As a native New Yorker, one of the things I appreciate about the city is how it stimulates my taste and sight to evoke strong memories of growing up. I love eating a fresh bialy with a smear of sweet butter, because it reminds me of my brother surprising our family with the tasty breakfast treat when I was a kid. I relish seeing art exhibits in Manhattan because they remind me of my artist sister who would point out creative details, techniques, and styles I had never thought about before. My ever changing experiences of the city bring me back to memories and push me forward with excitement.
While vacationing in NYC recently, my family and I came across a new exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), located near Lincoln Center at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street. MOBIA’s “On Eagles’ Wings” commemorates the 400th anniversary of The King James Bible. The show ends on Sunday, October 16, 2011.
The King James Bible is like the Mount Rushmore of American culture. Being the first English Bible printed in the United States (in 1782), the King James Bible (also called the King James Version) has served presidents, writers, artists, and the common man as their primary book for religious inspiration. Most of the presidents, including President Obama in 2009, chose to swear their oath of office on the King James Bible. And we cannot well understand the American literary tradition without taking into account this Bible. Writers like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson used it as one of their main literary resources.
From birth to death Americans draw upon more than 250 phrases from the King James Bible. We observe that a child is “the apple of the father’s or mother’s eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10), contemplate agreement with each other as “seeing eye to eye” (Isaiah 52:8), claim that we are innocent and “as white as snow” (Daniel 7:9), and skeptically observe that someone is doomed to do bad because he is “a leopard who cannot change his spots” (Jeremiah 13:23). The title of the exhibit is taken from the verse “Ye have seen…how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself” (Exodus 19:4).
Even today, nearly half of Bible readers (45%) in the United States most often use the King James Bible, according to a Barna survey conducted last spring for the American Bible Society.
By the 13th century, the Latin Vulgate was the official translation of the Bible. However, only the clergy and some rulers knew how to read Latin. The Roman Catholic hierarchy at the time outlawed translations into the common languages because they distrusted the ability of ordinary people to rightly interpret the Bible. The religious elite in Rome also thought that a common language among the clergy and rulers would sustain the idea of a transnational Christian Roman empire. However, the subjects of the empire saw Latin Bibles as a lock on power with the clergy in Rome holding the key.
A growing number of theologians wanted the Bible translated into their vernacular languages so that common people could read the Bible themselves. Such translations also
carried the seeds of nationalism against the empire. So, the translators lived dangerous lives and were excommunicated, exiled, or executed because of their work. One of the displays highlights a copy of John Wyclif’s translation exquisitely written and illuminated on vellum around 1440. Wyclif’s translation of the Latin Vulgate in the 1380s was the first English translation of the Bible. The elites destroyed as many copies of the translation as they could.
The exhibit also displays a copy of the Pentateuch translated by William Tyndale published in 1530. By this time translators were supplementing Latin translations with texts in the original languages of the Bible. Tyndale’s Bible was the first English translation based on the Hebrew text. Tyndale was burnt at the stake in 1536. The scholars who worked on the King James Bible drew much from Tyndale’s work.
The Bibles in the exhibit are from the more than 2,200 volumes of the American Bible Society’s Rare Bible Collection. One of the nation’s oldest non-profits, the society also holds the first editions of all the English translations of the Bible released before the King James Bible, and all the important editions of the King James Bible, starting with the first edition in 1611. A noteworthy volume displayed is the Coverdale Bible of 1535, the first complete English Bible ever printed. The American Bible Society’s whole collection includes over 45,000 volumes, making it the biggest printed Bible collection in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Other significant Bible collections are those at The British and Foreign Bible Society, The British Library, the Cambridge University Library, the University of Oxford Library, and the Wurttemberg State Library in Germany.
Today, the King James Bible continues as a cultural touchstone. The MOBIA exhibit displays over eighty paintings by the NYC artist Makoto Fujimura. On the evening of October 6th the artist will be at MOBIA to discuss his paintings.
Fujimura combines a Renaissance aesthetic with abstract expressionism and a Japanese Nihonga style. Using gold, platinum, azurite, and malachite, the result is a shimmery luminescence. “Charis-Kairos” (The Tears of Christ) is a beautiful expression of Christ’s sorrow and pain. Based on the shortest verse of the Bible, John 11:35: “Jesus wept,” the painting packs an emotional punch.
Contemplating the art piece, I rethought some of my old emotional habits in light of a new perspective about imitating the human side of Christ. I grew up with an overly austere habit of holding back my tears through pain and suffering. I thought that weeping was for the weak, and I would pretend that everything was okay. The pungent beauty of the painting made me realize that there is no shame in shedding tears over burdens. There is a sort of beauty to honesty and reflectiveness in the presence of pain. The painting told me that weeping does not make me weak; it can help me to be more like Christ in expressing my own hurts as well as addressing the sufferings of others.
On the day of my visit, MOBIA also showed a 90-minute movie, KJB: The Book the Changed the World. Director Norman Stone, who took questions afterwards, also produced and directed the award winning Shadowlands for BBC television. His father was a Baptist minister, “basically an evangelical Calvinist.” At present, the director attends a Church of Scotland congregation in his village near Glasgow.
John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Sallah in the Indiana Jones films, was the chief narrator. The film puts it modern audience in touch with the King James Bible by creating tactile moments. At one point, Rhys-Davies did his narration while walking through a room where the translators worked. To emphasize that the rich rhetoric of the Bible, which was designed to be read out loud, Rhys-Davies climbed up to a pulpit and began reading. The echoes in the cathedral work like a musical reverb in the minds of the film’s viewers.
The movie recounts King James’ plan to unite a religiously divided England through a common English Bible. He requested the Anglican “Bishops” and “Puritans” to work together with “no backbiting notes and no papal puke.” The king’s jaundiced attitude toward Rome was reinforced by the “Gunpowder Plot” of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic soldier who sought to assassinate King James in order to put the Catholics back in charge of the church. King James is played with extraordinary resemblance by Andrew Rothney.
Although I grew up using the New International Version of the Bible because of its contemporary English, I have increasingly sneaked looks at verses in the King James Bible. Its eloquence puts it in a higher cultural realm. I am planning to purchase a King James Bible the next time I go to a bookstore.
On Eagles’ Wings: The King James Bible Turns 400 is on view through October 16, 2011.
Every Thursday evening MOBIA does an in-depth “spot tour” of one object in the exhibit. For more information, visit www.mobia.org.
KJB: The Book that Changed the World DVD is available at www.amazon.com
Makoto Fujimura's Art of the Four Gospels