book review, "God's Secretaries"
I just finished God's Secretaries: the making of the King James Bible,
by Adam Nicolson. It is a very uneven piece.
In order to help us appreciate the achievement of the KJV in its day, Nicolson feels he has to give us a rundown of Jacobean society and the religious figures in it, especially those associated with the king's translation project. Fair enough. Except that I don't think he really knows what to do with this information. It reads as if Geraldo Rivera covered the English Renaissance. Everything is breathless, everybody powerful is scum, good guys and bad guys are painted in cartoon outlines. It was a chore to get through the first two-thirds of the book.
When the author gets over his historical review to talk about the translation itself, comparing it to earlier (and later) versions, he does much better. Here, he shows himself more up to the job of showing why we should care about this spectacular literary artifact.
And though I don't necessarily agree with his last conclusions, where he drops the authorial persona and speaks directly of his opinions and experiences, I understand what he's driving at. Particularly interesting is his summing up of today's society:
. . . religion, or at least the conventional religion of ordinary people, has been drained of its passion. There is no modern language that can encompass the realities which the Jacobeans accepted as normal. Modern religious rhetoric is dilute and ineffectual, and where it isn't, it seems mad and aberrational. It is an appalling fact that the manner of speech that approaches most nearly to the language of these Jacobean divines comes from the mouths of murderous [Islamic] fundamentalists.
He's on to something there, I think, though I don't think we're as disconnected from the majesty and the contained wildness of Jacobean religious rhetoric as all that. In fact, I would suggest that the place where it dwells these days is in the very best fantasy writing, and that those of us who grew up with a slightly archaized imagination are often capable of feeling and expressing some of these spiritual realities without lapsing into the ineffectual or the aberrational.(BTW, whenever somebody tries to tell me that we should all use the KJV, I say that in that case, we should all speak in Jacobean English, too -- and I offer to preach in that idiom. There would be a quiz afterwards, too. That usually finishes that conversation.)