Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review: God's Secretaries

I have been interested lately in history books written by journalists.  There’s something so appealing about a well-researched history book written in engaging, accessible prose.  Not all journalists can pull off the well-researched part (see my review of A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy, for example), nor do journalists hold a monopoly on accessible prose.  However, many journalists seem to approach writing with a very different goal than academics, many of whom have absorbed academia’s trap of using complex sentences and big words for the sake of sounding authoritative.  I own several such books: Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries, Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, and David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar.  I read these journalistic histories as models for my own writing.  It’s a bonus that I have been enjoying their contents as much as their writing style.

Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003) is not actually a play-by-play description of the process of creating this Biblical translation.  Much of that process remains unknown because the documents have been lost, and what is known today had already been covered in academic publications.  Instead, God’s Secretaries is a cultural study: Nicolson examines many varied aspects of Jacobean culture that contributed to the idea and execution of the KJB.  This makes for an utterly fascinating book.  Nicolson presents biographies of King James himself and several of the Translators, and descriptions of such wide-ranging topics as contemporary medical theory, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath, architecture, the demand for rich luxury goods, the financial situation at court, the evolving English language, and other Bible translations.  Some of the most interesting passages compare the text finally chosen for the King James translation to that of previous and even modern Bible translations in order to demonstrate the Translators’ zeal for richness of sound and meaning.  And of course, Nicolson attempts to unweave the complicated web of religious politics in 17th-century England.

That is the aspect of this book which I found most compelling and from which I learned the most.  Nicolson discusses the motivations of Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and Separatists.  His balanced approach really tries to understand their disparate beliefs regarding liturgy, tradition, community, Scripture, symbol, and ceremony.  He examines the underlying assumptions that caused communication between these groups to so frequently break down without ever declaring that one religious denomination was right.  This was hugely influential to me personally when I began this book last fall.

I grew up in a nondenominational Christian church, which meant that I was raised as a Christian evangelical edging towards fundamentalism.  In high school, I was hired as a singer for an Episcopal church, and have since been confirmed as an Episcopalian and married an Episcopal theologian.  He starts his master’s degree at Duke Divinity School this fall, and I too expect to take a fair number of courses at the Div School to enable my research on sacred music in its theological and liturgical contexts.  The theology that is now a part of my daily conversations is just about the polar opposite from the beliefs with which I grew up.  And as a new liturgical Christian, it was difficult to keep from opposing those childhood ideas against which I was now rebelling.  That’s where Nicolson came in.  He discussed the fundamental differences of opinion between Anglicans and Puritans, explaining why the Anglicans valued ceremony and ritual and the Puritans valued simplicity and private reflection on Scripture.  I was able to again see value in a belief system that differed from my own.

“Why did these things matter so much?  Why did people care about the wearing of a surplice, or the emblem of the cross, or the use of a ring in the wedding service?  Why was so much agony expended on the relative weight of symbol and word, of text and ceremony, on the precise bodily movements of Englishmen at prayer.  There is a straightforward answer: two entirely different and opposing worldviews, and two views of the nature of human beings, and bound up in this debate.  For the strict reformers, only the naked intellectual engagement with the complexities of a rational God would do.  All else was confusion and obfuscation.  The word was the route to understanding.  Everything else was mud in the water.  Men were essentially thinking and spiritual creatures.  Bodily observance was an irrelevance…For those like Andrews who held on to the place of symbol in the life of religion (and they were a small if powerful minority even among the bishops of the Jacobean church), and who saw God not as an intellectual system but as a mystery, the stripping of the altars was an unpardonable arrogance.  The church had always used ritual and ceremony to approach the divine.  It was the conduit through which grace could reach the believer.  Only big-headed modern ‘novelists’ could assume that, without any guidance from the wisdom of the church fathers, ordinary people could approach God direct, as no one had done since the Apostles.  Mystery for Andrewes required ceremony and a respect for the inherited past.”  (37)

Isn’t that fabulous?  Nicolson respects both views, incompatible as they are, and you can’t help but sympathize with the side that believes differently than you do when he writes with such empathy.  And after establishing this central conflict in the religious life of early 17th-century England, Nicolson is able to make his central point about the importance of this new translation of Scripture.  The King James Bible is a landmark of history precisely because it bridges the gap between these two disparate worldviews:

“In this sentence [“Why was this waste of the oyntment [sic] made?” from Mark 4:4], one can see the extraordinary phenomenon of the King James Bible conforming both to Protestant and to pre-Protestant ideas about the nature of Christianity.  It is both clear and rich.  It both makes and exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.  It has that peculiarly Jacobean combination of light and richness, the huge windows illuminating the densely decorated room, the unfamiliar amalgam of the court-Puritan, both strict and grand.  No one could fault the Translators in their meticulous attention to the detail of the original texts; and yet in doing so, more than any other English translators, the enshrined a high moment of Christian meaning.” (196)

I’ve got nothing to add, other than to say that if you have any interest in Jacobean history, religious politics, theology, or the English language, you should read this book.  The impact of the King James Bible on Western civilization is unparalleled, and it remains exceedingly relevant even four hundred years later.

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross
Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Armin


  1. I used to have a copy of this book but got rid of it in a book purge last year with the intention of borrowing it from the library someday. Like you, I grew up evangelical (Baptist) and became Episcopalian as an adult, and that first quote picks up on one of the things that drew me to the Episcopal church, which is the way the liturgy leaves so much room for mystery. For some reason, studying theology, which I did in a Baptist seminary, pretty well made me get over any desire for "naked intellectual engagement with the complexities of a rational God." Fascinating to think of how a Biblical translation could bridge the gap between those worldviews.

    1. We share an interesting story, and what fascinates me is how well, usual it is. Most Episcopalians, at least in the church I work at, arrived in this denomination rather than growing up in it. I'm continually amazed at the power and mystery of ritual and ceremony, and the fact that liturgy means you come to participate in it every Sunday whether you're "feeling it" or not - and the fact that if you're not feeling it on a particular day, the entire church body around you affirms your faith for you.

      If you're interested in a book with a similar theme, finding value and common ground across the evangelical/liturgical divide, you might try "Evangelical is Not Enough" by Thomas Howard. I learned a lot from it, and contrary to the implication of its title, it is again a fairly balanced account of the good in each worldview. Like us, he started evangelical and ended up Anglican (and then Catholic).

      I'm curious to know whether you ever took any theology classes at a divinity school or liturgical seminar. I wonder if you'd have had a different experience?

    2. A lot of the people at my church are cradle Episcopalians, and we also have a lot of former Catholics. (I think that's because our worship style is very high.) But I know lots of evangelicals, some of them people I went to seminary with, who have turned to liturgical churches.

      All of my theology classes were at the Baptist seminary, but many of my professors took an ecumenical approach, which was helpful. It's just that the more I studied, the more I felt I needed to throw up my hands and accept that some things are a mystery. I've found more room for that in a liturgical church. I live very near the Virginia Episcopal Seminary and they offer evening classes, which I've thought about auditing, just to see how different the approach is.