Sunday 27 May 2012

The King Gove Bible

I just thought that I would put on record my thoughts about the Secretary of State for Education's decision to place a copy of the King James Bible in every maintained school in the country.

1. I have absolutely no objection to Religious Education being taught in schools. I do object to schools fibbing about these lessons being compulsory. They're not. I had a run-in with the very good inner-city comp two of my children went to when we had a circular round stating quite clearly that it was compulsory to attend RE lessons. No, the provision of RE is compulsory. Attendance at them is not. Pupils can choose to not attend them provided they have a letter from parents/carers.

2. I have absolutely no objection to the nature of Christianity being taught in RE lessons, assuming it will be taught alongside other 'major world religions' which is precisely how the RE syllabus is described and how in most cases it is taught, particularly in the two years leading up to the GCSE. However, if parents have opted for a 'faith' school or an Academy they either know or will find out that RE at KS1, KS2 and KS3 (ie between the ages of 5 and 14) may well be directed towards one specific religion. If it's a faith school, then presumably that's what parents and children are choosing. In many cases, this may also be so for parents and children choosing an Academy with a particular 'ethos'. However, some parents are not always aware just what that means or, at the end of the day, may not mind particularly. It should be said here that this is how pupils in British schools are receiving ever wider and more different kinds of education. Both the previous government and this one seem to think that this is a good idea when it comes to religious and 'moral' education whilst at the same time requiring equal and uniform conditions in other areas of education eg in the teaching of reading.

3. The King James Bible is a very specific document which came out of some particular struggles in Europe over religion, morality, the organisation of churches, the role of the state in religion and whether literacy was for all or for some. It incorporated many documents and translations that preceded it and evolved over several hundred years even though people frequently think that what they are reading is the exact book which appeared in the second decade of the 17th century. I'm not absolutely sure which version of the King James Bible has gone out to all schools but it isn't the exact same one as was first produced. If nothing else, the spelling will  have been modernised.

4. In my lifetime, most Christians in this country came to the conclusion that the King James Bible was not fit for purpose. They needed a text that everyone could understand and which was on reflection a better, more accurate translation of the oldest known texts. Various key words were and still are disputed eg whether people are servants or slaves, whether certain women are described with a word that means 'woman' or as prostitute and so on. The 'New English Bible' was produced in order to solve these problems. Anyone interested in modern school pupils looking at how 'the bible' (as we say) tells the story of the crucifixion or the story of Abraham and Isaac will find it doubly or triply difficult using the King James Bible than it is with the New English Bible. This is not only because the King James Bible is written in early seventeenth century English. It is because much of it rests on translations that were made many years before. Even in its own time, it borrowed the rhetoric and language of a previous era. If you go online, you can see sites which show how passages evolved (or didn't) across these bibles. So, in summary, I dispute very strongly the idea that the King James Bible is very useful as a way of talking about Christianity to young people.

5. One of the justifications for sending out this particular bible to all schools is that it had an immensely important part to pay in language and literature. I agree, it did. However, it doesn't really help to exaggerate this. First, two writers who also had an immense influence on language and literature in this country show us that one (Chaucer) produced all his writing well before the King James Bible, and Shakespeare died very soon after he could have seen it. All his Christian references are thought to come from the 'Geneva' bible. Yes, there are plenty of specific phrases which survive because the King James Bible was the stipulated text ('salt of the earth', 'through a glass darkly') but these alone wouldn't or shouldn't justify making this special case for sending out a copy to all schools. Chaucer, for example, represents a key moment in literature from these islands where French and English were combined into a mightily successful piece of literature. Shakespeare's work represents an inventiveness with language and ideas unmatched previously and has become a text that has influenced writing ever since. It's true that writers following the production of the King James Bible drew on its language and imagery but it is not easy to distinguish between the language of that bible and the Christian ideas represented by it. It is of course a production of Protestant England and poses certain problems for Christians who do not see themselves in that particular way.

6. Where we are trying to interest children in the history of 'the English language' (a term which itself can be disputed, by the way), then using the King James Bible as a key text is highly problematical. Much easier and more appropriate from a literary point of view  is eg a few lines of Beowulf and/or an Old English riddle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Dickens. But this isn't the only 'English' going on. Running alongside anything that appears in print are popular forms of speaking - and on occasions of writing - as well as regionally specific kinds. Though often hidden out of sight or neglected, it is possible to trace the history of  these many popular Englishes through such texts as folk songs, poetry, dialogue in drama and, since the time of verbatim court transcripts, in court case documents. That way, we discover, for example that 'ain't' is not a 'wrong' form of English, it is simply one form of usage which has been around for hundreds of years ('ain't' 'ent' 'int' etc) and is no more right or wrong that 'isn't' or 'haven't'.

7. It hasn't cost the government millions to send out these bibles. It seems as if an anonymous donor has contributed the lion's share. But we should ask if this is what happens in education now? The Secretary of State has a whim of some sort another, flies a kite saying that this or that should take place in schools, and an anonymous donor appears and funds its execution? It is really no way to run a public institution, no way to treat the matter of education (content or method). It's open to abuse, corruption, vanity and totalitarianism. My argument is that there is a touch of all these in this story. Why for example does it say on the spine of the bible that it comes from the Secretary of State for Education? What a gross piece of self-regarding nonsense! As the donor is anonymous, we may never find out if that donor is rewarded with honours in some way as a consequence or indeed with any other perks. It surely is not the job of a Secretary of State for Education to come up with pet projects and peddle them. He or she is at the head of a complex institution supposedly full of checks and balances - inspectors, committees, sub-committees and ultimately education can only take place with consent from all. But this event is non-consensual. It hasn't emerged out of discussion, consultation and argument. If a committee had heard evidence from a range of sources - linguistic, literary, Christian, multi-faith and non-faith, historical, educational etc and the general view was that every school should indeed be sent this particular bible, then I would probably have to keep quiet about it. The point is that I don't believe for a moment that any such consensus would be reached. I doubt that there was or is any particular wish for this bible to be distributed in this way.

8. I predict that in most cases, in most schools, the book will be quietly ignored.

[9. On a personal note, a version of the King James Bible was how I received a good deal of my Christian education in state non-denominational school in the 1950s and 60s. I can quote several parts of it. However, because I can and enjoy doing so, would be no reason for me to impose that memory on others. I suspect that Michael Gove's decision to impose it in this way is precisely because he has memories as a boy of standing in chapel while someone read out in sonorous tones: '...there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus...' or he sang 'The Lord's my shepherd...' though the usual text we  sang was adapted from the King James Bible even though they told us it was 'the Psalm'. (It wasn't!). Another 'incidentally' here, the KJB represents the first time in English when people would have heard or read what is in effect 'free verse' eg the Song of Solomon or the Psalms. These are English free verse translations of Hebrew poetry. They are not however the first examples of this as both Wycliffe and Tyndale were doing it long before the King James. It's the dissemination that is new. However, people who object to free verse poetry as 'chopped up prose' are often people who admire and love the prose of the King James Bible eg Auberon Waugh. OK in the King James Bible. Not OK when poets do it. ]