Michael Gove and King James

Michael Gove is giving a lot of commemorative King James Bibles to schools, to mark the, er, 401st anniversary of the publication of the original (thanks to typical government efficiency), and a lot of people are unhappy about it. Atheists and secularists are unhappy at religion being pushed into schools, while many Christians are furious that their holy book has been turned into a cultural artifact, doled out in a form of political patronage with Gove’s name on the spine. And then, just when it seemed that there was a clear consensus against the Bibles, Richard Dawkins made headlines by saying they were a jolly good thing.

As usual, a comment by Dawkins has been turned into a news story even though it’s not really news. He’s always been something of a “Nine Lessons and Carols” atheist, enjoying and appreciating the tradition and culture that derives from religion, even while he denies the corresponding truth claims. He even devotes part of The God Delusion to listing some of the commonly-used phrases which originated in the King James Bible, in support of its place as a significant part of our culture. That his restatement of this position has been treated as big news speaks volumes about standards of journalism. But I digress.

There are reasons to be concerned about these Bibles, but I think there are more reasons to feel relaxed about them. For a start, the money to pay for them has apparently come from Tory donors. You may feel that they have strange priorities, or that the money would be better spent elsewhere, or even that it’s obscene that they have this sort of money to splash around on vanity projects, but these are separate arguments. They’re free to spend their own money as they like, and the taxpayer isn’t being asked to foot the bill for this project in any way, which is a point in its favour.

Dawkins is right that the King James Bible is a very significant cultural document, and this fact doesn’t change just because it has religious significance; Shakespeare didn’t suddenly become a hack writer the moment he penned propaganda in support of the Tudor dynasty, and the existence of a Jedi religion (however seriously you take it) doesn’t make the Star Wars films divisive and sectarian. His view that exposure to the Bible will help to convince people of its flaws may be controversial, but it also suggests that the issues are more complex than some have implied.

We’re able to distinguish the significance of a text from its intended message, or the way it’s been used, and it seems reasonable for a school library to contain a copy of the Bible, along with holy books from other major world religions and prominent atheist works. If schools lack these, the solution is surely to obtain what’s missing, rather than to refuse the gift of a significant work on an appropriate (if you overlook the delay) occasion. Nor is it particularly significant if schools already have copies of this translation, seeing that this is a special edition commemorating a notable anniversary. It’s likely to be more of a keepsake than a book in regular use.

But I said there are reasons for concern, and there are. We should be wary of the aims of the people who are supporting this project, in case this is being used as a part of a less acceptable campaign. Mein Kampf is one of the most significant and important works of the 20th century, in its way, but any group that was shelling out the thick end of half a million pounds to give a copy to every school should be prepared for some suspicious questioning of their motives.

There’s also the concern that these Bibles are being employed as a political dog-whistle, seeing that Michael Gove’s name is to appear prominently. That worries me, as does the implication that the Bibles are officially approved in some way. That’s unlikely to be a perception that would improve the standing or appeal of Christianity, but it’s something I’d hope the government would be careful to avoid, even in a country with an established church.

I don’t have much time for the King James Version of the Bible (I don’t see much value in wading through its archaic language when there are hundreds of translations that are easier to read), and I consider Michael Gove to be one of the least capable ministers in living memory, but although there’s been opposition from across the religious spectrum, I think the arguments against this project are a little weak on the evidence we have.

The worst that can be said about it for now is that it’s a shameless act of self-aggrandisement on Gove’s part. Given that he’s a politician, that’s unlikely to rank as one of the great shocks of the year.

Photos by cohdra and xandert, used under MorgueFile License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “Michael Gove and King James”

  1. Daz says :

    Like you, I have some distrust in the intentions of the givers, but in the end it’s the use that these books are put to that matters. At a guess, any school where they’d be likely to be used for some sort of proselytising is already likely to be doing that anyway, and will already have copies. Schools where such activity doesn’t take place, it’ll likely end up gathering dust in the library. End result, no real effect.

  2. Joan Barleycorn says :

    It would have been better to celebrate the literary, cultural and historical significance within an educational context via the curriculum (English and RE) last year. I am sure some schools did. Although with the curriculum being so prescriptive there probably wasn’t time.

    I thought the thing they did in London with actors taking part in public readings was a great idea (even though I didn’t get to see and hear this; it being a London culture fest and me being a poor provincial.)

    I like the King James, though use a decent modern translation that doesn’t completely ditch the lyricism. I know people who like the simple clarity of the Good News Bible but I think it so simple that it lacks something and it won’t do for me.

    As for Gove, speaking subjectively, he seems a bit of an odd fish to me. When it comes to my sphere of education, his influence is evident but, like a lot of ministers, the changes he has helped bring about are behind schedule, leaving us with feeling bemused and out of control. Coupled with the impact of massive spending cuts, it is clear he cares not a whit for those manning the system but like most politicians puts ‘vision for change’ before respect and care for professions and users caught up in change.

    Maybe I’ll need that King James bible after all, for a little inspiration in my trials.

  3. Renae Barker says :

    I agree with your sentiments. The Bibles are unlikely to be very effective at proselytizing – if that was their intent. One special edition per school is hardly going to put the book in the hands of every child, even in a smalls school. Most likely it will be put on a special shelf or cabinet in the office and only be seen by those being given a tour of the facilities. As you said it might end up in the library gathering dust and if the presence of a Bible in a school library is a concern for some people then make sure your local school also has your holy book or (if your an atheist or agnostic) books such as those by Dawkins explaining your position rather than asking that other people’s holy books are excluded.

    Since I’m not in England I can’t comment on the political angle – but it seems a little off to me that a politician will have his name prominently displayed on the Bible. I’m not sure it would eb allowed on holy books of other faiths. If he does want to be recognized as the person donating the book then his name should go ona plaque on the inside cover which has some statement like ‘This Book as donated to the school on the 400st anniversary of it original publication by …”

  4. jonnyscaramanga says :

    Gove is a terrifying moron to have in such an important position. His name isn’t going to be on the Bibles though. They just say donated by the Secretary of State for Education.

    I agree with your thoughts. Part of me thinks that children might think twice about God when they see some of the horrendous atrocities committed in the Bible, but the truth is most of the Old Testament is such a chore to read you’d have a job to find the exciting, bloodthirsty bits.

    • Daz says :

      but the truth is most of the Old Testament is such a chore to read you’d have a job to find the exciting, bloodthirsty bits.

      And the truly ‘Great Literature’ bits are even fewer and further between. A point made well by Jerry Coyne, just yesterday.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Thanks for the correction. My wording was sloppy. I’ll go and sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done.

      Maybe after a few years the collective efforts of successive generations of children will make the Bibles fall open at the gory and sexy bits, like Lady Chatterley.

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