Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.

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