Addressing himself to warlocks and witches, Robbie Burns wrote:
Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamour,
And ye deep-read in hell’s black grammar....
A contemporary of his explained: “When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour over the eyes of the spectator.” The word ‘glamour’ retained this magical sense longer in Scotland than anywhere else. The modern sense, ‘delusive or alluring charm’, is a much weakened one.
Was it only the rhyme that made Burns put those two words together, ‘glamour’ and ‘grammar’? No doubt he knew that they were once the same word: ‘glamour’ is a corruption of ‘grammar’. There was some primitive fear of the written word, a feeling that anyone who could read could also bewitch. If that sounds weird to you, just think of the ambiguity of the word ‘spell’!
In ancient times the Jews considered the spoken word a sort of ‘thing’; once it was uttered it could not be taken back: Isaac, for example, could not take back the blessing he had given to Jacob. When literacy becomes widespread this permanence is transferred to the written word. ‘Character’ (meaning a letter of the alphabet) comes from the Greek word ‘to engrave’, suggesting a durability that the spoken word then begins to lose. In our age there is as little permanence for the written as for the spoken word: the waves of spoken language that wash over us are not different from the newspapers that swell to a hundred pages, only to be put in the bin the next morning, with just a few pages read. And books, like food products, have shelf-lives. In the popular imagination the permanence of words – even written words – is disappearing fast.
But what about sacred texts? Are these not considered as sacred today as they ever were in the past? Aren’t there still people in the world who will kill for a comma?
Yes, and there are people who believe that everything is written in the stars: the future legible in the past. There is a deep urge in all of us to seek something permanent in this changing world. Well, nothing could ever be as permanent as the past, and an authoritative text that delivers this past to us has some kind of grim but reassuring appeal.
What about the Bible? Isn't it fixed and permanent? Yes, and older translations leave you in no doubt about that. “After me cometh he who is mightier than I” (KJV) sounds much more solemn and permanent than “Someone is following me” (JB); and “Your adversary the devil… prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” is much more terrifying than the same devil “looking for someone to eat.” By why does it sound more impressive? I suspect that sometimes we are we looking for the wrong thing in it. We would like it to have an antique and exotic flavour that will keep it trapped in the past. We enjoy the magic, the glamour, that has been squeezed out of it by modern translations.
Is there hope for the Bible in a world of bewildering change? There is always the wrong kind of hope as well as the right: there is the temptation to literalism and fundamentalism. Something rebels in me when I see a celebrant or reader raise up the Lectionary, and announce: “This is the word of the Lord.” The word of the Lord, I hope, is not paper and ink, but a proclamation to a community of believers; it is a word of hope and promise living in the hearts of people who are trying to live by the Beatitudes, and not a book on a shelf or a lectern. In Norwegian they don’t say, “This is the word of the Lord” at the end of a reading; they say “Slik lyder Herrens ord,” (‘Thus sounds the word of the Lord’). A Muslim told me once that there is a tradition that Mohammed was illiterate. This, I suspect, is, as far as it goes, similar to Christians saying that Mary is a virgin: the word of God has to be seen to be from God and not from a purely human source. This made me aware that it is not the Bible that corresponds to the Koran, but Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is the Word of God, and the Scriptures are words about him, a testimony to what God has done and is doing in him; they are the word of God in a strictly subordinate sense.
The glamour of the old translations is no great loss, even though it was often very beautiful, while some modern translations can sound quite banal at times. But the Scriptures never sounded antique to the people who wrote them, or to the first people who listened to them. Scripture is not about itself; it is a word boiling over with urgency about Jesus. The antique glamour of old things enables us to date them and place them, like ornaments and works of art, or like ancient creatures trapped in amber; but that is not what the Scriptures are about. The patina of age appeals to nostalgia, but the Good News is for today, the urgent “today” and “now” of the Gospels. The Lord of life will not imprison us, as sacred texts, including the Bible, are often made to do. His words can never be twisted into chains to bind the captives set free by him.