From Saturday's WSJ, "How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time," by Leland Ryken. A couple o' excerpts:
Modern readers are too quick to conclude that with its now-archaic language and grammar, the Bible's style is embellished and formal. But thee and thou pronouns and verb endings like walkest and sayeth were a feature of everyday speech in the early 17th century.
However imitated or parodied, the language is dignified, beautiful, sonorous and elegant. "Godliness with contentment is great gain"—six words and unforgettable. "Give us this day our daily bread." "The Lord is my light and my salvation." The King James style is a paradox: It is usually simple in vocabulary while majestic and elevating in effect.
Many of the formulations are impossible to forget, having passed into everyday English usage: "the land of the living," "at their wit's end," "the salt of the earth," "the root of the matter," "labor of love," "fell flat on his face." When the famous sayings from the King James Version were extracted from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations into a freestanding book in 2005, the book ran to more than 200 pages!
For more than three centuries, the King James Bible provided the central frame of reference for the English-speaking world. Former Yale University Prof. George Lindbeck well claims that until recently "Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world." During the years of its dominance, the King James Bible was the omnipresent force in any cultural sphere that we can name—education (especially childhood education), religion, family and home, the courtroom, political discourse, language and literacy, choral music and hymns, art and literature. For more than two centuries children in England and America learned to read by way of the Bible.
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address contains so many biblical references that someone has written a whole book on the subject. When President Truman lit the White House Christmas tree on Dec. 24, 1945, his address to the war-weary nation included an exhortation "to make real the prophecy of Isaiah: 'They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more'" (Isaiah 2:4).I'll confess that I'm VERY light when it comes to reading the Bible and long-time Gentle Readers know that I am not of the Christian persuasion. But, that said, I am a tremendous admirer of the Bible's language and the sheer beauty o' same. I'm also a child o' 20th century America and the grateful beneficiary of the virtues and morals conferred upon me by our Judeo-Christian culture. I hope strident liberals of the atheist/agnostic persuasion read the linked piece; perhaps they'd come to understand why we conservatives... even those of us who do not embrace Christianity... recognize the basic truths and moral guidance contained in the Bible. There's no better foundation for a nation and you can take that to the bank.
The influence of the King James Bible is perhaps most profound in the realm of literature. From Milton's "Paradise Lost" to Toni Morrison's "Paradise," it is a presence quite apart from the author's religious stance. In his book "The Bible as Literature," British literary scholar T. R. Henn said it best: "The Authorized Version of 1611 . . . achieves as we read a strange authority and power as a work of literature. It becomes one with the Western tradition, because it is its single greatest source."
Thus endeth today's sermon.