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Christopher Hitchens was right about the King James Bible

Personally, I am not a KJV-only-person, especially not out of some sectarian commitment. But in the midst of a myriad of publishers seeking to market the Scriptures and amid the theological concerns for accuracy and psychological concerns regarding ease, Christopher Hitchens offers insight especially helpful for our task as educators, especially those of the Rhetoric school.

In the May 2011 issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in praise of the King James translation of the Bible. It was one of the last things he published before he died not long after in December. As Christian educators, would be foolish not to take his argument to heart:

Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, o King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, o king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

He goes on:

A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?

Regardless of the many other stabs and claims he makes in his essay, his point is rather hard to dismiss. If the most articulate and rhetorically gifted atheist of the 21st century says that the KJV is the finest work of literature “second to Shakespeare” ever produced in the English language, there’s something to it. Christian or not, it is indisputable that the King James Bible (or Authorized Version, if you prefer) is something which transcends religion to becoming a cultural masterpiece, a work of art so influential in the imagination of its people that it’s difficult to calculate.

Hitchens’ insight towards the end of the article becomes particularly important for those teachers of young men and women. In a rare moment of piety, he confesses his personal attachment to the King James language, showing the deeper pathos of his allegiance, as well as the comparative ineptitude of other English translations:

At my father’s funeral I chose to read a similarly non-sermonizing part of the New Testament, this time an injunction from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative “ifs” and its closing advice—always italicized in my mind since first I heard it—to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labor of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts. I now pluck down from my shelf the American Bible Society’s “Contemporary English Version,” which I picked up at an evangelical “Promise Keepers” rally on the Mall in Washington in 1997. Claiming to be faithful to the spirit of the King James translation, it keeps its promise in this way: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.” Pancake-flat: suited perhaps to a basement meeting of A.A., these words could not hope to penetrate the torpid, resistant fog in the mind of a 16-year-old boy, as their original had done for me.

There are still those whose imaginative and literary senses are like that of the young Hitchens. If the words of Paul, sounding in the high and stately rhetoric of the seventeenth century, can still pierce the almost shriveled soul of dying atheist at the end of his life, how much more might it “penetrate the torpid, resistant fog in the mind of a 16-year-old boy,” whose mind is still alive to Beauty?

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