Friday, December 17, 2010

Words That Matter

This year marks the 45th anniversary of that much loved Christmas TV classic, Charlie Brown's Christmas. It's a well done, beautiful, inspiring program in virtually every respect. The dramatic centerpiece of the story occurs when Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas by reciting Luke 2:8-14. The text is taken, of course, from the "King James Version," the 400th anniversary of whose publication will be coming up in 2011.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

In 1965, that text was about as familiar as any in English literature. The "Authorized Version" (as the KJV is officially called) was just that - "authorized," an official translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) to use in the Established Church of England. While not the first English translation, its official status quickly catapulted it to become the most commonly used one among English-speaking Protestants. Four centuries - and many translations later - the KJV remains today the most widely read English translation of the Bible worldwide. What a tribute to the staying power of beautiful, uplifting English!
Some perhaps might be tempted to dismiss the KJV's as excessively archaic for a modern audience (despite the fact that it is still the most read English Bible translation in the world). In fact, the KJV was always archaic - deliberately so. As I understand it, the translators used not the contemporary Jacobean English but the Elizabethan English of a generation earlier - familiar enough to be completely comprehensible but just archaic enough to sound special. Not just good English, but mildly archaic-sounding English was apparently seen as the vehicle for conveying something so special, so elevated, so sacred as the word of God.
Growing up in a pre-ecumenical era, I was, of course, aware of the KJV from literature, movies, TV, and politicians' speeches, but I was much more familiar with the "Douay-Rheims" version of the Bible in English - the approved Catholic translation (which had actually undegone several translations and revisions since its initial late 16th century version). Based upon the Latin Vulgate, the Douay Bible differed noticeably from the KJV in certain spots famously, for example in its translation of the angelic hymn in Luke 2:14 - Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. Even so, it shared with the KJV a special way of sounding that, while understandable, was obviously different from daily, pedestrian English and so conveyed sacredness by the very sound of the words.
In the 45 years since Charlie Brown's Christmas first appeared, there have been many newer translations, some eminently scholarly, some primarily popular, which have tried to render the inspired text in accessibly contemporary English. I have no qualifications to assess the scholarly merits and linguistic accuracy of any of any of these various versions. As a consumer of scriptural and liturgical texts, however, I am quite aware of how a text sounds and whether it has the power to lift one beyond the contemporary and the pedestrian. Words really do matter.

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