One of the 49 biographical essays in Clive James’s magnum opus Cultural Amnesia (see previous post) takes as its start point the following quotation from the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz:
The scriptures constitute the common good of believers, agnostics and atheists.
As James observes, this ought to be taken almost for granted:
That the Bible, for a Western civilization, is the common good of believers and non-believers ought to be obvious, but for some reason it is a truth hard to see except when that same civilization is at the point of collapse.
This had certainly been the experience of Czesław Miłosz, who had seen the collapse of civilisation in his home country, Poland, during the second world war. After the war, Miłosz and his fellow artists could not escape the memory of what they had gone through:
When they looked over their shoulders […] there was little else in view, except rubble. Milosz was living with that knowledge when he said this about the scriptures. Looking for something to count on, he found the Bible in the ruins.
We live, James suggests, in a rather more “comfortable set of ruins”, in which “there seems less to be afraid of”. As a result, “we can persuade ourselves that history is a linear development, in which even the eternal can become outdated, and be safely forgotten.” He continues:
Perhaps our own catastrophe will never come in any readily intelligible form, so it will never matter if there is nothing to go back to, no past to legitimize the permanent present, which will legitimize itself by doing us no evil except by its puffball bombardment of triviality. There is always the chance that our confident iconoclasts are right. Milosz is telling us not to bet on it, but perhaps he was unlucky.
James goes on to discuss his own relationship, as a lapsed Anglican, with the Bible – and his dismay at the enthusiasm with which the Church of England has abandoned the Authorised Version:
You can be a non-believer, however, and still be amazed at how even the believers are ready to let the Bible go. In England, the most lethal attack on the scriptures has been mounted by the established Church itself. The King James Bible is a prose masterpiece compiled at a time when even a committee could write English. The modern versions, done in the name of comprehension, add up to an assault on readability.
James quotes T.S. Eliot, who said that the Revised Standard Version “was the work of men who did not realize they were atheists”. He is even more scathing about the New English Bible, with its “successful reduction of once-vital language to a compendium of banalities”.
I normally start sighing and rolling my eyes a little when faced with this line of argument, as it brings to mind Eliot’s comment that “Those who talk of the Bible as a ‘monument of English prose’ are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity”. James, however, has more interesting things to say about the Bible than merely admiring the monumentality of its prose.
But why should a non-believer feel entitled to express a view on this in the first place? James describes how he was accused by Richard Ingrams of “being in bad faith” when he joined a public protest against changes to the Book of Common Prayer despite not being a practising Christian. James responds:
But it was my book too. I had been brought up on the scriptures, the prayers and the hymns. I had better reasons than inertia for deploring their destruction.
For James, the Authorised Version stood as a rock of humanism against the levelling forces of consumer capitalism:
For me, the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against the pervasive falsehoods of advertising, social engineering, moral uplift, demagogic politics—all the verbal corruptions of democracy, the language of illusion.
Miłosz had even better reasons to value the Bible. For him:
the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against a much more dangerous language, the language of legalized murder.
James suggests that the church’s flight from its literary and liturgical heritage may lie partly in its established status:
Sooner than become the enemy of its own classical texts, the Anglican Church would have done better to seize the first opportunity of disestablishing itself. However tenuous, its offical connection to the state has been enough to saddle it with the doomed ambition of maximizing its popular audience, like a television channel in desperate search of more viewers who eat crisps.
This brings us to one of the weaker aspects of James’s argument in this essay. He describes the potential benefits of disestablishment as follows:
Separated from a fully secularized state, it might have fully enjoyed the only civilized condition for a religion, which is to provide a spiritual structure for private life. […] In its proper sphere, private life, a religion can keep its teachings as pure and strict as it likes, as long as they do not break the law.
That is, to put it mildly, far too simplistic – and imposes a privatised, liberal-secular understanding of religion on its adherents (“We will tell you what your religion is allowed to mean“). James himself goes on to describe the impact the the Pope’s visit to Poland had in 1979, which surely refutes his reduction of Christianity to “a spiritual structure for private life”. As N.T. Wright always points out, Christianity has constituted a political challenge to the “powers that be” ever since the first believers went to their deaths insisting that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. The role of the church in opposing apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s is another example of how taking seriously the challenge of the gospel in the political sphere, and refusing to retreat to becoming a “spiritual structure for private life”, needn’t have as its ultimate aim the imposition of a theocracy.
James is moving, however, when he describes the continuing attraction of Jesus for him, and for others who yearn for something more than the therapeutic moralism that is the main spiritual diet on offer today:
It is true that Jesus never spoke the language of the King James Version of the New Testament. But the language of the King James Version is of a poetic intensity congruent with the impact Jesus must once have made on simple souls, of whom I am still one: simple enough, anyway, to need my sins forgiven. Now that there is nobody to do that for me, I must try to do it myself. Like most men with a conscience, I find that very hard, and spend much time feeling absurd. But without the scriptures we poor wretches would be lost indeed, because without them, conscience itself would become just another disturbance of the personality, to be cured by counselling. We are surrounded by voices telling us that everything will come right if we learn to love ourselves. Imagine the torments of Jesus in his passion, if, on top of the sponge of vinegar and the spear, they had offered him counselling as well.
So, too, for Czesław Miłosz, exiled in California after his defection from Poland in 1951, who “saw enough of America’s culture of personal fulfilment to wonder what he had got himself into”:
But he never forgot what he had got himself out of – a repression so arid that it left him thirsty for a language he could respect, even though it came from a book he couldn’t believe.
In the end, though, I suspect that all this amounts to an attempt to live off the inherited capital of the Christian past; and that a Bible detached from faith in Christ and from the life of the church is, whatever its literary qualities, a cultural asset that depreciates faster than Clive James realises.