I recently purchased the King James Bible on audiobook (60 CDs! complete with attractive and convenient carrying case!), and since then my in-car time has been all about getting cozy with The Word.
It's for work, of course, or mostly for work: I know the Bible decently well, but it's been a long while since I read it in any systematic way, and I've never read the KJV except piecemeal. But naturally, the audiobook isn't intended for scholars, and as a result it's ridiculously cheap: I got the complete set from Amazon for just over $30--or exactly the same price as the audiobook of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall.
The comments on Amazon make the target market for this product clear, while also revealing some depressing things about twenty-first-century Bible reading and biblical literacy. Quite a lot of the reviewers describe the King James version as the "authentic" text of the Bible or "God's word in the original." (One or two people claim that the KJV is "the best and most accurate" translation of the Bible, which at least identifies the text as a translation--though without doing much to establish the commenters' own credibility.)
Now, I'm delighted that there are so many people out there listening to, and presumably a much larger number reading, the King James Bible. But I'm not so thrilled about the ignorant, ahistorical, unliterary, and arguably un-spiritual way in which they seem to be doing it.
The King James Bible is lovely, and its translations of various stories--and, more generally, its prose rhythms--have had tremendous influence on the literature of the entire English-speaking world. And goodness knows I'm all for exposing more people to the syntax and diction of Early Modern English. But it is not the best or most accurate translation of the Bible, much less God's Word in the Original, and to imagine that its Olde Timey language makes it more spiritually authentic is to confuse aesthetic effects for divine ones--and that is fundamentally un-Protestant.
But then, contemporary Protestantism is pretty un-Protestant, isn't it? And as someone who is deeply intellectually invested in the Reformation, I think that's a scandal. I'll stick with issues of biblical engagement for now, though obviously there are others (Jesus's face on the side of a building, anyone?). Most of my self-identified Christian students do not know the Bible. I don't live in the Bible Belt, so I lack a certain kind of evangelical student, but I do have students who are very active in their churches, who occasionally make arguments based on "what the Bible teaches," and who not only have not read the entire Bible, but who barely know its major stories; I've gotten blank looks when I mention Moses in the bullrushes, or the parable of the prodigal son.
Let me be clear: I'm very happy to live in a secular society, and I don't sit around bemoaning the average student's lack of biblical literacy; the ability to catch a passing biblical reference is nice, but not essential (that's what footnotes are for--and when a work's engagement with the Bible really matters, I give my students the relevant biblical passage; in certain classes, I've made the KJV itself a required text).
But the average Protestant--and I mean the average, church-going Protestant, someone who claims his religion as an important part of his identity--does not appear to be reading the Bible himself. He relies upon other people to tell him what the Good Book "says," and from what I can tell, many if not most nondenominational church services don't even present the text of the Bible in any systematic or thorough way. These days, ironically, a Catholic who attends church every Sunday is likelier to know the Bible than many Protestants who do the same.
That leaves the Bible in a strange limbo: continually touted as the Word of God, but removed from the intellectual and spiritual traditions that made meaning out of it.
And though I'm both a Catholic and a secularist myself, this breaks my heart.