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BBC puts focus on King James Bible


1:00 P.M. EST January 28, 2011 | MANCHESTER, England (UMNS)

Christine Morgan, executive producer, Religion & Ethics Radio. A web-only photo courtesy of the BBC.
Christine Morgan, executive producer, Religion & Ethics Radio. A web-only
photo courtesy of the BBC.

Four hundred years later, the King James Bible still has resonance in everyday life.

That is why the anniversary celebration of its publication warrants extensive coverage, says Christine Morgan, Methodist lay preacher and head of radio for the BBC’s Religion and Ethics Department. The UK’s major publicly funded broadcaster has devoted significant broadcast resources and air time to programming about the King James Bible.

The translation “still continues to influence art, literature, religion, music and even laws” in 21st-century Britain, she pointed out. “Most people don’t even realize many of the phrases we continue to use in our everyday life come from the King James Bible.”

Those phrases include familiar idioms such as “the blind leading the blind” (Matthew 15:13), “a fly in the ointment” (Ecclesiastes 10:1), “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), and “no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 57:21).

This Bible translation was commission by King James I in 1611. Work was completed by 47 scholars based in Oxford, Cambridge and London and drew heavily on the work of William Tyndale, who first translated the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek.

Morgan and her eight-member production team were responsible for a BBC 28-part radio series of 15-minute programs in which leading British actors read sections of the King James Bible. All 28 episodes, comprising some 7 hours of broadcast time, were aired throughout the day on Sunday, Jan. 9, on the BBC’s top speech radio network, Radio 4. Introductory comments from experts ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie to historian Simon Schama preceded each episode.

Enormous undertaking

It was an enormous undertaking and a huge gamble, Morgan admitted.

“Everyone knows these stories so well and listeners could have said, “Oh, that again.”

But they didn’t. In the seven days after the broadcast, there were more than 150,000 demand downloads of the series from the BBC’s website.

King James I of England. A web-only photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
King James I of England.
A web-only photo
courtesy of Wikipedia.

Morgan thinks she knows why: the King James Bible was written to be read aloud.

“When beautiful text is read by talented and skilled people, it draws you in,” she explained. “We had fantastic feedback from our audience. People who are Christians loved hearing the stories again. On the Radio 4’s Facebook page, people identifying themselves as atheists have said, ‘thank you,’ ‘this was so lovely’ and even ‘I’m now prepared to be an agnostic.’

“It was an absolute privilege to be involved with it,” she said.

Three 45-minute radio documentaries on the history of the King James Bible have also aired in January, hosted by James Naughtie, a well-known journalist.

Producer Rosemary Dawson said one of the surprises of the series came when Kei Miller, a Caribbean poet, described how he continually goes back to the translation in his work because language in the Caribbean is “infused” with the influence of the King James Bible.

In recognition of the 400th anniversary, the Rev. Ernie Rea, a Methodist minister and broadcaster, devoted an episode of his half-hour BBC radio discussion series, “Beyond Belief,” to the translation of sacred texts.

“We wanted to explore how different faith traditions view translations,” explained Rea, who invited Sikh, Muslim and Christian scholars to be guests on the program. Their discussion also prompted Rea to say he is uneasy about “anything which might suggest we worship a book” observing that “Bibliolatry seems to be a particularly religious temptation.”

Several additional TV documentaries on the history and influence of the King James Bible will be broadcast later this year. The entire series of King James Bible reading and introductions broadcast on Jan. 9 will be available as an audio book from AudioGo in the spring.

*LaCamera is a freelance journalist who also works as a hospital and mental health chaplain in Britain’s national health service. Some information for this story was provided by the BBC.

News media contact: Linda Bloom (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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