Melvyn Bragg branded the decline of the King James Bible in the UK “a disgrace”. The writer and broadcaster suggested that it should be reintroduced into schools and read on a monthly basis.
Speaking at the Henley Literary Festival, Bragg was clearly exercised by the “great deprivation” young people experience through their lack of exposure to the Bible. He derided those who say the biblical text is “too complicated”, calling them “wimps” and “terrible people”.
In a response to Bragg’s comments, the journalist Andrew Brown asked in the Guardian whether the King James Bible was too graphic for children to read, wondering “how could you possibly teach it in school?”
But perhaps close, critical reading of biblical texts in the classroom might begin to address the arguably more pressing deprivation of Britain’s young people. This is less about the “depth of language” of particular biblical translations and more about the absence of recognition and respect for young people’s own experiences of violence.
Ignoring that the Bible records horrible, terrifying human events makes it easier to gloss over the fact that these same things occur regularly today. Sexual assault, genocide and slavery, all described in the Bible, are still rife. If we want to confront today’s horrors, it helps to also confront biblical accounts that terrify us.
Students should be given the tools to address these issues to truly prepare them for the real world (and not just the workplace).
Texts, including the Bible, do not have meaning on their own. Readers must interpret the words on the page, and give the Bible meaning, whether that meaning reflects the ancient context in which it was written, or some meaning for contemporary life. We as readers decide what we do with what we read, and whether we gloss over violence and oppression – or confront it.
Brown suggests that “teachers might struggle with the visceral violence” of the King James Bible but critiques contemporary biblical translations for casting “a veil of ordinariness over the stark horror of many of the stories”. But then violence is horrifyingly ordinary. The scale of sexual abuse scandals in the UK and the prevalence of bullying in schools should tell us that many children are all too familiar with the mundanity of violence. Children are more likely to be victims of, and witnesses to, violence than adults. Sanitising horrific biblical stories, or focusing on the beauty of the language in the King James Bible translation rather than asking hard, critical questions of the biblical text, won’t make real-life violence disappear.
After all, it’s not as if we don’t already teach -— and celebrate —- horrific biblical episodes. Babies and infants are given books and toys based on Noah’s Ark – a biblical story of genocide. And schools and churches don’t flinch at showcasing images of extreme torture through the crucifixion of Christ. The horrific crucifixion of Jesus is often glossed over but torture, the death penalty, and false imprisonment are still present in society.
Perhaps Bragg might be underestimating young people in his assertion that they find the Bible “complicated” and Brown might be patronising students by questioning whether horrific biblical texts should be taught in schools.
The key is not to downplay the horror of God being compared to a slave-owner who beats his slaves into shreds, or that scripture seems fine with threatening sexual assault as punishment for disobedience, or that the annihilation of huge groups of people can be justified with religion.
Instead, the key is to use these texts as tools to confront violence in society. This starts in the classroom, reading through difficult texts with students and allowing them to grapple with issues of injustice. As Brian Blount, among others, has pointed out, avoiding violent texts as frightening or irrelevant to today’s “peaceful” society ignores the many communities for whom society is not at all peaceful. By the time students get to university many of them have already had personal experiences with violence; shying away from those topics only marginalises them further.
There are tools for teaching troubling texts in the classroom, as teachers well know when exploring difficult social issues, modern history, and contemporary literature, none of which shy away from addressing violence. And there are many, many, many scholars teaching Bible at university who are already helping students to read these difficult texts carefully and critically.
Especially when biblical texts have been used (unjustly or not) to justify some horrific practices and policies, from slavery to colonialism to genocide, we cannot afford to ignore the Bible. The solution is not to avoid difficult subject matter, but to give students of all ages the tools to work through them. Students will then have the ability to confront injustice when they see it now.