I am King James Only (at least on Christmas eve)

For those who grew up listening to Matthew and Luke’s versions of the Christmas story in King James English, Christmas Eve services can be a jarring experience. This is particularly true if, like me, these familiar words have been reinforced over the course of a lifetime by regular exposure to Handel’s Messiah.

Returning from this year’s Christmas Eve service (which I thoroughly enjoyed despite my longstanding complaint about the abandonment of archaic language) I tapped out a curmudgeonly complaint on Facebook. The post was intentionally phrased in dogmatic language. I was hinting that I wasn’t really serious, even though, on an emotional level, I must confess to powerful feelings of personal rectitude on the subject.

The response, as I feared, was not universally warm. Some clearly didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was driving at. Others pointed out that, regardless of translation, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke can’t be harmonized. And, naturally, the biblically literate informed me that the King James Version is highly inaccurate and, as the language evolves, increasingly incomprehensible.

All of this is true, but it misses my point. Since I made no attempt to explain my visceral reaction to the use of contemporary translations of the Christmas story in public worship, I thought I should give the matter some thought.

Bill Leonard, a professor of church history I first encountered at Southern Seminary in 1975, responded to my King James-only rant with the simple observation. He noted that he has committed the Christmas story to memory (although humility prevented him from proving it).

I too can recite the Christmas story from memory, and often did so as a pastor and hospice chaplain. So have many of you. And it is virtually certain that the version of the ancient tradition you have branded into your brain is the much-abused King James account. This is because, prior to the late 1970s, what was once called “the Authorized Veresion” (or the Revised Standard Version which sticks closely to the KJV) dominated the public reading of Scripture.

And if Handel’s Messiah has been an indispensable part of your life soundtrack, the Elizabethan cadences of the KJV have been even more deeply chiseled into your subconscious, the seat of emotion.

Which is why, when you hear the “glorious song of old” translated into standard English, the emotional oxygen is sucked out of the room. It’s as if an overly-clever English teacher decided to translate Shakespeare into modern idiom so it wouldn’t be such a challenge for her students. People do that sort of thing all the time, of course, but it doesn’t work. The very strangeness, the peculiarity of the language is part of the appeal. More importantly, when you have a piece of poetry committed to memory, it will never sound right when half the words are changed. “And they were frightened,” can’t compete with “and they were sore afraid”.

This gets at why Christmas is so important for so many of us. We know, intellectually, that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. And we realize, if we’ve given the matter much thought, that Matthew and Luke are more interested in theology than in strict historical accuracy. Matthew and Luke were theologians and poets; and the two vocations are indistinguishable. They produced theological poetry and poetic theology. They spin webs of words and invite us to entangle ourselves.

The precise wording of a story if you are looking for historical information. But if you are entangled in a magical web of words, the phrasing, the cadence, the rhythm all matter. We know the story word-for-word, and if somebody changes and rearranges those words, the spell is broken.

For people who grew up listening to the Christmas story communicated in the language of the New International Version, or the New Revised Standard Version, or The Message, the King James iteration of the story may not resonate at all. It may even be off-putting. I get that. And yet I would still argue for a return to the King James Version in particular instances: the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, Isaiah 40, and, most urgently, the Christmas story. We shouldn’t just give the KJV language preferential treatment on these occasions, we should explain why we are doing it just as, when introducing students to literature rendered in archaic English, we explain why we are sticking with the original. Traditional Christmas carols function in the same way.

Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains,
they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

That wasn’t written in 1611 (the year the KJV came to birth); it’s from 1849, and sounds like it. We don’t speak that way anymore and are thus incapable of producing that kind of prose. But the song has become part of our collective memory. It is a gift from a lost dimension. It can’t be replicated; it can only be gratefully received as gift.

Preaching and teaching the story is another matter, of course. There is a place for rendering the text in language that is both simple and recognizable, just as there is a place for digging behind the English translation to the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic original.

But worship is primarily a left-brain activity; properly understood, it is far more emotional than cognitive. It’s about passing along the old, old story of Jesus and his love in whatever language connects with the heart. We didn’t invent the story. It is an inheritance, passed from one generation to the other. And nothing reinforces our dependence on tradition more effectively than an occasional return to the glorious phrasing of the King James Version.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

3 thoughts on “I am King James Only (at least on Christmas eve)

  1. Well stated and though I spent many years focusing on the original language and teaching to correct the KJV, I agree with you and would not want to replace the poetic and visceral power of key


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