25 November 2011

Mister Gove's Wonderful Idea

Maisie Ward, in her 1942 biography of G.K. Chesterton, quoted Chesterton as being deeply troubled by the prospect of the Bible being taught simply as literature. He believed that an obligation to teach the Bible in such a way would put Christian teachers into impossible positions, and that the phenomenon itself raised very serious questions:
‘I should not mind children being told about Mohammed because I am not a Mohammedan. If I were a Mohammedan I should very much want to know what they were told about him.’ 
I thought about this earlier when I read how Michael Gove is planning on giving a special copy of the King James Bible to every school in England, each one prefaced by a brief foreword by his honourable self.

Gove has a habit of coming up with ideas that sound great on paper, but that come unstuck once one thinks them through properly; one might think of his laudable ambition that every eleven-year-old should be required to read fifty books a year, an ambition that’s rather undermined by how government cutbacks have threatened 600 of England’s libraries with closure. This one, I fear, is no different, and Christians and others should take no satisfaction in how this proposal has provoked disquiet from the most predictable of corners.

As you’d expect, the National Secular Society’s Terry Sanderson isn’t overflowing with joy at this idea; he’s asking whether Mr Gove is planning to issue copies of Darwin’s The Origin of Species to all schools, each copy similarly prefaced by the Secretary for Education. Such a proposal, says Mr Sanderson, would be in line with Mr Gove’s wish to promote science and evidence-based education. I’m not sure why Terry Sanderson thinks the Government should be promoting nineteenth-century scientific ideas when science has moved on, as science does, but there you have it. Richy Thompson of the British Humanist Association clearly feels such facetious proposals are below him, and has instead simply criticised what he sees as an unacceptable promotion of Christianity.

Is it that, though? Not to Mr Gove, it would seem. For him, the King James Bible is ‘one of the keystones of our shared culture,’ something that’s about Britishness far more so than it is about Christianity. An anachronistic notion of Britishness, of course, one infatuated with long-discredited Whiggish notions of historical progress and hung up on the idea of the Empire of which the King James Bible was a sort of ‘founding text’, but Britishness for all that.

Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Dawkins is sitting right next to Mr Gove in that Whiggish corner, singing the chauvinistic praises of this particular old-fashioned and inaccurate translation of the Bible, saying:
‘Warts and all, let's encourage our schools to bring this precious English heritage to all our children, whatever their background, not as history, not as science and not (oh, please not) as morality. But as literature.’
Yes, despite the protestations of his fellow travellers in the NSS and the BHA, Richard Dawkins is a huge fan of the King James Bible, which he evidently regards as something which is only incidentally related to Christianity or the Judaism he appears to despise. As he said to Frank Field earlier in the year,
‘I think it is important to make the case that the Bible is part of our heritage and it doesn’t have to be tied to religion. It’s of historic interest, it’s of literary interest, and it’s important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.’
Yep, there you have it. The King James Bible isn’t a religious work; it’s a literary work that just happens to have religious connections, and for it to be read in its proper context is a hijacking. Let that sit for a while.

Indeed, despite his open scorn for its purpose and substance, Richard Dawkins is one of the great public fetishists of the King James Bible, about which he makes some fairly grandiose claims:
‘You can’t appreciate English literature unless you know something about the Greek gods. You can’t appreciate Wagner unless you know something about the Norse gods. You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are to some extent at least steeped in the King James Bible. There are phrases that come from it – people don’t realise they come from it – proverbial phrases, phrases that make echoes in people’s mind, they haunt our minds because we are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture.’
If you flick through to chapter 9 of The God Delusion you’ll find a two-page list of idioms, phrases, and clichés that Professor Dawkins says occur commonly in literary and conversational English; given, however, that these include such proper nouns as ‘Shibboleth’ and ‘Philistine’, as well as simple phrases such as ‘burning bush’ and ‘lost sheep’, I think it’s safe to say that these terms aren’t exclusively the preserve of the King James Bible. For all that, in promoting the King James Bible, Professor Dawkins has been adamant:
‘And not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian.’
Bad luck for the Germans, French, and Italians, so, not to mention all those English-speaking Catholics who would fail Richard’s culture test. By Dawkins’ definition, Anthony Burgess, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, and Hilaire Belloc, all of whom grew up familiar with the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible rather than the Anglican cadences of the King James Bible, were barbarians incapable of appreciating English literature.

It seems the Education Secretary is on the same page as Professor Dawkins on this matter. He may be an Anglican rather than an Atheist, but it can hardly be on confessional grounds that he proposes that Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and secular schools should have specifically Anglican versions of the Bible on their shelves. To him the King James Bible is a cultural resource around which all English people should be able to unite.

The problem, of course, is that despite what Mister Gove may think and what Professor Dawkins may claim, that’s not what the Bible’s for, and it should bother Christians to see any version of it being promoted as such. The King James Bible may well have supplied rhythms and metaphors for three centuries of English writers, but it was not created with such an end in mind, and it is profoundly disrespectful to the Bible to dragoon it into the service of a nostalgic nationalism or to reduce it to a mere piece of literature, no matter how beautiful.

There's an obvious parallel with late Imperial Rome, where Christian teachers of grammar and rhetoric used Classical Pagan literature such as the Iliad and the Aeneid as literary reservoirs, while constantly reminding their students that the Pagan gods were devils, fictions, or mere metaphorical forerunners of the truths they themselves cherished. It was hardly surprising that in 362 AD Julian the Apostate, Rome’s last Pagan Emperor, passed a school law designed to ban Christians from doing such things. His project of cultural renewal failed, cut short by his untimely death in battle, but it made sense: he realised that what he saw as the common good of the Roman people would be endangered by texts and tales central to Rome’s historical culture being taught as interesting and useful falsehoods.

If we care about the Bible, we should care about how it's taught. This is a bad idea.


Catherine Stead said...

It strikes me that this is as much a literary error as a religious one*. It suggests that the style of the poetry and prose can be divorced from the content and the context of the writing. It’s akin to saying everyone ought to be familiar with Dickens because of his ability to create images with words – and never considering the social campaigning that was part of his work. It’s akin to saying everyone ought to be familiar with John Donne because of his use of rhyme and metre and his prose style, and never considering either the eroticism or the profound spirituality.

There’s no pure literature in the sense that there’s pure mathematics: it’s all applied. Yet this exercise tries to turn the KJV into pure literature by pulling it entirely out of its context. It can’t be done, of course, but the exercise seems to reflect the idea that it can be.

Also, your point about the writers influenced by the Douay-Rheims is an excellent one.

*Insofar as it’s actually about literature at all, that is; mostly it's about popularity and publicity.

Lazarus said...

Certainly, to regard the KJV simply as (fictional) literature is to do it (and Christianity) a disservice. But if Gove's proposal did succeed in getting people to see it a) as beautiful and b) as (historically) culturally important, that might be a good thing. Fundamentally, this is a debate about how God becomes manifest in the world. If, as traditionally thought, that is in part through beauty, discovering that the KJV is beautiful as well as a major historical contribution to Anglophone culture needn't be a bad thing.

Éamonn said...

To be familiar with the Douay Rheims Challoner (which was the version known to the figures you mention) is to be familiar with the KJV. Newman is interesting on this issue.