The Living Word is God

Still reading my way through Clive James Cultural Amnesia one essay at a time. Half-wayish in the M’s, the chapter notionally about Lithuanian poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz has an excellent and timely passage on Christian culture. I may just make this a long quote.

You can be a non-believer […], and still be amazed how even the believers are ready to let the Bible go. In England, the most lethal attack on the scriptures has been mounted by the established church itself. The King James Bible is a prose masterpiece compiled at a time when even a committee could write English. The modern versions done in the name of comprehension, add up to an assault on readability. Eliot said that the Revised Standard Version was the work of men who did not realise they were atheists. The New English Bible was worse than that: Dwight MacDonald had to give up looking for traces of majesty and start looking for traces of literacy […] For those of us unable to accept that the Bible is God’s living word, but who believe that the living word is God, the successful reduction of once-vital language to a compendium of banalities was bound to look like blasphemy, and the perpetrators like vandals. […] It was my book too. […] For me, the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against the pervasive falsehoods of advertising, social engineering, moral uplift, demagogic politics – all the verbal corruptions of democracy, the language of illusion. […] We are talking about our love for a book, and what we love is the way it is written. Rewriting it is not in the realm of the possible, and any attempt to do so should be seen for what it is: the threat of destruction.

Sooner than become the enemy of its own classical texts, the Anglican Church would have done better to seize the first opportunity of disestablishing itself. However tenuous, its official connection to the state has been enough to saddle it with the doomed ambition of maximising its popular audience, like a television channel in desperate search of more viewers who eat crisps. Separated from a full secularised state, it might have fully enjoyed the only civilised condition for a religion, which is to provide a spiritual structure for private life. Only a secular state can be democratic; although the democracy will soon be in trouble if the private citizen is deprived of a spiritual code, to be acknowledged for its moral example even if he does not believe in its divine provenance.

With the possible exception of Buddhism, no religion we know about is capable of allying itself to the state without working to the destruction of liberty. Less commonly noted is that it will also work to the destruction of itself, by trivialising its own teachings, or rendering them obnoxious in the attempt to impose them legally, instead of by exhortation, example and witness.

Evelyn Waugh’s correspondence teems with bitter complaints at the time when the church adopted vernacular liturgy. He hadn’t, he said, become a catholic in order to applaud the church’s clumsy adaptation to the modern world. He wanted it not to adapt. He wanted, that is, a refuge. Those of us brought up as Protestants, but who later lapsed, found out, when the doors closed behind us that we hadn’t lapsed quite as far as we thought. We had lapsed into unbelief, but not into stupidity […] If I no longer know that my redeemer liveth, I know that he speaketh not like Tony Blair. […] without the scriptures we poor wretches would be lost indeed, because without them, conscience itself would become just another disturbance of the personality, to be cured by counselling. We are surrounded by voices telling us that everything will come right if we learn to love ourselves. Imagine the torments of Jesus in his passion, if on top of the sponge of vinegar and the spear, they had offered him counselling as well.

4 thoughts on “The Living Word is God”

  1. Yes – saw this – and if I get a chance I’ll blog about it, especially that last line, linking with Rev (the Bishop offering counselling!) and Neil Gaiman’s vision of hell in Sandman. Great stuff.

  2. You may have to explain the Neil Gaiman Sandman reference. I’m a recent convert to his work (American Gods) but strangely I’ve been expecting Clive James to mention him at any moment. Nothing specific, just resonances of tone and topics converging. Exciting times I feel.

  3. I resonate with some of this, though some of it is the special kind of snobbery of the literary man. James states, centrally, that “the only civilised condition for a religion, [… is to provide a spiritual structure for private life”. It is here, of course, that the Christian must disagree most profoundly. Truth is public truth, a matter of justice and peace and the common good, not mere piety. I would agree that Establishment is a problem and – at many levels – an anachronism, but we do still need to insist upon a notion of the public space which is alive to the insights of faith, not exclusive of them…

  4. If it’s the “private” emphasis you’re taking exception to then I would agree – and in Clive James’ defence, I’m not sure he really does emphasise that in general. Remember I just gave you a selectively snipped quote there. The rest of his morality thrust is very much about public expression and action – private (as in individual) responsibilities lived and shared in public.

    (No escaping his well-read erudition though, talking on a more elitist plane – which he would also defend. Some things, like the Bible here, do not benefit from being dumbed down. Hard work and effort have their value, etc.)

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