgy and scriptural translation. It is true that some translators and editors appear to have cloth ears, but the aesthetic experience may easily take on too much importance and become an end in itself – a kind of idolatry with the added disfigurement of being a little precious and self-satisfied. The medium becomes the message.
The words which we use in expressing, exploring and communicating our inner lives and outer action will be unique to each of us. We have different requirements at different stages of our lives and will look to different modes of expression according to whether we are seeking information, inspiration or transcendence.
For myself, it is the sometimes odd phraseology of Quakerism which gives me an insight into these relationships and the pull which they may exert on our hearts and minds. There are the much loved quotations from George Fox and the early Quakers. “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” is hard to beat as a general rule of life. In Margaret Fell's admonition of the Friends who became too rigid in their pursuit of 'plainness' - “That we should all be in one dress and one colour? This is a silly poor gospel!” and Francis Howgill's reminder that it is in the everyday and the ordinary that we find God - “why gad you abroad?”, there is a solid Cumbrian common sense which delights me and brings an echo of the rhythms and inflections of the speech with which I grew up.
Then there is the singularity of those phrases which sometime bemuse non-Quakers (in fact there is a tongue-in-cheek little guide to 'Quakerspeak', designed to assist Attenders and Inquirers.) But the apparent oddness of these expressions has real value in stimulating understanding: we do not give up something but 'lay it down' – a concept which offers potential, gift and continuity. We may 'have a concern' – not the same thing as being concerned. Expressed as possession, the concern carries a responsibility for discernment and action which is personal, though it may be supported by the Meeting. We do not pray for someone but 'hold them in the Light', thus seeking neither personal desires nor specific outcomes, but submitting both the subject of our thoughts and ourselves to the illumination of the divine. We do not speak of our conviction, rather of 'convincement' – shifting the concept towards receiving truth rather than towards expressing dogmatic certainty.
These, and many other turns of speech which are traditional among Friends, are not held on to in order to bemuse or obfuscate, nor are they evidence of nostalgia. They are living words which connect us with our faith history and remind us of whom we both are the heirs and the future messengers.
Language is alive, and the only sign of life is alteration and growth. To draw on the emotional and aesthetic qualities of words is to nourish ourselves in our own changing and growing. We should cherish whatever connects us to our origins, but must not mistake it for our ends. Even the best loved texts, sayings and prayers, can be no more than pointers on the journey towards truth.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger