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City primed to make Bible-reading history
Victoria, Canada - It was "a labour of love" and "a sign of the times" that "turned the world upside down."
Four hundred years ago, it — the King James Version of the Bible — was written. And it contained not only the newly received word of God to English Protestants in 1611 but some of the most poetic, inspirational yet down-to-earth language ever put to paper. And ever since, the KJV has fascinated believers and non-believers alike.
"[It] has been called the single most important publication in English-speaking history," says Ian Alexander of Sidney, a proselytizer for one of the wordiest celebrations of the 400th anniversary imaginable: a public reading of all 1,590 pages at Christ Church Cathedral Sept. 19 to 24. It's believed to be Canada's only such reading — and everyone in the community is invited to take part.
"We wanted to do something that would not only celebrate the historical richness of the KJV, but bring it alive for us today," he says.
"It not only formed the faith of millions of people, but gave the world hundreds of colourful phrases that are still in common use, and permanently shaped the rhythms and images of English speech and writing," Alexander says. And not "in a twinkling of an eye" — it took a committee of 47 scholars and clergy four years to "fight the good fight."
"Its cadences are still deeply ingrained in our psyches as a shared experience and common legacy of cultural reference," Alexander says.
The KJV was commissioned when King James I of England took the throne in 1603 after the childless Elizabeth I died. Elizabeth had had James's own devout Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots, executed in 1587, and James was raised a confirmed Protestant not keen on Catholics and Puritans.
In the so-called "Renaissance revival" of the times, the learned committee studied the original Hebrew and Greek scriptures in coming up with its version.
So strong is its influence, that besides more than 2,400 translations —from American Sign Language to the "Extreme Teen" KJV, efforts continue to render it in Klingon — the language of the outer-space race in Star Trek.
That said, many Anglican parishes no longer use it on a regular basis, with church leadership deeming it too formal for modern congregations — a move begun in the 1950s that has turned into a flood, says Rev. Herb O'Driscoll, honorary assistant at the cathedral. But "the KJV is not going to go away," he says, adding that parishioners often request it for special occasions.
In the U.K., 2,000 special Royal Blue Bibles were issued with the Coat of Arms of Prince William and Kate to celebrate their marriage, along with a postage stamp and docudrama by Norman Stone: KJB — The Book That Changed the World.
Books aplenty have been written about this book of books, including God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible and Bible: The Story of the King James Version by Gordon Campbell.
Welsh scholar David Crystal penned Begat, The King James Bible and the English Language, which lists 257 KJV sayings now woven into the language: Eat, drink and be merry; fly in the ointment; salt of the earth; from the cradle to the grave; and no rest for the wicked.
For the record, even Shakespeare came up with "only" 100 phrases that became common usage.
"It's not the first translation into English — but it became the dominant one because the language is so amazing," says Rev. Logan McMenamie, dean of Christ Church Cathedral. He views it as the most significant and magnificent piece of writing in English history, one that gave worshippers a sense of awe and poetry in their relationship with the divine.
The KJV Biblethon celebrates the greatness that the KJV brought to the church and the English language, and as such, it's as much cultural as religious, he adds.
Will it be a challenge to get all the 300-plus slots filled with readers? "No question," Alexander says. But he has faith. The readings will go from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. (Visit www.christchurchcathedral.bc.ca to register for bookings).
"We would love people to sign up," he says, and he means those of every faith or none, in keeping with Christ Church as a "big tent" that welcomes the entire community. The KJV has been divided into 350 passages, each 20 minutes in length.
More than 100 spots are already spoken for, including the sensual Song of Solomon and the good-will-prevail Book of Job — both of which will be dramatized by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre on the evening of Sept. 22.
Media and political figures are also expected to read.
All told, more than 900,000 words will be uttered, including the Apocrypha (Greek for "things hidden" and not always counted). The word count of the KJV itself ranges from 783,137 to 788,280. That requires two readings to be going on at the same time to ensure the job gets done — in the main nave and the upstairs chapel.
School groups, book clubs, friendly neighbours — they're all welcome to read, and of course, the public is invited to attend.
Might the event spark more interest in Christianity?
"God knows in this crazy world we're in what it'll achieve," O'Driscoll jokes. "The object would be to create awareness of the Bible as a whole."