Friday, November 13, 2009

KJV and the Copyright Issue

Last week, I meet a guy who happened to pop into the church service. He is soft spoken and fits the typical nice guy image we see in many churches on an ordinary Sunday morning. I said hi to him and chatted for a little while. It did not take long before he started asking me about what English Bible translation I use. I told him most of the time, I use the NIV in the Church because it is the most widely used translation by members. He is a KJV-only adherent. The next part of the conversation resembles two typical 'nice-guys' exchanging views that is not exactly nice. I didn't like the way the whole conversation ended. He stuck to his views that KJV is the only God-ordained Bible because it has no copyright. Quoting one of his pastors who argues this point, he criticizes modern Bible translations for sticking a copyright label on a Bible that is supposed to be free. I could not convince him otherwise. He refuses to take other views.

As I think about my personal experience with the KJV, I cannot but feel that it is important for us to understand the context behind each translation. I have memorized chunks of Bible then. Some of my favourite Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of Philippians, parts of Ephesians, Isaiah among others. Those days, without the electronic gadgets, I carry with me a little KJV Bible which I can easily slot in my pocket. Whether I am sitting on the bus or waiting for an appointment, I will be reading and revising what I had memorized. Those were spiritually fulfilling days. The KJV has a deep influence on my growing up years as a Christian. I still think that the KJV version of the Psalms remains the best English rendition ever. Having siad that, I still think it is important to appreciate the availability of other translations, especially when more reliable manuscripts are discovered. I believe that by stubbornly insisting on any one version only, the church will be left more impoverished of meaning. As a Bible student, I learn a lot from comparing different translations. Even when I am studying the Greek or Hebrew text, I find having English translations side by side illuminates my understanding more than simply reading one version alone. Marva Dawn once mentioned that once, she opened up 13 different readings of 1 Corinthians 12:9, in order to understand the original text better. The different nuances increased her understanding in many different ways. I think this approach is refreshing for Bible reading. The Word of God is for the people of God. We cannot be so stubborn to champion one version over the rest that we fail to appreciate the beauty and diversity of how God speaks through others, not just the KJV translators.

Alister McGrath offers the Christian public a gift in his book "In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible..." In that book, McGrath expertly reveals the context behind the formation of the King James Bible. One of the reasons for the issuance of the Bible is that it is more a political reason more than wanting it to be biblically accurate. Remember that Church of England was on the threshold of breaking with the Roman Catholic Church.

The copyright issue is to me a non-issue at all. The visitor I spoke with, seems intent to prove that the KJV is more God inspired simply because it has no copyright. That is a weak argument. There are many more factors surrounding any translation, not simply the label. Jesus does not speak English to the Jews then.
One of the languages he uses is Aramaic. Moreover, no matter how 'pure' a language is, what usefulness will there be if modern users cannot understand them? Actually, the KJV does have a copyright. The words 'Authorised Version' is in itself an attempt at protecting and copyrighting the Bible translation. Without such protection, anybody can modify the content and distribute them for their own purposes.

How should we deal with KJV-only people? Let me suggest 3 steps to lovingly talk with them.
- we need to know the history of our translations in order to intelligently make some sense out of each of them. Do some homework. Read the translation philosophy behind each translation and then rationally explain them accordingly. Bring them back to understanding the context behind each translation.

- acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. We need not completely agree or disagree with that person who holds his high view of the KJV. Perhaps there is no need to. However, when he starts to impose his views on others, we need to help draw him or her back to the mystery of God's word. Say that God's Spirit is the final interpreter of what we read. In fact, God does not speak in KJV language only. What about the non-English speaking world? Are they impoverished because they do not know English?

- As much as we try to convince KJV-only people not to be bigots, we too have to acknowledge that we can also fall to the other extreme. Whenever there is a disagreement, there is always a tendency to swing too much to the other side. One way to prevent that is to remain open and to listen to what the person is actually saying. Sometimes, the KJV level is only a superficial layer that hides something more. If we look beyond their bigotry behaviour and learn to care for them as persons, we establish a bridge to foster more understanding rather than debate that leads us nowhere. Every conversation can be a form of ministry of listening. On that note, I believe that if church people learns to listen more, there will be greater unity.

Finally, whether it is KJV or otherwise, I feel there is a deeper challenge for the Christian public. It is Bible literacy simply by reading the Bible. Regardless of what translation we use, are we reading enough of the Bible? That to me is the larger issue.


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