Blasphemy for the Day: Strange Bedfellows

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

You might have heard that education secretary, Michael Gove, hatched a cunning plan to distribute a copy of the 1611 version of the King James Bible to every school in the UK. It was to be a handsome volume, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of its publication, with a foreward by Gove himself. But the project ran out of funds. The bibles were printed Abroad – enough, I’d have thought, to enrage any Little Englander – and there they languished on the Continent with scarcely a penny to pay their passage home. Fortunately for Gove, Tory donors saved his bacon by stumping up the rest of the money.

Not surprisingly, Gove’s vanity project attracted a lot of criticism from atheists, agnostics, and secularists in general. Then – shock horror – Militant Atheist, Bane of Believers, and all round Pain in the Arse of the religious establishment, Richard Dawkins, rode to the rescue. In this article – Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible – he applauds the idea on the grounds that the King James Bible is a literary and cultural treasure every child should be familiar with.

A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.

Well, you can’t put it much stronger than that. But Dawkins’ support is double-edged.

I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove’s scheme. People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality. This mistaken view may have motivated the “millionaire Conservative party donors”. I have even heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.

Fair enough. But is Gove’s gift to the schools going to achieve this? I suspect not. It will be locked away from the grubby little hands of children, probably in a display case, and only available for inspection under strict supervision. And it’s not as if there aren’t other copies out there. Amazon, much as I hate doing their advertising for them, is selling the Anniversary Edition online. If you don’t want to pay an eye-watering $71.21 for a print copy, you can read the digital version at King James Bible Online for free.

The Bible is a fascinating book. I studied it at school in Religious Education classes, and I even have a GCE O Level in the subject, which fueled my interest in mythology and religion. When I took an English degree as a mature student, one of my elective classes compared the Genesis story and Greek creation myths. Later on, I re-read Genesis for the pleasure of it – surely there’s never been such an over the top soap opera since, with larger than life characters doing bat shit crazy things. To be taken seriously now it would have to be set in Hollywood. Or during the GOP primaries.

So I’m sympathetic to Dawkins’ view of the literary importance of the Bible, but it is only one flower in the glorious garden of eloquence that graces the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Shakespeare, anyone? I would argue that while the language of the Bible and Shakespeare are equally magnificent, Shakespeare’s humanity transcends any noble sentiment in the Bible. If Gove had suggested giving each school a copy of the Collected Works, he would be doing them a far greater favour, though the gift would probably be as little used as the King James Bible will be.

Sorry, Richard, it’s not going to work.