I don’t usually talk about my New Year’s Resolutions. For years, when asked, I would say that I had the same three resolutions: to exercise every day, to lose 50 pounds, and to quit smoking. Since I don’t smoke, and never have, I figured I could be certain of batting .333. And as a baseball fan, a .333 average is darn good.
But this year, I decided on a different resolution. I’m going to read the four books of Mormon scripture this year, all four. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, all of them, in one calendar year. On Sunday, I got started. Put on some music–the Lower Lights. Great band, known for doing bluegrass/country versions of hymns. Like this. And this. Love the music, love the arrangements. And I got started. Genesis 1:1.
I decided not to use the King James version of the Bible for my study this year. I decided to use the Revised Standard version. You’re going to laugh when I tell you why: it’s because of a play.
I was reading a terrific play; Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn. Another of those great plays I’ll probably never see in production, sadly. It’s a play, obviously, about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, but its also about her legacy in England. It argues, with justification I think, that Anne may have been as responsible as anyone for England’s transition from a Catholic to a Protestant nation. And I know what you’re thinking–’duh.’ Henry had the hots for her, and the only way he could get a divorce was by declaring himself the head of the Church in England. But Anne was the person who gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, the most explosive Protestant tract of the day. The play argues that Anne knew Tyndale (not implausible), spoke of him to Henry (likely), and that Henry’s subsequent conversion was sincere (could be, as much as the religious convictions of any psychopath could be sincere).
Anyway, the play Anne Boleyn is set in two periods; obviously the Tudor reign of Henry, but also the later Stuart rule of James. And James has this conversation with Dean Lancelot Andrewes and Dr. John Reynolds. Andrewes was a Church of England bishop; Reynolds a Puritan.
JAMES: How will you translate the Greek word Ecclesia?
JAMES: Hah hah! A world of difference! Church meaning an institution of the state; Congregation meaning a meeting, higgledy-piggledy group. How to translate Presbyteros?
JAMES: Priest; ordained by a bishop. ‘Elder’, an older man in a congregation. And in Corinthians, the Greek word ‘Agape?’ Faith, hope and . . . .
JAMES: Charity, yes, public responsibility, alms, civic rectitude. But ‘love’ can go anywhere, lead to loose talk of ‘love of God’ and this and that, a path to heresy and darkness. Hu, hu, hum. Hop. (Pause). In my Bible, there will be ‘church,’ ‘priest,’ and ‘charity.’
What a lovely scene. And I love how this scene–and the whole play–depicts King James. A vulgarian, a man of gross personal habits and crudity of expression, a disgusting man in many ways. And a terrible king, not because he was gay, but because he was unable to see faults in his ever-changing court favorites, leading to no consistency of policy, leading to justice by caprice and chance, arbitrary in his judgments and terrified of conspiracy, scared of his own shadow. But for all that, an intelligent, well-read man. A man who knew his Greek, and was completely conversant with theology. And a new authorized version of the Bible was a great achievement, the crowning accomplishment of James’ reign, (which was otherwise rather devoid of accomplishments). The ‘epistle dedicatory’ that appears in the front of the KJV may reek of sycophancy, but it’s not entirely unjustified–England needed that book.
But ‘church,’ ‘priest’, ‘charity.’ Brenton’s play reminds us that translation is not an exact art, and that every translator’s culture leaves its residue on every page. I’ve done some translation myself, and while I try to work with integrity and fidelity to the original text, I also have my agenda.
I’m not dissing the KJV. I love the language of that translation, archaic and (at times) inaccurate as it is. There’s a solemnity and reverence in it that I would be loathe to lose. At the same time, the English language of 1611 is not the language we speak today. I’m looking forward to reading Ezekiel and actually having some idea of what he’s saying. Not to mention Paul.
And as I read this year, I’m going to stop and read aloud. I want to imagine myself sitting on hard ground by a campfire, listening to a tribal elder recite aloud. I want that sense of myth and wonder. I want to re-imagine the Bible as oral history, transmitted mouth to ear, over millennia. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said “Let there be light.” And there was light.”
And in the background, banjos. And fiddles. And harmonicas. String basses. And tight harmonies, thirds and even seconds, in the vocals.
I’m going to read the scriptures this year. I’m going to put on my jeans and sandals, and wear my rattiest shirt. And I’m going to hear it in my mind. Congregation. And Elder. And Love.