Friday, December 02, 2005

Music Abiding
Whenever we visit the inlaws over Christmas, we always go to church on Christmas Eve. On the list of my life's annoyances, this is a minor one, really. Christmas Eve service was a major family ritual when I was a kid, and spending time with my niece and nephews, no matter where it is, is rarely wasted. So I go along without making an issue of it (although if the Packers/Vikings Christmas Eve game last year had gone into overtime, it might have become an issue). I don't participate, however, apart from sitting there listening.

I have written before, here and at The Hits Just Keep On' Comin, about my enjoyment of Christmas music: a big ol' choir cranking up the classic hits in a decorated church on Christmas Eve can be enjoyed for purely aesthetic reasons having nothing to do with religion. But there's another kind of music that's largely absent from church services anymore--the music of language.

The music was already growing fainter 35 years ago, when I was a kid, as the Revised Standard Version and other translations of the Bible replaced the old-school King James Version. But the church I grew up in still used King James on special occasions, such as Christmas, and I used to be able to recite the KJV Christmas story from memory. (It may have helped to hear Linus do it every year on A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Here's the money paragraph:
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.
The music in that passage is lovely. It's probably not true that Shakespeare was one of the translators who worked on the KJV, but that only means his way with language must have been in England's air during the early 1600s. And not just devices like rhythm and meter--the word choices are poetic, too. The reference (in an earlier verse not quoted here) to Mary being "great with child" was a word-picture I could understand even before I knew where babies came from, because I could remember how my own mother looked before my youngest brother was born. I also remember being fascinated by the term "swaddling clothes," and my kid's mind translated it into a picture of a loving mother wrapping a baby in a big white blanket, as the translators surely intended us to do.

Compare that to the New Revised Standard Version's telling of the same tale (the one used by the Lutherans with whom I've kept Christmas the last few years):
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
In this translation, the timelessness of the Christmas story is largely lost, and a supernatural visitation from heavenly messengers in the hills of Galilee becomes mere incident. "Shepherds living" might be a more accurate translation of the original than "shepherds abiding," but "abiding" has an emotional impact "living" cannot match--it connotes endurance and duty, and patiently watching through the long night, night after night. It's not just a job, shepherding, it's a calling. To say that they're merely "living" is to make their shepherding into just one aspect of broader lives. For the sake of the poetry, they don't need broader lives. And when the peace of that night--of the abiding shepherds' entire existence up to that point--is shattered by the mindblowing appearance of singing angels, wouldn't you expect the angels to have better material than "on earth peace among those whom he favors"? And as for the sentence, "You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth," well, "bands of cloth" would get red-penciled in a seventh-grade creative writing class.

Compared to the KJV's story, the NRSV version is a weather report. There's no majesty, no mystery, and worst of all, during the most musical season of the year, not a note of music.

Modern translations are supposed to be truer to the originals, and easier to read than older translations. (Nonsexist, too, which is why the poetic, "Peace on earth, good will toward men" is gone from almost all translations used today.) However, the KJV was originally developed to be readable by the masses--and if you put it on the Flesch/Kinkaid readability scale, which is based on sentence length and syllable count per word, it levels out at around grade 5, while the New International Version, the most popular translation in the world currently, levels out around grade 8. Granted, on a readability scale that accounted for familiarity of words, the KJV would be off the scale, plus it has has all those "thees" and "thous." Strangely enough, however, they were considered quite informal in the early 17th century--more so than "ye" and "you."

Although the KJV was supposed to bring the word of God down to a level the average person can understand, the time and place in which it was created, its stylistic influence on generations of English writers, and its 300-year-long endurance as the definitive word, have made it a cornerstone of English literature. Better than any other Christian text, it embodies the majesty and mystery the Christian God is supposed to have, and inspires the awe that Christians are supposed to display before him. To me, this is where succeeding translations fail: Just as no man is a hero to his valet, perhaps God can't really be God if he talks to you like everyone else does.

Recommended Reading: There's a ton of fascinating stuff about the King James Version at Wikipedia, so go read. Also, this post got rolling in the first place after I read a news story about a publisher who is developing a textbook on the Bible, which is being marketed as nonreligious and nonsectarian. That's what they say, anyhow: Nevertheless, I expect the textbook will be used in lots of places as another way to backdoor Christian proselytizing into the public schools.

(A similar version of this post appears at Gather.com.)

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