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British Academy symposium: What should the Word of God sound like?

The Archbishop with Sir Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy

Friday 4th November 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke at a British Academy event examining the historical origins of the King James Bible and its literary and cultural influences over the last 400 years.

In his keynote address, Dr Williams explored the dilemma the Church faces in choosing traditional or modern speech in Bible reading and liturgy.  The Archbishop also participated in a panel discussion with Salley Vickers and Professor David Martin, chaired by Bettany Hughes. 

Listen to the Archbishop's keynote address [44Mb, 24mins] or read a transcript below.

What should the Word of God sound like?


One of the most significant things you will have noticed in this anniversary year of the Authorized (King James) Bible (KJB) is that it has not come across simply as a possession of religious believers, which is why in a sense it is treated as belonging to everybody. It has been treated as something which isn't the preserve of the Church. It's been discussed -- and to a very surprisingly large extent affirmed -- as part of a wider cultural legacy. And one of the themes which we're bound to be thinking about directly and indirectly in the context of this afternoon's discussion is of course the curious way in which religious language (and religious symbolism in general) escape from their homes. They are, you might say, very disobedient pets. They jump over fences and get into places where you don't expect them to get, and they produce occasionally very surprising progeny as a result.

The panel: David Martin, Salley Vickers, panel chair Bettany Hughes, and Archbishop Rowan WilliamsIs this good or bad news for religious believers? It's easy to assume that the idea of the Bible as cultural legacy means that the Bible is no longer seen as having its distinctive function and has lost its location as a sacred text: that it's become part of our heritage. But I'm not sure it's quite as simple as that; and in these introductory remarks I hope to show some of the ways in which it isn't so simple.

The odd thing is that our culture has in some way retained a sense of what a sacred text looks or sounds like even when the Church has been uncertain about it. That's to say that a vague recollection of the King James Bible is heard – heard more than read perhaps – as striking a particular register in British discourse. People know roughly what you're doing when you parody the King James Bible even if they've never opened it, and neither has the parodist! And if you want an illustration of this you can turn to the pseudo-biblical episodes that occasionally decorate the pages of Private Eye. People know what 'sacred' English sounds like.

And whether or not that is positive news for religious believers, as I said, it's not such a simple question to answer as we might suppose. It does at least mean that people are aware of registers in our language, registers which are appropriate for this or that context. At a time when our capacity to distinguish registers in language - and be subtle about registers in language - seems to be diminishing, it is at least quite interesting that we seem to be capable of picking out a register that may be appropriate, that may be significant as signalling something completely different.

What are we going to do with that register? is another question. Nothing very new about these issues. Back in 1991, A N Wilson in his novel Daughters of Albion has his figure reflecting on his upbringing in a parsonage: 'It did not worry me that I could not in a conventional sense believe. Indeed I did not see how an intelligent person could adhere to the orthodoxies. But it had become saddening that I could put all this religious inheritance to no good or imaginative use. It lay around like lumber in my mind but did not quicken the heart.' That image of a legacy lying around like 'lumber in my mind' is one to ponder, I think, as we reflect on the subject matter of this session.

The register that I'm talking about, the register of sacred English, still has some place, some recognisability even if not like authority, even if it is more like 'lumber in the mind' than everything we know how to use. Yet the very fact of its presence as an unfamiliar and potentially serious domain of discourse leaves open the debate.

Well that's a starting point, simply observing that in the collective imagination, for quite a lot of people in this country the sense of what sacred English sounds like has not wholly disappeared, even if its main vehicle is parody. And behind that lies a more fundamental question about ownership, about both the risks and the necessity for the Church sometimes to examine its boundaries in ideology, not just material things.

I can't move on without saying a word or two about what happens in modern translations of scripture. Modern translations in a church context inevitably begin by an attempt to remove obstacles. The presenting feeling is that the text we culturally started with 100 years ago or more is inaccessible – it's an obstacle to understanding what's going on – therefore a good translation removes the obstacles. And that of course is exactly what the translators of the King James Bible thought they were doing. If you turn to the wonderful Preface by Miles Smith to the KJB, you'll see there a set of very potent metaphors about what translation is. It's 'rolling away the stone from the well' so that the bucket can go down into the darkness and bring something up. It's 'tearing the veil of the temple' so that the sacred mysteries may be exposed to public view. And it's important to see those metaphors – in a theological context – as deeply Christological. Translating the Bible is a Christological exercise; it's an exercise in expressing what you mean by devotion or loyalty to Jesus Christ.

The King James Bible did not set out to create an unfamiliar register of discourse, and it's easy to move from that rather rapidly to the conclusion that the point of translation is therefore not simply to make it accessible, but to make it easy. And that's where I think there is a break in the argument. Because while the KJB translators wanted to roll the stone away from the mouth of the well and make something accessible, they were, interestingly, not doing that in order to make things easy (if Miles Smith's preface is to be believed). You could almost say they were doing it in order to make it properly difficult. Because Smith goes on in the Preface to say a little bit about why the marginal notes are there in the KJB. Of course one of the disasters that overtook the KJB in its history as time went on was not only the omission of the Preface, but also the omission of the marginal variants. Smith makes great play of those variants. Obviously the main outlines of scriptural truth are clear but there's a great deal round the edge which is unsettled and unsettling. Why is this? Smith suggests there may be several reasons: one of them, interestingly, is quite simply that some people will despise the Bible if it's too easy. The seventeenth-century equivalent of the British Academy needed to know that the Bible could be read seriously by serious people! But Smith goes on to say something much more interesting, which is that when we are confronted with a puzzle with what appears to be a brick wall in our understanding, when we are confronted with a number of translations, all of them defensible, what we then have to do is turn to one another and work it out together. A translation is not just a way of making something accessible; it's a way of making it difficult, and a way of making it corporate. So a good translation does not seek to seal off every sealable channel of meaning so that you are directed carefully, consistently, and unfailingly through one channel. A good translation allows you to see precisely the margins of meaning and to know that you can only resolve the unfinished business of the text with one another. And again, I have suggested linking that up with what Richard Hooker at around the same time called the recognition of our 'common imbecility' in the Church: that is, our need of question and challenge and interpretation from one another's hands.

So it's quite important to recognise that the 1611 translators didn't simply believe that their exercise in translation was the removal of obstacles. That was important; but they believed also that it was the removal of obstacles in order that you were able to engage with the labour which the text demanded of you; a labour which was very importantly shared in certain respects. And I'd like to connect that with another wonderful remark in the history of English biblical hermeneutics, which is Bishop Westcott's comment in the nineteenth-century, that the point of Scripture being the way it is, is that it is an invitation to labour.

Well back to the contemporary church and how the church responds in all of this. Should the church be asking, and if so how, the question about the dimension, the register of Scripture? What does sacred English sound like? What does the word of God sound like? And that means acknowledging the awkward fact that modern English largely lacks certain kinds of voice in its repertoire. In earlier centuries English was capable of working with different registers without too much self-consciousness. But we've largely lost that unselfconscious capacity to slip between registers, voices or keys in the way we talk publicly, never mind privately. And we've largely lost what has been called the 'language of excess' in religious utterance, the language of 'redundancy'. The BCP would not be what it was and is, without redundancy. The characteristic contemporary impatience which says that the BCP always says things three times over is not a joke, it's meant to do just that. It's a language of redundancy. This again tells you that the first thing you thought of is not the whole truth: always quite a good point in hermeneutics!

The point's been made – again from an earlier generation in a classic bit of polemic about religious English – by Ian Robertson, sometime of the University of Swansea, in a book published in 1973. It has a chapter on religious English which is full of choice invective about the New English Bible, about early revisions of the liturgy and so forth; a great deal of which is both entertaining and facile. But, there are some very significant points raised in the background which relate to this question of register.

'And what is there to be done now by anyone who sees the need a religious English? One thing we can't do is to set about manufacturing it – not, at any rate, as a matter of deliberate policy with definable ends.'

(Ian Robertson 'Religious English', The Survival of English (1973), p.63-64

Robertson quotes from Marjorie Grene writing about Hobbes:

'But if we are to find ourselves at home again in a significant universe, we must somehow find, dialectically, a synthesis of what Cudworth asserted and Hobbes denied ... it is some analogue of the traditional deity we have to seek, and find, if the fundamental meaninglessness of the Hobbesian world, our Hobbesian world, is to be overcome.'

(Marjorie Grene 'Hobbes and the Modern Mind', The Anatomy of Knowledge (1970), p.4

Which, disentangled, means (I think) that the English we are more and more inclined to take for granted in our public and private usage is Hobbesian. Its vocabulary is nasty and brutish (and not always short). It is a vocabulary which significantly shrinks the range of available meanings for humans. It functionalises and trivialises a great deal of what it talks about. So the question of register in our language can't be sidestepped.

Outside the culturally very new and still often marginal register of charismatic prayer and praise, where the language of excess and redundancy has made a dramatic comeback (a real return of the repressed) it seems that religious believers and speakers are uncomfortably tempted by the Hobbesian shortcut and pull back properly disturbed by the abiding presence both in church and culture of this uncomfortable, indigestible register of what sacred English might sound like. Within the Church it seems to me to be very important to recognise the danger of functionalising our speech in a way that corresponds to the functionalising of identities and professions in our wider social world. And the hard question for the translator of Scripture these days, is how to find an idiom that still does justice to the strange and the disturbing, both culturally strange and the transcendentally strange. What does the word of God sound like in a context where language itself is so often stripped-down and narrowed? Can we point to, evoke or even articulate the word of God in that environment where our linguistic options are so shrunken? And the answer to that does mean attention to both elements of strangeness that I have mentioned: the cultural and the transcendental. The culturally strange, because of course the Bible is not a book or a collection of books that was written yesterday. And its 'not-being-written-yesterday-ness' is an abidingly significant thing about it. It is from another era (several other eras) it is something that speaks to us from a place of human difference. And for those who believe it speaks from a place of more than human difference, there is that second strangeness – the transcendental strangeness to be dealt with and thought through. Translations of the Bible which ignore both of those kinds of strangeness are not actually going to do their work. That's why translation of the Bible is difficult.

There are interesting examples in recent years of those who really have addressed the awkwardness, the resilience of the texts and come up with something which very creditably sounds like neither KJB nor like the New English Bible. I think, for example of the work of someone like Mary Phil Korsak and her translation of Genesis; also her (I think still unpublished) translation of St Mark, which by insisting on the variation of tenses in the original, and by playing around with 'present's and 'past's and by insisting on the imperative quality of the texts – when it says 'behold' it really does mean look! – has restored some of that strangeness both cultural and transcendental to the text. Her translations remind us that the translated text ought to be something capable of dramatic verbal performance rather than just that private reading which, since the 17th century we've more and more tended to assume is the paradigm for how we come to the Bible.

And that is the perennial problem which so many religious believers would want to underline. It's so easy to confuse cultural strangeness with the transcendent. It's so easy to think that because a text is quaint, it's holy, that sacredness is a form of linguistic weirdness. It's so easy to think that the pseudo-biblical English of parodies is what religious language is like because it is quaint. And the confusion is one that I think applies in a number of religious contexts. In the attempt to affirm the transcendent, the properly, irreducibly, inexhaustibly strange is muddled up with the sheer strangeness, the exotic quality of something that comes from another human setting. So that a Tridentine high mass is – because it's exotic – evocative of the transcendent in a way that a mass said in contemporary English is not. There is muddle in that and muddle that we have to be careful to identify honestly.

But back to the paradox and puzzle with which I started. In our present setting, with limited historical knowledge in our society, it's nonetheless the case that quite a lot of hearers/readers of the KJB still experience something more than just cultural acquaintance when they turn its pages or hear it read. Even if it's simply a recognition that there is something inadequate, not said, in other styles or registers. And that elusive area is more than just the culturally quaint. That is where the KJB still gives us to think, I believe, whether we are conventional believers or not. And it's because of all that I believe it's premature to talk of valediction. And these remarks have been rather more in the nature of a celebration of a persistently problematic set of absorbingly difficult challenges to take us into some very important places in our thinking about language in society, about culture and belief.

This anniversary year has suggested very strongly that the resonances are not exhausted. And they focus the question for both the church and culture of how our language escapes from certain sorts of captivity so as to evoke something utterly unexpected, something hitherto unimagined, something still unimaginable in its fullness.

By all means, be realistic about what can -- and can't -- be made accessible about the KJB. Anyone who's inclined to be over-romantic about the KJB should be condemned to read the epistles of St Paul in that version for a few weeks on end and see what it feels like! And yet, don't imagine that the question 'What does the word of God sound like?' can be answered without some acknowledgement of the problem of how we speak of transcendent strangeness in the middle of a world of often radically impoverished idioms. How does our language invite into itself the possibility of others: both the possibility of actual human change, and the possibility of sheer inexhaustible Presence? The strange persistence of the KJB in our collective imagination suggests that that question is as live today as it's ever been.

© Rowan Williams 2011 

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