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A Word from Hitchens, on the Word…

April 11, 2011

When one takes a look at the state of modern cultural criticism, few voices and pens are as prominent or prolific as that of Christopher Hitchens. Knowing his predisposition against all things religious, especially Christian, one might wonder why he and his ilk might find space on this blog devoted to the Word which he so anxiously wishes wasn’t there. The answer comes from his current article in Vanity Fair entitled, “When the King Saved God.”

Hitchens is brilliant. There is no getting around that, he is eloquent, winsome, and biting. He is also battling esophageal cancer. Even while fighting the disease he has found time to bring his considerable lexical acumen to bear against the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. The event he admits was truly paradigmatic. (that word was for him)

Now, Hitchens is not discussing scriptural inerrancy, nor is he focussed on the power scripture has as the repository of God’s precepts and Gospel of life. Rather this is a literary musing, a discourse on the considerable literary contribution the KJV has had on the language Hitchens loves and wields so well. He States:

“The Tyndale/King James translation, even if all its copies were to be burned, would still live on in our language through its transmission by way of Shakespeare and Milton and Bunyan and Coleridge, and also by way of beloved popular idioms such as “fatted calf” and “pearls before swine.” It turned out to be rather more than the sum of its ancient predecessors, as well as a repository and edifice of language which towers above its successors.”

Much has been written about the impact of the KJV on society and literature.

Adam Potkay, professor of Humanities at William and Mary College has written and taught for over twenty years on the pervasive presence of the KJV in our literary and cultural history. Download his chapter from “The King James Bible after 400 Years” entitled “Romantic Transformations of the King James Bible” here.

Leland Ryken, the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College, has written extensively on the literary influence and literary nature of the Bible. (You can read my review of Ryken’s “How to read the Bible as Literature” here.) Out this year is his latest contribution, “The Legacy of the King James Bible” (Crossway). He describes the publication of the KJV as a “landmark event in the english speaking world.”

It is both encouraging and discouraging to watch Hitchens handle so important a text. He uses his considerable God-given skill to weigh God’s given text, and while he misses the texts true impact, he stumbles on some undeniable truths concerning its form. Regardless of his discussion, the KJV’s impact is felt mostly in its ubiquity over the last 400 years; 350 of which it was by far the most commonly used english translation. Hitchens defends the beauty on its pages in a modern world more accustomed to tweets than tried texts. The greatest evangelist in the twentieth century (at least in regards to numbers reached) lifted truth from the KJV’s pages and hurled it forth to over 200 million people; who despite disparate backgrounds could still decipher the Gospel in its stilted and aged prose.

Of course it is my prayer and the prayer of many, that while Hitchens lauds the literary rarity of the KJV, he will not look past the central contribution of the Bible to mankind. The story beneath the prose of a God, His creation, His Justice, and His redemption, available to any who call upon His name.

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3 comments

  1. Great post Drew. I enjoyed reading it.


    • Thanks man, glad you liked it.


  2. Nice Blog with Excellent information



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