Bible Talk With Melvyn Bragg

Ahead of his Ulster Museum lecture, Lord Bragg discusses the positive impact of the King James Bible

400 years ago, a new translation of the Christian bible was completed by the Church of England at the insistence of James I. It would become the Book of Books, the key text of Anglicanism and of the Protestant faith. During the 16th century the Latin vulgate was translated into English by William Tyndale, thus wresting the Word of God from the powerful elite and giving scripture more democratic reach.

Scholars are agreed that the impact of the bible was seismic; as the Church of England’s primary source of instruction and worship it could hardly have been otherwise.

The poetry and rhythms of the King James Bible, often difficult but finally rewarding in the manner of Shakespeare, have inspired writers from John Milton to DH Lawrence. In Lord Melvyn Bragg’s new study the cadences and metaphors of the book are described as 'bitten into our tongue' and yet more exuberantly, as part of the 'DNA of the English language'.

'We speak out of that book every day of our lives,' says Bragg, the author of some 30 works of fiction and non-fiction and presenter of the refreshingly erudite Radio 4 show In Our Time.

'I was brought up as a strong Anglican and I have always had an interest in Christianity and its history. I knew the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible was coming up and so I decided to look into it more deeply.

'It seemed to me that the atheists had been grabbing the megaphone for a long time, dismissing Christianity and the bible as harmful, which is an ignorant thing to say. I felt that the positive impact of this bible - outside of the faith - had been airbrushed out.'

Reclaiming the revolutionary effects of the bible he first encountered during his Cumbrian childhood, Bragg sees it as having played a crucial role in the advent of democracy and in the abolition of the slave trade; he makes the case for its influence on Thomas Paine, on Mary Wollstonecraft’s campaigning for women’s rights and on the charitable work of the Victorian social reformer, Octavia Hill.

The non-violent activism of Martin Luther King is considered as springing from its pages; its impact on literature is probed. Bragg’s fluency on the subject is charged with obvious enthusiasm.

'People forget that the bible’s role in forging democracy was enormous. It was during the British civil wars of the 1640s and in the Putney debates just afterwards that all the ideas for the democracy we have today were forged. These ideas were referenced to and keyed into the King James Bible.

'Education and philanthropy were led by ideas in the bible,' he continues, in soft yet authoritative tones. 'Take the so-called "slum sisters" who went into the poorest areas of London with a mop, a bucket and the King James Bible - they were taking charitable ideas outlined in that book and turning them into action.

'The abolition of slavery was driven in [Britain] by William Wilberforce, a man who had a revelation after reading the bible and saw that it was his mission to have the slave trade abolished and this he did, at the expense of his health and his fortune.

'In America the slaves themselves united in their language around the King James Bible. They stood at the back of churches listening to the words of the bible and they went back to their shanty towns and homes with these words. Out of this many became preachers and they developed a liberation theology. This reaches all the way up through the American civil war to Martin Luther King: when he was shot he was alluding to the King James Bible.'

Bragg is equally passionate outlining its impact on language and literature. 'Hundreds and hundreds of phrases we use everyday come from this bible - "the salt of the earth", "let there be light", "a man after his own heart", "rise and shine", "filthy lucre" - the list is enormous.'

Critics have deemed Bragg’s narrative triumphalist, suggesting that it overstates the King James Bible’s influence and scantly brushes over the ills that have been committed in the bible’s name. It is also somewhat difficult to separate the impact of the book from the impact of Protestantism more generally. Many of the revolutionaries Bragg claims were incentivised by the bible could have had equally strong influences outside the Book of Books.

But this is to miss the point of his project, which is to override the climate of Richard Dawkins-style derision for religion, a climate that forgets the good that has come from the Word of God: the sustaining metaphors; the enriching ideas about loving one’s neighbour and helping the downtrodden and oppressed; the spiritual ideas that can prove uplifting even for non-believers.

Though Bragg shed his faith in his 20s, he finds beauty and power in the King James Bible, spiritual sustenance and wisdom. He admires the 'gallantry' of those who hang on to their faith amid rampant secularism.

'I think the Bible tackles the inexplicable, which is something that interests all of us. There are things that we can never know, but we get intimations, feelings of intense love or intense solitude, things we can’t fully explain,' he concludes. 'There is always that something else that we can’t find the words for. In my view it is foolish to wipe all that out and revere reason above all else.'

The Book of Books: The Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 is published by Hodder and Stoughton. Lord Melvyn Bragg will give a lecture on the subject at the Ulster Museum, May 17 at 7.30pm