Music Abiding

(This is the 1000th post in the history of this blog. A thousand posts seems like both a great accomplishment and a frightening waste of time. The following is adapted from a post I wrote at my first blog, the Daily Aneurysm, in 2005.)

Whenever we visit the in-laws over Christmas, we always go to church on Christmas Eve. On the list of my life’s annoyances, this is a minor one. Christmas Eve service was a significant part of the family ritual when I was a kid, and spending time with my niece and nephews, no matter where it is, is rarely wasted. So despite my irreligious opinions, I go along without making an issue of it. A choir and congregation cranking up the classic seasonal 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. That music began growing fainter 40 years ago, when I was a kid, as the Revised Standard Version and other translations of the Bible began to replace 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.)

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.

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, 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, and to say that they’re merely “living” is to make their shepherding into just one aspect of broader lives. For the sake of the story, 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.

Although the KJV was supposed to bring the word of God down to a level the average person of the 17th century could understand, the time and place in which it was created, its stylistic influence on generations of English writers, and its 400-year-long endurance as the definitive word have made it a cornerstone of English literature. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that it better embodies the majesty and mystery the Christian God is supposed to have than any other text, and it 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.

At Popdose Today: Another edition of One Day in Your Life.

“You Angel You”/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (buy it here)

5 responses

  1. One of the reasons I’m an Anglican (instead of a Unitarian, which might suit my beliefs better) is because of the language in the Book of Common Prayer. The first time I walked in the doors of an Episcopal Church, the language of the liturgy blew me away. Many ancient prayers and lines of the liturgy have been retained, along with some beautiful, more contemporary prose. My favorite prayer, from Compline:

    “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
    weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
    sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
    the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
    joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

  2. There certainly is a poetic beauty in the Kings James version of the Bible that’s lacking in more recent versions (Today’s English Version, Revised Standard Version, New International Version, etc.)

  3. My belated congratulations on your 1,000th post. No need to decide if that’s “a great accomplishment and a frightening waste of time,” as endurance is sometimes its own reward. You’re very right about the music in the words. I’m not a believer, but I grew up hearing the King James Version in church each week, and its cadences are ingrained in me. Those who remain in the church have lost much by the efforts to “modernize” Scripture.

  4. “And the spirit of truth came upon them, and it gave them a great brightness, and naturally they were worried. And the spirit of truth said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve come with good news that should make you really happy, for there is born today a child who shall be a symbol of new beginnings and possibilities.’ And suddenly there was with the spirit of truth a multitude of truths, praising goodness and saying, ‘It’s wonderful! Peace on earth and real understanding among people.’”

    Garrison Keillor’s ultimate modernized version

    This is why I go to the Anglican/Episcopal church, too. There’s a huge difference in mental images between angels who carol “Do not be afraid, for see…” and those who proclaim “FEAR NOT!!!”

  5. […] to me. Religion still holds some interest as a cultural expression, however, and that’s a subject I have written about before. Modern translations of the Bible, which are intended to be truer to the original texts and more […]

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