Melvyn Bragg, The Book of Books: The Radial Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011. 370 pages.
Melvyn Bragg is the host of the popular arts program, The South Bank Show, and the author of numerous books, including The Adventure of English, which explored the history of our language. Now he has produced a book celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible.
The main thrust of this work is to underscore the “unparalleled” impact of the “Book of Books” on the English-speaking world. As Bragg concludes, “There has never been a book to match it. It has a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written, a claim made by poets and statesmen and supported by tens of millions of readers and congregations…. But everyone, even atheists, has benefited from many of its unexpected consequences.” (p. 5-6)
Bragg is a masterful storyteller, and I was especially interested in the opening chapters, which detail the historical background leading up to the publication of the KJV. William Tyndale receives a lot of attention, since much of his translation work forms the basis of the KJV and was reproduced in it. The Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy receive just criticism for their “control over religious language,” and Bragg develops the reasons why this oppressive regime was fiercely determined to keep it that way. In this regard, medieval Christian Europe “had a great deal in common with Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and with much of Hitler’s Germany.” (p. 15) I was surprised how much detail Bragg uncovers about the 54 translators of the KJV, King James himself, and the undercurrents that shaped the commission to publish a new version of the Bible.
However, the bulk of the book focuses on the impact the KJV Bible has had on the English language over the last 400 years, on the shaping of our heritage, and, indeed, on life in the New World. For those who are interested in why western (and especially, English speaking) culture is so different from Muslim nations with regard to women’s rights, democracy, and a Bible-influenced world view, this book gives many illustrations to support the case. Bragg even takes on atheistic scientist Richard Dawkins, who is famous for denying that Christianity has benefitted society at all.
All in all, it is a thrilling account. As Bragg says, “There was, we read, ‘a hunger’ for the English Bible, for the words of Christ and Moses, of Paul and David, of the Apostles and the prophets. God had come down to earth in English and they were now earthed in Him. It was the discovery of a new world.” (p. 85)