The King James Bible & the Latin Mass
NO MORE MISSALETTES FOR CHRISTIANETTES!
By Peter Kreeft |
Peter Kreeft is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, and the author of over 40 books, the most recent of which is A Refutation of Moral Relativism.
Once upon a time there was a drink that was the most popular drink in the history of the world. It was called Coke. In a fit of inexplicable idiocy the Coca-Cola company decided to change the recipe, the most successful recipe in the world.
In the same era (the Era of the Fidget), there was a car company called Volkswagen. Its product, the VW bug, was the most popular car since the Model T Ford. Yet Volkswagen decided, after many years, to squash the bug. The company went swiftly downhill in sales.
Coca-Cola is still Number One, because the company quickly learned from its mistake. People hated the new recipe, and cried, “Bring back classic Coke!” So the company bit the bullet, repented, and brought back the Same Old Thing, Coke — because people loved it.
Volkswagen also listened and repented — belatedly — and restored its bug design, in a technologically superior package, and won numerous Car of the Year awards for it. It is in great demand again — because people love it.
The world’s second largest and fastest growing religion, Islam, never made the mistake Coke and Volkswagen made. Its primary “product,” the Qur’an (Koran), was never changed, nor supplanted by later revisions. Muslims must learn Arabic in order to read the Qur’an, as no translation of the original from Arabic has been officially recognized. As a result, Muslims know and love the Qur’an far more than Christians know and love the Bible. There is no “confusion of tongues,” no Babel. And no “generation gap” between old and new versions. The success of Islam would have been impossible if the Fidget had conquered the Qur’an. But the Qur’an conquered the Fidget.
There is also no liturgical fidget in Eastern Orthodoxy. If you ask any educated Western Christian what Eastern Orthodoxy’s crowning jewel is, the answer will be instantaneous and unanimous: its liturgy. The wisdom of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has prevailed in the East.
But not in the West. We now have dozens of versions of the Bible and numerous canons of the Mass, and people know and love them less, not more, than back when there was only one version of each.
The two greatest and most successful verbal “products” in the history of modern Christianity in the West have been the King James Bible and the Tridentine Latin Mass. By “successful” I mean well-known, well-loved, and life-transforming. By “greatest” I mean beautiful, worshipful, worthy of God — employing not just language that pleases the human ear but language that pleases the divine ear, language that elevates the human heart and thus pleases the heart of God.
(I omit the other obvious liturgical masterpiece, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer [BCP] because it is basically an application of the King James Bible to liturgy. But a marriage between the Tridentine Mass and the BCP would be a consummation devoutly to be wished for, but almost impossible today because a team of reigning Liturgical Experts [read: Terrorists] would perform the operation and surely botch it.)
What do the King James Bible and the Latin Mass have in common? In a word, holiness.
This holiness is detectable in a language that possesses a specific kind of beauty — a beauty that Scripture calls “the beauty of holiness.” This beauty is a power that carries us along like a wave carrying a surfer, so that we “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Such worship sanctifies us.
But what causes sanctification? It is a kind of humble magnificence brought about by the power of the bow. It has been said that “Man is never so tall as when he bows.” The King James Bible and the Latin Mass are magnificent, not as Baroque music is magnificent but as Mary’s “Magnificat” is magnificent — in it our souls “magnify the Lord.” The King James Bible and the Latin Mass are elevators for souls. They elevate us, edify us, inspire us. Why? Because they glorify God, not us. They do not “celebrate community,” as a pep rally does. What edifies man is the self-forgetful glorification of God.
But in order to “work” in edifying man and glorifying God, in order to be sanctifying and holy, the words of the Bible and the Mass must be at least a little strange (like Christ). For “holy” means “set-apart,” different, distinctive, not ordinary, not secular, not to be confused with an inter-office memo — i.e., not like the biblical and liturgical language that has put Catholic souls in a bland stupor for over 30 years, muffling all trumpets. “Holy” means “hieratic,” and even “hierarchical.” Language that sounds like pop psychology might comfort us and make us well-adjusted (to our fallen selves and the world), but we need linguistic “height” to sanctify us.
My radical proposal, which naturally follows from these non-radical premises, is that the Catholic Church adopt the King James Bible, as well as the Tridentine Latin Mass, not as permitted and tolerated aberrations, but as standard.
We would then have the best of both worlds. Protestants are not going to embrace the Latin Mass, but Catholics can embrace the King James Bible. These two beauties can’t be married in Protestantism, which is essentially exclusivistic, “protesting,” and divisive, but they can and should be married in Catholicism, which is essentially inclusivistic and universalistic (“catholic”). This would be a truly ecumenical gesture, using the very best “product” of Protestantism. (St. Augustine would call it “spoiling the Egyptians.”)
What will happen if we do? Well, let’s look at the track record. Until new Bible translations came out, the King James Version (KJV) shaped Western literature, culture, and education as no book except the Qur’an has ever shaped a culture. Everyone knew it. It was familiar, it was memorable, and it was memorized because it was so memorizable. That is, it was arresting, not bland; even a bit strange (like Christ). It had power. It had authority. Paradoxically, it was the very unfamiliarity of the KJV language that made it strikingly familiar. It stood out, like a giant in a crowd of dwarfs.
Then the Fidget went to work. We now have 50 times more versions, and 50 times less biblical literacy. We have more Bibles, but read them less. As translations have multiplied, readership has divided — in complete contrast to the Qur’an.
I have tried all versions of the Bible for private devotions, and find that the KJV “works” the most powerfully. Take for instance, the use of “Thee” and “Thou.” These archaic, non-ordinary, non-secular pronouns, like the capital letters we used to use, are aids both to express and produce the fundamental religious attitude which has been called “the numinous.” It is the attitude of awe, wonder, worship, and the “fear of the Lord,” which Scripture calls “the beginning of wisdom” but our modern religious educators call a primitive superstition to be eradicated from the worshiping heart like an embarrassing sore. Yet until this “sore” returns, the patient (Western civilization) will continue slipping into the coma of Brave New World.
And what works in private works in public too; Catholicism is not an esoteric, elitist religion. In both its public and private worship, Man and God are the two terms, and they do not change when the number of worshipers changes from one to two or from one to one billion.
No other Bible translation will replace KJV as the unifying one. Others have been tried. All have failed. The people have voted with their feet, and at their bookstores.
Perhaps accuracy will demand a few revisions to the KJV — or perhaps just a few footnotes. The old Revised Standard Version almost succeeded. But it too “fidgeted” just a little more than it had to, and it will soon be unavailable anyway, to be replaced (again!) by one without any Thees or Thous. As for the New Revised Standard Version or any translation beginning with the dread letter “N,” forget it. “New” here is a code word for “the first step in being politically correct,” and also for “to be further amended soon.”
The Tridentine Latin Mass is to the new Mass what the KJV is to the new Bibles. We need a liturgical revolution here even more desperately (may Cardinal Ratzinger live forever!). I suggest a simple, radical-sounding step. In the pews we now find flimsy, cheap “missalettes” (“missalettes for Christianettes”), which look as ugly, commercialized, dull, secular, and ordinary as the language inside. I propose that we replace them with lightweight bronze tablets, chained to the pews, on which is inscribed the common portion of the Tridentine Mass. Within a year we will have our liturgical revolution. We will have conquered the Fidget!