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How the King James Bible was made

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DVD review: KJB: The Book that Changed the World. Lionsgate Entertainment, 94 minutes, $21.99.

On this 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible comes a rare documentary, imparting knowledge and beauty alike — and a peek into the personalities behind the events. KJB is well worth your time.

Why should you care? John Rhys-Davies, the narrator, spells it out at the beginning. He says the King James Version, “even if you haven’t read it, has had an influence on your life. In fact, its imagery, its language and its influence have been felt around the world for the past 400 years. It also claims to be the living word of God.”

John Rhys-Davies reads the King James Bible from an English pulpit to show its powerful effect.

The video takes an unusual route to the story of the King James Version. Instead of a direct approach, it looks through the eyes and mind and life of what Rhys-Davies calls “this strange little king.” And through the political maneuvers he negotiated, both in his home realm of Scotland and the English palaces he inherited.

First it sets James’ life against the violence of Elizabethan England: political factions, religious sects, assassinations and reprisals constantly tearing at the nation’s fabric. Even the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament — “their very own 9-11,” Rhys-Davies says — is woven into the story.

It traces James upbringing as a boy king of Scotland, whose rebel queen mother was executed when he was a toddler. Thereafter, James was constantly ruled by cold regents and brutal teachers until he was old enough to take the throne on his own. He learned tough thinking from his brutal but brilliant mentor, George Buchanan, and tough dealing from the feuding clans of Scotland.

This cauldron of influences produced a tough, intelligent, often testy young man, yet one who often sought to bridge gaps and unify opponents. It all made him a new kind of ruler as the hand-picked successor of Elizabeth I — a surprising one, given his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed for conspiring against the English throne.

Seeing familiar feuding again — this time between Anglican bishops and Calvinist clergy — James hit on the idea of a new Bible translation to bring the sides together. And not coincidentally, the project would reinforce his authority as head of the church.

What happens, of course, is what often happens when rivals are forced to collaborate. The 50-plus scholars first grumble and circle each other; then they grudgingly work together; then they slowly develop a camaraderie and mutual respect. Over seven years, their checks and balances refine one anothers’ scholarship.

Mounted as a docudrama, KJB is miles ahead of its typically dull counterparts on The History Channel. Cinematography is sharp and vivid, the acting is decent, lighting is by turns misty and luminous, and the story is told through playlets strung into a narrative.

Rhys-Davies, as host and narrator, lends his blend of lordly diction and forceful delivery. Many of the events are shot at the very sites — including Haddon Hall, Hampton Court Palace, Stirling Castle, the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey — where they happened.

In some extraordinary sequences, the video tries to capture some of the intense reverie that produced the KJV. Rhys-Davies opens a precious manuscript of I Corinthians 13, penned four centuries ago by Bishop Richard Bancroft of London himself. He marvels over a copy of a Bible with notes in the margins — a tiny window into the thought processes of the translators

The period costumes are gorgeous, as is the green, stony-fenced English countryside. You can almost smell the old stones and feel the weight of centuries. We also get nice touches like dueling stags and bobbing tulips

But just because this video is about the Bible doesn’t mean it’s G-rated. Not with James’ vigorous, occasionally salty remarks. In one anecdote, he rants that a list of Presbyterian complaints is “a litany of dullness and stupidity blown out of your buttocks. Perhaps we should stick the list back where it came from!”

The film has frequent talking-head professors who lend their insights in a conversational manner. Unfortunately, they’re not identified beyond their names. Where are they from? How are they qualified to comment?

Oddly, it’s only toward the end of the 94-minute program that we get a sampling of phrases that have cemented the King James Version as a towering achievement of poetry and rhetoric. Ascending into a lofty pulpit, Rhys-Davies savors the phrases like verbal delicacies.

Phrases like “Let there be light,” “You are the salt of the Earth,” “Honor thy father and thy mother,” “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

At the companion website, kjv400celebration.com, Thomas Nelson Publishers says that English speakers use 1,000 such phrases in everyday speech. The publisher also notes also that the KJV has more than a billion — yes, with a “b” — copies in print.

Only in its last moments does KJB mention some of the scandals that plagued James’ last years. Perhaps it’s just as well. Those storms have faded, but the Bible he commissioned still stands.

Yes, much of the language is outdated. It’s long been the fashion to make fun of the “thees” and “thous,” to nod off at the lists of “begats.” But for its majestic prose, its compelling poetry, and accuracy that was unsurpassed for centuries, the King James Version stands out as a true treasure of western Christian heritage.

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Written by Jim Davis

July 2, 2011 at 3:30 am

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