Everything but the inspiration

Published by The Spectator

Melvyn Bragg

Whenever the BBC broadcast a major national celebration or royal event, they wheel out a Dimbleby to maintain the hereditary principle. If they want a probing political interview, they sacrifice the victim to the snarls of Paxman or the claws of Humphries. If they want election night gravitas, up pops the psephologically effervescent Peter Snow. They are all Auntie’s heavy hitters; sans pareil when it comes to pomp, circumstance, inquisition and exposition.

The Corporation has never really nurtured a broadcasting aristocracy for the arts and culture. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that they poached Baron Bragg of Wigton (aka Melvyn) from ITV to present their flagship documentary to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Maybe “poached” is unfair: ITV ditched his South Bank Show a couple of years ago, since which time he’s been available for hire. To many, he is the doyen of high-arts-fused-with-popular-culture broadcasting, so you might expect a state-broadcast flagship documentary about the inspired Authorised Version by the enthused Melvyn Bragg to be, well … inspired and enthused.

Sadly, it was neither. Well, perhaps it was one. Yes, okay, it was enthused – in an agnostic kind of way. Melvyn Bragg is knowledgeable in breadth and erudite in manner. He sought to persuade us that the world is not founded upon secular ideals but upon the Authorised Version, which (without so much as a nod to the Greeks) he told us was the “seedbed of democracy”. He took us on a journey from his childhood town of Wigton in Cumbria to London, where he spoke reverently of William Tyndale as the fons et origo of the English translation. He then drove to Stratford-upon-Avon to pay homage to Shakespeare and the influence of Tyndale’s translation upon the whole of English literature. We then flew to Gettysburg and Washington, where we were told that Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech was moulded on the prophets of the Old Testament, and that Steinbeck owes as much to the King James Bible as the Bard.

From the age in which religion was the medium of politics, we came to the “emotional and intellectual earthquake of the Reformation,” which liberated man from “the grip of Roman Catholicism”. The AV was “the debating dynamite for brutal civil wars” in Britain and America, and “a critical spark in the genesis of modern science”. It was responsible for radical shifts in society, like the abolition of the slave trade, which led ultimately to racial equality. This book, we were told, was the genesis of Western democratic politics, philanthropy and science: it is responsible for everything from Isaac Newton through Thomas Paine to the Higgs boson particle.

It was all solid, secular stuff. But this book is not simply about the language, literature and politics of Western civilisation: it is also about England’s soul; its beliefs about itself and its relationship with its God, all of which have been made incarnate throughout our island history in the institution of Monarchy – a Protestant psyche projected through Empire and sustained by that great “city upon a hill”, the United States of America. Lord Bragg didn’t go there: there was nothing of a vision of God or eternal salvation. He didn’t refer to the presentation of this book at that sacred moment of the Coronation Oath with the words: “Here is wisdom: This is the Royal Law; these are the lively oracles of God.” He didn’t mention that the sixteenth-century cadences which are presented to the Monarch include the Apocrypha – just as the Bible did when its words were in Latin, canon law was decided by a priestly caste and kings were crowned by popes.

Perhaps one can no more expect an ex-Christian to engage with the profundities of Protestant spirituality, or the complexities of the Anglican via media, as ask Richard Dawkins (who lauds this book) to reason about the efficacy of ancient Daoist religious conceptions of yin and yang. Lord Bragg used to be, in his own words, “a Church of England fundamentalist”; he came to believe that Christianity was “mere superstition”; and now he refers to “a religious space inside (his) head which is either going to stay empty or occasionally going to be revisited”.

It wasn’t revisited here. He gave us a hint of Anglican fundamentalism and he introduced us to the state mythology of the United States (rather more than that of England). But we were left with a nebulous “religious space,” as he lectured us about the appropriation of scriptures for civil war while ignoring the antidote for sin and the vanquishing of death. In the beginning was the Word, but he just wouldn’t take us into the Holy of Holies of this remarkable book to let us glimpse the Shekhinah of God. He gave us a good ten minutes of negro spirituals, but not one second of the majestic hymnal of the Psalmody. His approach was that of the new scholastics: artistically respectful, politically discerning, scientifically competent, but theologically naïve. There are those who might say this is the best sort of journalist to present a programme on religion: he sustains an objective and dispassionate professionalism, while the “insider” believer would have an agenda of some sort. Yet these same people never appear to grasp that the “objective” and “dispassionate” may create an agenda by omission.

As informative as this documentary was (and, truly – in what Pope Benedict XVI recently referred to as the age of “aggressive secularism” – we should be grateful to Aaqil Ahmed for commissioning it), the BBC missed a whole dimension by focusing on the “emotionally convincing and effective” language and the myriad of its temporal effects, whilst ignoring completely the potency of the King James Bible as the Word of God – either to a particular people in a particular time or to all people for all time. The book may well have provided a liberation theology for enslaved African-Americans, but worship is more than politics.

It would have been useful to have heard about Anglican ecclesial conflagrations, scheming between Geneva and Rome, and tales of those clerics who were crucified betwixt the Puritans and the Papists as a result of its publication. There was no taste of the AV’s theist vision of God; no investigation of the transcendent and immanent; no appreciation that the Enlightenment was contingent on the Reformation. As Lord Bragg returned to Wigton, where the boy Melvyn first heard the Word of God as he sang sweetly in the choir, there was a feeling of a yearning for the return of his child-like faith. Christ’s resurrection, he solemnly preached, is just a metaphor. A bizarre metaphor, indeed, to have inspired so many and changed so much. Could it be, could it possibly be, that the King James Bible is profound, enduring, magnificent and unique because it is in some sense “God-breathed”?


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