Thursday 25 August 2011

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (1)

Not long before he left LICC to take up a post at A Rocha, Nigel Hopper (Lecturer in Contemporary Culture and Communications Manager at LICC) asked me some questions about the Bible’s impact on culture and the implications for Christians and churches today. A trimmed version of our ‘electronic’ interview will appear in September 2011’s edition of EG, LICC’s quarterly magazine, but I will also post the transcript of the whole conversation over a series of entries here.

Nigel: 400 years after the publication of the King James Bible, how would you describe the place of the Bible in contemporary British culture?

Antony: Well, there’s no doubt that the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible has given the Bible an increased public exposure, which means the issue of the impact of the Bible on British culture has been raised again and again in recent months.

And from some unlikely places too. In the first week of May, Stylist magazine carried a piece on the Bible. So, in amongst profiles of Karren Brady and Gwyneth Paltrow, beauty tips, fashion pages, and perfume adverts, was a three-page article on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible! That article also included examples of ways the Bible has inspired contemporary culture, taking in examples from songs (like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’), art, novels (like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi), music, and film.

So, we’ve had lots of reminders of the impact of the Bible on English literature and language. In fact, even well-known atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins have been saying that our language and culture would be somehow incomplete without the King James translation of the Bible.

But others have been pointing out that its impact is more extensive even than that.

Melvyn Bragg, for instance, has published a volume called Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) in which he traces an emancipatory impulse in the Bible – showing how it has played a role in changing society. Of course, there’s already a revolutionary notion at work in the Bible being translated from Latin into English which moves Scripture from the elite to give access to all – the ploughboy as well as the priest. And then that impulse continues – in the movement to abolish slavery, for instance, and in the charitable work of the Victorian social reformer Octavia Hill. In others sorts of ways, Bragg argues that the King James Bible was a force for democracy.

Along similar lines, Nick Spencer, Research Director at Theos and formerly at LICC, also has a book out this year called Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011). And Nick too argues that the Bible has been influential on British political history – whether on the rights and duties of kings, democracy, and tolerance – again highlighting the point that, on balance, the Bible has had a positive impact on British political life.

One more example worth mentioning, although it casts the net wider than the Bible’s influence on Britain, is Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011). This is particularly interesting because it’s written by an Indian scholar and author. Mangalwadi is a Christian but grew up immersed in Eastern religions, and so he brings a perspective to this topic which allows him to explore the differences between what he sees as the biblical perspective on life compared with alternative worldviews found in (for instance) Islam and Hinduism. Not unlike some of the others mentioned here, Mangalwadi makes the case that the Bible provides the foundation upon which Indian democracy as well as western civilization rests. Pretty much anything seen as of ‘value’ in western civilization – and Mangalwadi covers rationality, technology, heroism, revolution, languages, literature, university, science, morality, family, compassion, true wealth, and liberty – he credits to the influence of the Bible.

In all these ways, then, the Bible has shaped various dimensions of our culture – often without us really being aware of the extent to which it has done so!

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