I can’t remember when it started exactly, but, once my eyes drifted to the stilted syntax, I couldn’t turn them away.  After years of study in liberal Christian contexts, I read the Bible in the New Revised Standard Version.  The NRSV has been the standard issue in American divinity schools for a generation; when I read it, I often evened out the translation by replacing all of the male pronouns with gender-free nouns and changing the all-caps “LORD” (denoting the Hebrew “YHWH”) to “Adonai,” a stand-in term for the unsayable name that the Hebrews gave to the divine.  Often in church I read from the Oxford Inclusive Version, which controversially replaced the pronouns on the page in the 1990s.  In short, I was given to translations that were modern, scholarly, and relatively inoffensive.  But then something happened.

During a short course at Oxford in 2004, I took up the Revised English Version after an old vicar claimed it was the only Bible worth reading.  He smiled as he said it, lifting his glass of sherry on the lawn at Wadham College.  “Real English, you know. Not American.”  This English major took the jibe in fun and found a copy of the REV, which, as it turned out, read like a fairy tale with beautiful turns of phrases, jots and tittles for the Anglophile on nearly every page.  I took the book home and read it often next the NRSV, which sounded dully practical in comparison.  I have often felt glad that the old Englishman made his joke because I have profited from it ever since, but last year I found myself indebted to someone else as well.

While reading Cormac McCarthy’s dark and disturbing novel Blood Meridian for our men’s retreat, I was repeatedly reminded of the King James Bible.  McCarthy’s sentences were oddly opaque and understandable all at once; their strange construction, invented words, and eery images evoked the old 17th Century Bible not often read these days.  After reading the book, along with an essay by Wendell Berry encouraging a return to the King James Bible lest we forget that the stories we read on Sunday are archaic and strange, I reached to the top of my shelf for my KJB.  My copy of the KJB is not a devotional version with pious commentary; rather, my copy is the literary equivalent Oxford World’s Classics edition.  I dug into the book, finding there something quite different than the freshened texts to which I had grown accustomed.

The old language of the KJB helped me to approach it once again as literature.  I felt as if I was reading Shakespeare or Milton, tumbling through the lines in search of great characters, scenes, and speeches.  Moving away from the modern translations (which I believe are more theologically correct), I sat with the words read by my forebears (which are oftentimes more poetic).  Instead of sanding down the rough edges, the KJB draws them out and brings to life the dark and wild drama of a capricious God, who stands clearly as a character not a concept.  In his new book, The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, literary critic Harold Bloom writes of a similar experience:

A literary appreciation of the KJB must risk blasphemy because truly what is most powerful in the unread Scriptures is blasphemous at its core:  the god who is an astonishing, outrageous personality upon whom theologies have been imposed.  All too often, he is bad news: his passions are violent, excessive, ill-tempered, unfathomable, and horribly dangerous.  If in some of his aspects he evokes awe, in others he engenders fright.  (Bloom, 4.)

It’s true.  The God of the Bible, perhaps especially the KJB, is a difficult character.  Yet reading “him” as a character is the beginning of approaching the Bible figuratively rather than literally.  And that is the point of this wonky literature-meets-religion post.  Sometimes the very oldest texts, the ones that write in ways we never would or could, jar us into the recognition of the fundamental strangeness and wonder of the stories.  Reading the Bible as literature might return it to a new relevance, especially among liberals.  How many of us go to book clubs and excel at discussing plot, character, and narrative arc between glasses of wine yet would feign attend a Bible study?    Bloom also notes the joy of reading the Bible as we would any great work, critiquing its presumptions and prejudices while celebrating its timeless and inspiring qualities:

Reading the Bible as a monument of literary culture akin to Shakespeare frees the text not only of the lacquer of dogma but also of much social history that has crippled apprehensions of its permanent value to those who have been and are still denied justice and equity.  If it has been usurped endlessly by oppressors, nevertheless it was and is an ultimate resource for heroic endurance and resistance by the insulted and the injured.  The Hebrew prophets from Amos and Micah on through James the brother of Jesus constitute an authoritative proclamation of the pragmatic works of goodness required of societies and individuals.  (Bloom, 9.)

It leads me to this week’s questions.  How do you approach the Bible these days?  If you read it, do you read it as religion or literature (or both)?  Have you had your own experiences (a joking professor, an unexpected novel) that opened it to you in new ways?

J

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