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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, the King James Bible and the 10 Commandments

This year is, of course, 2011, and among other distinctions, it is the 400th Anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, the most renowned English translation of the Sacred Text, which also stands as a classic in English literature. We had been intending to write about it for some time, but, as often happens, exigencies of the day got in the way.

At the same time, renowned "atheist" Christopher Hitchens passed away Thursday from throat cancer. Ways of the World often acknowledges the passing of major public figures, so it seems perfectly reasonable to stop and comment about Hitchens. We are, first, sorry that he was so ill and had such a difficult time. Perhaps he has found some peace and rest in the last two days.

We haven't actually read any of Hitchens' work. So we've been surprised as we "googled" yesterday and today to find that some of his recent pieces for Vanity Fair magazine are lengthy essays on the King James Bible, which he celebrates, and the Ten Commandments, which he "edits". While Hitchens is a boisterous critic of religion, it's clearly not out of ignorance or even bald disdain. He has obviously studied a great deal about the topic and has opinions based on reason.

In this way, he contributes to our own understanding of our own beliefs. If we note his arguments and ponder them, we might actually strengthen our own faith. By analogy, we can describe similar contributions to the Presidential campaign by at least two of the Republican contenders. Ron Paul has strong, but well thought-out notions of foreign policy and monetary policy. We don't like the implications of those notions, if they were to be carried out, but the fact that he raises them makes us and the other candidates develop better arguments for our own positions. In the same way, Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan may not be favored by many. But it was the first concrete proposal for fiscal reform from among these candidates, and its concrete catchiness forced the others to begin to specify their own schemes. So these two, by offering their interpretations and proposals, have contributed positively to the overall discussion.

Now, why might Ways of the World be the place on the Geranium Farm where you read about the King James Bible? For two broad reasons, one of which we might even call the Hitchens Argument. Ahead of that, our interest as an economist was piqued by the fact that a leading theologian, Alastair McGrath, in his commemorative In the Beginning, starts that book with a detailed explication of the history of printing.[1] English translations of the Bible were both dependent upon and important to the development of printing technology. Having the Bible available in the language of the people was a key ingredient in the Reformation. The William Tyndale translation, which began to appear around 1526, was printed in Germany and unbound pages were smuggled into England. Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for his work, but its popularity in England was hardly diminished. It was only through the tool of mass production through printing that circulation could be made to ordinary as well as very rich readers.

Hitchens, as well as McGrath, explained in his May 2011 Vanity Fair column[2] the import of the 1611 King James version to the development of the English language and also to the solidification of the nation of England as separate from the rest of Europe.

Four hundred years ago, just as William Shakespeare was reaching the height of his powers and showing the new scope and variety of the English language, and just as “England” itself was becoming more of a nation-state and less an offshore dependency of Europe, an extraordinary committee of clergymen and scholars completed the task of rendering the Old and New Testaments into English, and claimed that the result was the “Authorized” or “King James” version. This was a fairly conservative attempt to stabilize the Crown and the kingdom, heal the breach between competing English and Scottish Christian sects, and bind the majesty of the King to his devout people. “The powers that be,” it had Saint Paul saying in his Epistle to the Romans, “are ordained of God.” This and other phrasings, not all of them so authoritarian and conformist, continue to echo in our language: “When I was a child, I spake as a child”; “Eat, drink, and be merry”; “From strength to strength”; “Grind the faces of the poor”; “salt of the earth”; “Our Father, which art in heaven.” It’s near impossible to imagine our idiom and vernacular, let alone our liturgy, without them. Not many committees in history have come up with such crystalline prose.

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.

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?
We commend this entire piece to your consideration. And back in April 2010, Hitchens wrote a critique of the Ten Commandments[3] containing both praise and disagreement with God's and Moses' intentions. For example, there are repeated references to the treatment of one's slaves and servants and not coveting your neighbors' slaves and chattel. Are these rules then directed only at people wealthy enough to "have staff"? Hitchens asks. And he grapples with the age-old questions of what is meant by "neighbor" and by "killing". Try these yourself. They are indeed good questions.

We have wondered over the last couple of days where Hitchens might be now. Did he have an "exit interview" with St. Peter and/or God? Wonder what they might have said to each other? Despite Hitchens' repeated protestations to the contrary, might he actually have believed in God and was just fed up with human attempts to create worship organizations? Seems to me the man protesteth too much! God rest his soul!

[1] Alastair McGrath. In the Beginning. New York: Anchor Books. 2002.

[2] Christopher Hitchens. "When the King Saved God". Vanity Fair. May 2011., accessed December 17, 2011.

[3] Christopher Hitchens. "The New Commandments". Vanity Fair. April 2010., accessed December 17, 2011.

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Anonymous hajasheriff said...

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10/03/2013 1:04 AM  

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