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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

When your heart's not open

For Christmas this year I received "The Ballad of John Clare" by Hugh Lupton. It is without doubt the best novel I've read since 1981 (When I read "To Kill a Mockingbird"). It is a fictionalised biography covering a year in the life of the poet John Clare. It is set in 1811, at the time when in the countryside between Peterborough and Northampton where Clare was born, the land was being enclosed, following earlier legislation. At the heart of the story is the enormous feeling of injustice felt by the poor ands the smallholders when their rights to graze stock or grow crops on common fields were taken away. Lupton quotes the 16th century verse that arose from the first protests against enclosure:

"The law locks up the man or woman,


Who steals the goose from off the common.

But leaves the greater villain loose,

Who steals the common from off the goose."

So this year marks 200 years since that part of countryside (along with a lot of the rest of it) was effectively privatised, having previouslyy been either held in common or at least in the hands of a greater number of individual owners and tenant farmers. Those whose livelihoods were removed fell into dire poverty. As the industrial revolution got underway, many moved north to the city to try to find work in mills and factories, leaving their families and their roots behind.  It was a turning point for England.

There has been a lot of talk in the media and the blogosphere this week about another anniversary, the 400th birthday of the King James Bible (KJV) first published in 1611. This date was also a turning point, but for very different reasons.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say I think that 1811 is the more significant anniversary. Much has been made of the importance of the KJV in terms of its contribution to the English language - we all use phrases in our written and spoken language today that arose from the text of the KJV, there's no getting away from that. 1611 also marked a pause in the very turbulent place that was the English religious landscape of the 16th and 17th centuries. The KJV was for centuries a unifying text, to which the Christian Anglophone world looked. The British Empire took it with them in missionary endeavour, and even today the likes of Bono and Melvin Bragg wax lyrical about the beauty of its language.

Which is where the problem starts for me. The Bible wasn't written to sound nice, it wasn't meant to be a preserver of language or culture; it was meant to tell a story, the story of God, and to introduce us to a person - Jesus Christ. Now, no one Bible  translation is perfect, indeed the modern science of translation has a lot to say about the impossibility of actually properly translating anything. The KJV, I feel, was a good tool for its day, but like the ancient farming tools that were overtaken by the seed drill and the subsequent mechanisation of farming, it has been superseded by better, more accurate, more scholarly and more comprehensible Bible translations, and we need to let it go. It may have been a thing of beauty, but the KJV also contains (to our ears) myriad words and expressions that are not only meaningless but also in some cases do not do justice to the original text. Just google "kjv inaccuracies" to get a flavour of this.

Now, I realise 1811 is a bit of a non-specific anniversary, but I still feel that 200 years since the end of widespread smallholder and common land farming is a more important anniversary to mark. The injustice of it  led in some cases to open conflict between the landed gentry and the peasantry - a real live class war. For today's protester this intense and bitter disappointment and feeling of being crushed has come to the surface again. Our class structure and social and economic landscape was formed by the consequences of  enclosure. It contributed at least as much as the Industrial revolution to the breakdown of family ties and rural roots. Never forget, the nuclear family didn't exist in the pre-industrial, unenclosed age. People lived much closer to their relatives in multi-generational groups.

1611 and 1811 do have something in common though. They have both caused us as a nation to idealise - the Bible and the countryside respectively. After enclosure, the corporate mindset of the rural population always looked back fondly upon the pre-industrialised farming villages. This formed the "chocolate box" image of thatched cottages and winding lanes that we still operate on today as an archetypal rural scene. It wasn't really like that though (or at least not for long), even if people have been trying to recreate rural life in that image ever since.( I'm often tempted to suggest middens and no running water should be included in planning permission in villages where the planners want to preserve the chocolate box!)

After its publication the KJV froze in time the religious language of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and froze alongside it a set of religious assumptions (behind the translated text, from the minds of the translators) many of which have long disappeared, especially with regard to gender, to race and to the created order. We haven't changed our theology of these things by abandoning biblical (read: KJV) truth, but by studying the original texts (i.e. Hebrew and Greek) and discovering (sometimes also though science) that ther are other ways of understanding. To look back at the KJV is to idealise language in the face of a snowballing development of newer words and forms of language (innit?) I hesitate to suggest, but I believe it to be true, that those who also look back to the KJV for an idealised "traditional" faith, are holding back the church in mission, strangling us like a dog on a choke chain. It wasn't ever really like that, and can never be again.

The landscape of rural England is changing again in this age. Eco-town, anyone? Maybe not, but something has to give in the quest for more and better housing (but that's another story). Chocolate box villages are only on chocolate boxes; everywhere else has Range Rovers and Sky dishes and youth crime just like anywhere else.

The landscape of religious England is also changing in this age. I don't know how its going to turn out, but it is by trusting a person (Jesus) rather than a book (the KJV) that I intend to ride the storm.

Languages are meant to evolve, not to stay the same. English will still be English even when the KJV is long forgotten (that's "when" not "if") . I'm not sure 'evolve' is the right term for Christianity, but I do believe our faith is meant to adapt to each new culture in which it finds itself. You wouldn't take the KJV to an undiscovered tribe in the Amazon now, so why make the descendants of the disenfranchised farmers of 1811 read it here?

Not properly researched, I know, but there you go!

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking about this too and after listening to a program on radio 4 with a bloke waxing lyrical about the superiority of the KJV, I came away feeling many of the same things as you, that as an English teacher in earlier days, I can appreciate the beauty of the language but at the same time this must not over-ride a bible's use in the Missio Dei and the more we can enable people to understand the Word of God, the better, surely.

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