KJV Anniversary & the Waning Influence of the Bible in American Culture

Robert Alter, in his fascinating book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, makes this observation about the difference seen in American culture from the 300th anniversary of the KJV (1911) to today.

“As I assemble these reflections on the presence of the King James Version in American writing, the fourth centennial of the 1611 translation stands on the horizon.  A great deal has changed in American culture since the third centennial was celebrated in 1911.  At that juncture, the King James Version was extolled by leading public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as America’s national book and as the text that more than any other had affected the life of English-speaking peoples.  My guess is that the 2011 milestone will be marked more in academic circles than in the public domain.  In the century since the previous centennial was celebrated, two major shifts have taken place; the practice of reading the Bible aloud, of reading the Bible at all, and of memorizing passages from the Bible has drastically diminished; and the King James Bible has ceased to be the almost universally used translation as readers have been encouraged to use more ‘accessible’ versions, which also happen to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects.

The decline of the role of the King James Version in American culture has taken place more or less simultaneously with a general erosion of a sense of literary language, although I am not suggesting a causal link.  The reasons for this latter development have often been noted, and hence the briefest summary will suffice for the purpose of the present argument: Americans read less, and reads with less comprehension; hours once devoted to books from childhood on are more likely to be spent in front of a television set or a computer screen; epistolary English, once a proving ground for style, has been widely displaced by the high-speed short-cut language of e-mail and text-messaging.” (9-10)

The issue here is larger than a translation. At our King James Bible festival, September 15-17, we will seek to address these and other issues pertinent to the church today.

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