In Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson describes how the King James Bible is still a best seller almost four hundred years after its initial publication, even though the English in the King James is a far cry from the English used in twenty first century America. I wonder why.
I've heard all the talk about the KJV being a best seller because it is the only translation that is God's inspired and preserved word. I don't think that's the reason at all.
I believe that the fact that the KJV is still a best seller has more to do with the way most people see the Bible these days than in anything special about the language that is used. The Bible is seen by many Christians as a depository of "timeless truths" that can be pulled out and used whenever they are needed. Some see it as a rule book for life or a sort of owner's manual that they can go to and find rules and procedures for the things they do. Others search out promises and use them as something akin to magic words to try to get God to do what they want. Still others read Scripture out of a sense of duty, because someone told them that to be a good Christian they have to read the Bible every day.
What all these reasons have in common is a lack of desire to really let God's revelation of himself and the story of his people get inside them. I know from personal experience that it is easy to read the Bible on a regular basis and not be changed. I've studied Scripture (in Bible college I got A's on both my theology written and oral exams). I learned the inductive, deductive, and any other ductive methods of Bible study. Those things really didn't have much of an impact on my spiritual growth. I knew a lot of information, but it really didn't mean that much.
Peterson tells a story of an adult class at his church that was studying the book of Galatians. His purpose was to remind the people of their freedom in Christ. Peterson noticed that the class was more interested in their coffee and conversation than they were with the Scripture. This frustrated him until he got the idea of taking the Greek words of the original and putting them in modern American English. He writes that very quickly the coffee was forgotten in the excitement of seeing the revelation of God in words that they were familiar with and could understand, words that they used every day. Peterson notes that the New Testament was written in the common Greek of the day - street language.
I think the reason many people buy and read the King James is that it is in a style of English that they don't use in their day-to-day lives, and can therefore be kept separate. It's part of the division between "sacred" and "secular" that many have to keep God from messing with their routine. It's also useful as a sort of "code" that only the "sanctified" can understand. (I've noticed that a large part of some sermons is reading the King James and then translating it into modern English so the congregation can understand).
I believe that the Bible is not a book to be studied the way one would study a textbook or manual. It is not a collection of facts about God or a book of regulations and procedures. It is God's story of himself and his dealings in this world, of how he is building a Kingdom and restoring all things, and of how he will finally bring about that restoration completely. It is a story that invites us to enter in, to join our story with God's story. As we enter into this story we learn, in real ways, how to become like the Savior and King the story points to.
To do this, to enter into God's story and open ourselves to being transformed by it, we must have this story in a language we can understand and relate to. For most people the KJV doesn't fill the bill.
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