I chose to do my lectionary reading today from the KJV, and specifically from an edition of the C. I. Scofield study Bible. This is an interesting exercise for me, since I grew up on the KJV. In fact, it’s no harder for me to do my reading from the KJV than from a very modern version.
There’s a great scene in The Fountainhead, in which Howard Roark is criticizing the architecture of the Parthenon in the presence of the dean of the school of architecture. The dean’s response? “But it’s the Parthenon!” That seems to be the most common response I get to comments on the KJV. People love the quality of literature it represents, and so they want to stick with it. How can I criticize it? It’s the KJV! And to be honest, a literary appreciation is a good reason to hold onto your KJV.
But very often when we appreciate something, we try to force it on others on whom it may not have the same effect. Consider the Revised English Bible. There is no modern version I would prefer to hear read aloud. Yet when I read it aloud to most American audiences, the response is disappointing to say the least. The particular vocabulary and cadences of the REB just doesn’t strike them in the same way. Thus in recommending Bible versions I have to remember that what strikes me as high literary quality doesn’t necessarily strike someone else in the same way. (The New Jerusalem Bible is another version that I love to hear read aloud, but which often doesn’t elicit the same response from others. I’m not sure why.)
Nonetheless, within proper boundaries, the literary beauty argument is a good argument for the KJV. Those constraints must include considerations of audience. A key factor in making me change from the KJV in public reading and teaching was that I noticed that young people very simply didn’t understand it. They could make out the words, but they couldn’t express the content in their own words. That is, of course, an important limitation.
I do believe that many KJV-Only teachers and preachers actually prefer this state. If their audience doesn’t comprehend the words of scripture, the teacher can infuse into them just about any meaning he prefers. Some of the things I have heard recently suggest that this is not something I imagined. Having scriptures in language the people do not understand is a great boon to those who would like to maintain power over them. It seems like we’ve tried this sort of thing before, only then it was the Latin Vulgate that was God’s gift to the church, and the sole translation of the word of God worth reading.
For enjoyment and literary appreciation–if you do, in fact, understand it–the KJV is good. For understanding by most modern church members and seekers, not so much.