Saturday, May 05, 2007

Re-habilitating King James’ English

It’s nearly four hundred years old, not always easy to understand, yet more influential than any English translation of the Bible in history – and it is making an unexpected comeback in our lifetime. I’m talking about the “King James Bible” or, as it is called in Britain: “The Authorised Version”.

If you were following its usage over the past twenty-five years (the entire length of my career as a pastor), you would have said that King James’ English was on its way out. The LCMS’s 1982 hymnal systematically removed it, the synodical catechism switched to the “New International Version” as did the synod’s self-study Bible. “Thees and thous” were removed from all prayers and pastors were told that “Elizabethan English” was “no longer American language” (My Country ‘tis of Thee?).

Apart from Shakespeare and a few hymns like “How Great Thou Art”, that were excused from up-dating, “King James English could not talk to the un-churched world”. (I thought the un-churched lacked salvation – not language skills).

For pastors it was a time of crisis – not only was the version of the Bible that we memorized not to be memorized in the future, we could not see an end to the updating of it. One contemporary version followed another in an endless stream, each claiming to be the English standard for the future. Meanwhile we were being made to feel more and more embarrassed by any use of “archaic” and “outmoded” language among us. Yet what was truly embarrassing was the bowdlerizing of classic hymns in a misguided frenzy to update.

Finally (and still in my life-time!) the question of English for today seems to be “panning out”. Among the various indications that I detect of this happening are new recordings and steady sales of the King James Bible and the publication of the Lutheran Service Book with the original English within one of its Divine Services and many classic hymns.

Like the Church of England, which is doing the same thing in the 21st century, the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod has decided to expect Church members to be “bi-lingual” – able to appreciate both the English of King James and contemporary English into the indefinite future. A collective sigh of relief may be heard from English – speaking believers the world over. Finally we have realized that it is “OK” to read the Bible and worship in old English!

Using the old English and understanding it do not always go hand in hand, unfortunately. But this presents the church with an exciting challenge for teaching.

For example, since 1982 users of “Lutheran Worship” have been singing “Holy God, We Praise Your Name”. Now in the LSB they will be going back to the original wording: “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

This means we have to teach people that “thy”, “thee” and “thou” are pronouns that express a precious intimacy not found in modern English pronouns. They are not some “spiritual” form, but rather a “familiar” form, common in European languages, where one uses different pronouns for different people depending on how close you are to them in friendship. Like the German “du”, “thou” means “you – my familiar friend”.

Dr. Paul Grime, executive director of the Synod’s Commission on Worship, says the commission, in preparing LSB, strove to distinguish between archaic and obsolete language. “While we updated words that were hard to understand or which have dropped out of usage,” he says, “we kept others that made sense or which never needed to be changed in the first place.” Thanks be to Thee, O Lord!