Since the individual writings of the Bible were first compiled, it has remained a major source of spiritual inspiration and nourishment for Christians all around the world. It would be a colossal understatement to suggest that the Bible has proven integral for countless people down the centuries. But it seems that the Bible has largely been neglected as a literary text. Yet, the literary beauty of Scripture only reflects and reinforces its divine nature, and its literary and linguistic influence on English is remarkable.
Modern English owes much of its verbiage and idiomatic foundations to the works of Shakespeare and the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Beyond many considering the KJV to be a sacred text, it is also true that the work has introduced a significant amount of cultural influence over the past four centuries. C.S. Lewis, a prominent Christian thinker and author of The Chronicles of Narnia series, has said that the KJV contains a “treasure house of English prose,” which has provided English literature with quotes and allusions that have been used over the past four centuries.
However, the realization of the brilliance of the KJV Bible has not been limited only to Christians. Atheist Richard Dawkins has suggested that it is important for everyone in the English-speaking world to maintain familiarity with the KJV Bible, as he notes that the work can give the reader a glimpse into our cultural past. A few such phrases that we get from the KJV Bible are “At their wit’s end”; “A thorn in the flesh”; “Eye for an eye”; “Fight the good fight”; “Money is the root of all evil”; “Turned the world upside down”; “Woe is me”; “Vengeance is mine”; and “White as snow.”
Robert Alter, known for his translation of the Old Testament, has suggested that the KJV Bible had an immense influence on some of the greatest English writers in history, such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. But the KJV Bible has fallen out of favor with younger generations who have resorted to more readable translations, such as the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV). What these young readers gain in readability, they almost certainly lose in aesthetic beauty and literary brilliance.
It is for this reason that I believe it is best to keep several Bibles by your side, as they can add different elements to the reading experience. I personally use around eight different Bible translations, and they all serve unique purposes. While the KJV Bible is an excellent translation for general reading, its translation has some debate over accuracy in some spots, and the language can seem antiquated to many modern readers.
As a result, we should strike a balance in the way we approach the KJV. Just as I do not believe that it is the most productive to exclusively read the Bible for the aesthetic elements, it is equally unproductive to read exclusively through a scholarly lens.
But beyond how we approach the Bible and the KJV, there’s the question of whether people are even reading the Bible in the first place. According to Pew Research, just 35 percent of Americans read their Bible at least once a week, whereas 45 percent of Americans seldom read their Bible, if ever.
Unfortunately, this may be part of a larger trend. The prevalence of reading continues to drop across the U.S., and as a result, we should expect appreciation for literature to continue to sink, which won’t be without its consequences. As I previously wrote for Intellectual Takeout:
The best books are reminders that we’re not the only one to have felt the way we do—that we are not alone in the world—and that the questions we have about the world have been asked many times before.
It’s through reading difficult books that we come away with something far more meaningful and long-lasting than a viral video on social media, namely, the expansion of our solitary existence.
Similarly, it’s easier to scroll through the short, off-the-cuff remarks on social media than pick up the KJV, but isn’t the value that we get from the KJV and its “treasure house of English prose” infinitely greater?
So, for those of us who care about Western values and the English language, perhaps it is time to revisit the KJV Bible, where we find the beauty, majesty, and imagery that has made Western Civilization so successful and desirable for so long.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons-Sgerbic, CC BY-SA 4.0