A ‘good’ Christian, perhaps, but not a ‘great’ one: David Cameron and the King James Bible

Two weeks before the end of the year which marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version of the Bible (popularly known as the King James Bible), the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, joined his voice to the wide variety of commemorative testimonies, telling an audience in Oxford that ‘the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history’. Given our participation in the successful York Conference on the Bible in the Seventeenth Century, held in July this year, the Conversion Narratives team have to agree. Yet Cameron’s speech, which has already been singled out by the playwright David Edgar as a continuation of the PM’s attack on multiculturalism, offers a very peculiar version of the KJV, flattening out much of the difficulty and drama of its language, its appropriation, and its politics.

Though Cameron celebrated the ‘evocative’ language of the 1611 Authorized Version, all but one of the phrases he highlighted as examples of the translation’s gift to the English language are, as Edgar points out, found in the earlier translations that informed and shaped the collaborative efforts of the team of divines and scholars who produced the King James Bible. Equally, Cameron’s rather vague claim that the KJV offers a ‘magic and meaning’ lost by newer (and more accurate) versions is undermined by his example: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly’ — a phrase which possesses an undeniable resonance, but whose meaning and complexity is largely lost to modern readers.

Cameron is right that this is a more poetic phrase than the two modern alternatives (culled from Wikipedia!) he presents (‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror’ and ‘What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror) but the ‘magic’ here, at least for a modern audience, obscures rather than clarifying meaning — the sound of the phrase allows us to gloss over, rather than dig into, its sense. The biblical term εσοπτρου is ambiguous, probably referring to a mirror or a lens, and this is certainly how the early modern translators understood the term. For an early seventeenth century audience, the term ‘glass’ invoked not a transparent substance but the new — and often flawed — technology of the glass mirror, and the idea of seeing ‘through’ the glass offered the idea of using a mirror to catch an oblique glance of something it was otherwise impossible to see (‘darkly’ means ‘imperfectly’). For most modern readers, though — and I include myself — this well-known passage is more likely to invoke the idea of squinting through a murky window than angling a reflective surface to catch a sudden glimpse of something hidden. Cameron’s bland statement that ‘Powerful language is incredibly evocative’ does little to explain what it is that the language of the Bible actually evokes, or what he thinks we might find there beyond a sonorous and reassuring set of familiar phrases.

Throughout the speech, Cameron collapsed the particulars of the King James Version with a much broader sense of the cultural pervasiveness of the Bible. His claim that the artist Giotto was influenced by the Bible is true, if uncontroversial, but since the Florentine Giotto — as @mercpol pointed out on twitter — died in 1337, it cannot have been the Authorized Version which informed his works. Equally, the KJV — and the Bible more broadly — has undoubtedly been central to British political thought, but as a far more hotly contested set of ideas and possibilities than Cameron’s celebration of ‘constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy’ might suggest.

Perhaps the most peculiar element of Cameron’s speech (at least from the perspective of this project) was his insistence that he spoke ‘Not as some great Christian on a mission to convert the world’ but as ‘a committed – but I have to say vaguely practising – Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith’. It is probably as well that Cameron denied any evangelical intent, since his address to an audience of Church of England clergy gathered in a former home of the current Archbishop of Canterbury seems like the archetypal case of preaching to the converted. What is more telling is the instability of tone that informs the entirety of Cameron’s address: he is committed — but not too committed — to a vaguely-defined (and rarely observed) Anglican faith which does not seem to demand very much of its adherents, but which offers us all, he insists, certain ‘values’ . What precisely those values are are left as unclear, in Cameron’s elaboration, as the question of how exactly the 1611 translation led to the end of slavery and the emancipation of women, topics which did not intersest James and his translators at all.

The idea of the ‘great Christian’ is a peculiar one: though the phrase could be straightforwardly positive, here it feels like an embarrassed acknowledgement that while, for Cameron, faith may encode certain moral values (thankfully for this atheist, he admits that some non-Christians may have their own moral code), overt or strident faith is not welcome in the imagined Britain of polite Anglicans and after-dinner speaking. After all, this is a country in which religion, sex, and politics are the three topics banned from dinner-table conversation (with religion the one element in the triad where that prohibition is probably most consistently observed). Cameron is happy, it seems, to see different faiths (and even no faith) co-exist as long as no-one believes anything too strongly — and as long as he is allowed to insist that this is, nonetheless, a ‘christian country’. As evidence for the latter claim, he offers up the recent royal wedding, though it could be argued that that event demonstrated a greater national fascination with Pippa Middleton’s form-fitting bridesmaid’s dress than with the Anglican service itself.

If Cameron doesn’t wish to convert anyone, it is no wonder that he was unable to acknowledge the undeniable fact that the King James Bible did: the translators’ dedication to King James urges him to ‘goe forward with … confidence and resolution … in maintaining the trueth of CHRIST, and propagating it farre and neere’ and celebrated the evidence of James’ zeal ‘manifesting it selfe abroad in the furthest parts of Christendome’. They established their aims and purposes in direct opposition to other christian traditions (both ‘Popish persons’ and ‘self-conceited brethren’), and informed the general reader ‘Ye are brought unto fountaines of living water which yee digged not; doe not cast earth into them with the Philistines, neither preferre broken pits before them with the wicked Jewes’.

The word ‘mission’, used to mean ‘A body of persons sent out by a religious organization to evangelize abroad’ (OED), dates from precisely the point in history at which the King James Version was published and disseminated. In 1622, for example, Sir Francis Bacon celebrated the fact that ‘The Church maketh her Missions, into the Extreme Parts, of the Nations, and Isles’.

Cameron’s embarrassed attempt to stand up for Christian values while shying away from the imperial history of the sometimes violent imposition of the Christian faith across large portions of the early modern globe demonstrates the difficulty of trying to appropriate the past while refusing to think about history. It is true that the Authorized Version remains pertinent today; true that its language has entered into popular discourse, and that it has had a profound effect on the English consciousness and political constitution (Cameron steered well clear of Scotland, Ireland or Wales). But it is much less clear that the Bible can easily be pressed into the service of ‘muscular liberalism’ or that we can sweep under the carpet a very long and turbulent history of the forced imposition of faith on people of different or no religions, or of gentler attempts at persuasion. It is difficult to claim the KJV as evidence for a christian Britain, if Cameron is not prepared to admit that faith-based politics have often been violent and deeply intolerant. Rather than merging all religious feeling into a gentle and faintly ashamed set of ‘vaguely practised’ values, the Authorized Version offers us a compelling history of the ways in which the Bible has been used to establish different faiths as fundamentally incompatible, and the ways in which its translators have seen themselves as being on ‘a mission to convert the world’. If we choose to grapple with that difficult, fraught, and sometimes shameful history, it may lead to a far greater respect for and embrace of the difference of faiths — and the different intensity of those faiths — actually present in modern Britain.

The full text of Cameron’s speech is available online. For an informative exhibition on the varieties, impact, and reception of the KJV, see the Manifold Greatness exhibition pages at the Folger Shakespeare Library. If you want to find out more about Renaissance mirrors, take a look at Debora Shuger’s fantastic article ‘The “I” of the beholder: Renaissance Mirrors and the Reflexive Mind’, in Fumerton and Hunt (eds), Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 21-41 and Rayna Kalas’ ‘The Technology of Reflection: Renaissance Mirrors of Steel and Glass’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32 (2002).

NB: the contents of this post do not reflect the views of the University of York or of the AHRC.

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One thought on “A ‘good’ Christian, perhaps, but not a ‘great’ one: David Cameron and the King James Bible

  1. As a postscript to my colleague, Helen Smith’s timely reminder of the pitfalls attendant on the Prime Minister’s attempt to appropriate the past without actually thinking about history, I would like to quote from the playwright, David Edgar’s Afterword to his dramatic account of the translation of God’s Word into English, “Written on the Heart”, that was first performed by the RSC earlier in this anniversary year:

    “The gap between the intention of the English Bible translators and the outcome of their work is as stark in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth. When, in a 2004 speech on Britishness, Gordon Brown praised the King James Bible for bringing different denominations ‘together in committee to create a symbol of unity for the whole nation’, he did n’t mention that it failed. In fewer than ten years, Europe would be aflame with what was to become the Thirty Years’ war [1618-48]; within thirty, the English Civil War had broken out [referred to memorably by the historian John Morrill as ‘Britain’s Wars of Religion’], consigning Bancroft’s successor [as Archbishop of Canterbury] William Laud and James’ successor, [King] Charles to the executioner’s block… And despite Laud’s efforts to protect the KJB commercially by banning its competitors, the universal success of the King James’ version had to wait for the restoration of the monarchy [in 1660] and its spread across the world for Britain’s great imperial advance”. (David Edgar, Written on the Heart, 2011, pp. 112-13)

    This last fact, the relatively late take up of the KJB as the canonical vernacular translation, is aptly symbolised by the fact that the text usually simply referred to as that of 1611 is, as we have it today, actually substantially that of 1769!

    For a concise, scholarly, yet accessible account of the genesis, gestation and later reception of the KJB see the excellent book by David Norton: “The King James Bible: a short history from Tyndale to Today”, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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