Bible Sunday 2020 Year A
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak; forbidden fruit; set your teeth on edge; in the twinkling of an eye; give up the ghost; by the skin of your teeth; bite the dust; a wolf in sheep’s clothing; cast the first stone and can a leopard change its spots?”
Familiar words and phrases which all come from the King James Version of the Bible. As the historian Jenny Wormald says:
“The translators somehow had a wonderful instinct for evocative language. Their towering achievement was not that it was complete, or that it was accurate, but that they produced an edition of the Bible where the language sang.”
Many of you will have grown up, like your parents and grandparents before you, very familiar with the words of the King James Bible. Until the 1970’s it was really the only Bible used in churches of an Anglican ilk. Comfortable and familiar words to you but perhaps more confusing to generations of my age and younger, especially for those like me coming from homes where religious practice was rare. I can appreciate the poetic constructs of the King James Version of the Bible and read it aloud but my personal preference is for the New Revised Standard Version a translation that chimes with the language and phrasing I have grown up with.
Some of you might dislike so called ‘modern translations’ as being too modern – but you have to remember that the ‘Good News’ version is now over 50 years old! What we forget, though, is that 400 years ago the King James Version was seen as being radical and different as well. What has become familiar and acceptable to us was in 1611 new and strange and enforced by law to; ‘be read in all churches’. In this there was no choice, it was what the King, James VI/I wanted and decreed and because he was head of the church it was what you got!
As a small boy I was fascinated by the great, chained Bible in my Grandmother’s Aunt’s (my great, great Aunt) village church – St.Michael in Cumnor (Oxfordshire). It was then still used every week and at the time I can remember being filled with a sense of history and the presence of God simply by touching it as others had done over almost four centuries. The King James Version has influenced our churches and our language in Britain more than anything or anyone else. As Melvyn Bragg is quoted as saying:
“There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible not Shakespeare set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.”
Words used in this version have also helped to ensure that Christ’s words have not ‘passed away’ either. But there is a danger, a danger not just with the King James Version but with the Bible per se.
In the first reading from Nehemiah, today, amidst all those impossible names there is a phrase that can easily be over looked. Yet it is one of significant importance. Importance because it is the key to countering the dangers of the Bible:
“helped the people understand”
From the earliest times of the Hebrew faith, out of which Christ came and our faith grew. There have been prophets and teachers who have taught the people and helped to explain what the Scriptures meant. There was never a tradition of accepting the texts as written, they were supposed to be interpreted and explanation sought as to what they might mean here and now. When the Bible is read without interpretation or explanation it can be very dangerous. Dangerous in that it can be used to control people and to frighten them into submission. The medieval church worked on this principle and some congregations, denominations and sects continue to do so today. In this month of Black History we are also reminded how the Bible was used to justify slavery and the inhuman treatment of equals on the basis of skin colour alone.
As someone who is thoroughly Anglican but catholic (with a small ‘C’), I have been led to believe that Scripture is not the inerrant word of God but a record of people’s experiences of God through the ages, a record written in human language codes which in themselves contain something of the essence of God but not a total understanding of him. The Bible was not dictated by God to anyone man (women hardly get a look in as prophets and teachers) it has grown up over many thousands of years in response to humanity’s experience of the divine or that which we call God. Very few books of the Bible, despite their titles, are actually the single work of anyone person. There is more than one ‘Paul’ and umpteen ‘Isaiah’s’ for a start and let alone how many psalmists. Even the four Gospel accounts are different in the details they record.
It is for this reason that for me, and I know that I am not alone in this, the Bible both the Old and New Testaments cannot be read or interpreted fundamentally. They contain enough universal truth for salvation but they are not without inaccuracy, contradiction and bias; they are imperfect. This is why the Bible can be dangerous when some choose to insist that the Bible is perfect and use its imperfections to persecute others or to justify inhuman actions towards those who think or appear different to them.
Without interpretation we would still support slavery; women would be considered less than men and anyone who was not male, not white, not heterosexual or disabled should probably be burnt at the stake. James VI persecuted many women as witches despite being an excellent scholar and Biblical revisionist, simply because they were good healers. We may laugh at his actions today, but we forget that in some places in the world similar things continue to happen in the name of the Bible – like Uganda’s repeated attempts to introduce the death penalty for homosexuals. Legislation proposed by a ‘Christian Government’ but supported by the Anglican Church there. ‘Burning at the stake' still happens.
Despite its dangers the Bible also contains some of the most humane and loving commandments. What better rule of life could there be than to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? When the Bible is studied critically, prayed about, interpreted and expounded with love it can be the most effective tool for change in our world. When not, it is I believe dangerous beyond words and belief.
We have a gift in the Bible, a gift that with interpretation and love can be used to effect great change and the establishment of a Holy Commonwealth or Kingdom here on earth. Used wisely its power is immense; used badly and it can be so destructive that one could wonder if it had any good in it at all. Its use, good or bad though depends on one thing – US and that really makes you think.