A history of individual and collective liberation

2011-09-28 00:00

PERHAPS better known as a novelist, Melvyn Bragg’s non-fiction also tends to focus on England so his choice of the Authorised (King James) version of the Bible (KJB) is appropriate. Celebrating its 400th anniversary, Bragg sets out to show that its influence shaped the modern world.

Its conversion from the Latin of the elite to the English of the masses had far-reaching political consequences beyond the imagination of the translators — democracy for a start. The KJB played a prominent part on both sides of two civil wars, the English and the American, and had considerable influence over the rise of Christian Socialism. Above all, of course, it fuelled Protestantism, especially Methodism and the Quakers.

Bragg is at his most interesting when he writes about the influence of the KJB on culture and language. Many of the familiar phrases of modern idiomatic English (“man cannot live by bread alone” and “the land of the living” are just two examples) were popularised by the only book known to many people for centuries.

It is a pity that Bragg did not spend more time on this aspect. Instead, in one chapter he charges off to attack Richard Dawkins in what is a sideshow to his main theme.

And, although this is meant to be a book of popular appeal, there is an occasional lack of rigour, particularly when he addresses its impact on society, which fails to link the KJB to Bragg’s topic of the moment. At these points, his book becomes a general survey of Christian influence on history.

But without question, he shows that out of persecution and great courage, characterised by the martyrs, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale and the Lollards, there arose a work that served as a beacon for freedom. In this sense Bragg’s book records a history of individual and collective liberation. 

BOOK REVIEW

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611–2011

Melvyn Bragg

Hodder & Stoughton

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