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Why politicians should turn, turn, turn to the bible for timeless prose

7 June 2014

10:29 AM

7 June 2014

10:29 AM

The Bible may be creeping its way back into England’s classrooms if advice from University of Exeter study is taken But it misses a trick by suggesting that kids are asked. to re-tell Bible stories – rather than study its best passages as examples of word craftsmanship.

When the folk singer Pete Seeger died recently, a BBC announcer explained that he had written the song ‘Turn, turn, turn” (the Byrds’ version is posted above). He had a little help: the song is straight from Book of Ecclesiastes with one word, ‘turn’, slotted in by Seeger. As he knew, these words have lost none of their power over the millennia.

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The Book of Ecclesiastes is  full of such mesmerising, evocative phrases and analogies – which is why writers such as Doris Lessing have saluted the “the thundering magnificence” of some of “most wonderful prose ever written”. Her father, she said, learned to love literature by hearing Bible readings in church. Church attendance – or, indeed, attendance to any place of worship – has dropped off faster than any other country in the developed world.  Children just aren’t exposed to this quality of prose as once they were, so it would make sense for schools to intervene.

Mentioning the Bible, even in a blog, is a dangerous business nowadays: you can be accused of being a bit ‘loony tunes’ for even referring to it antiquity (as I once found out). But I’d like to sign off with a passage from another fan of the Book of Ecclesiastes: George Orwell, and his brilliant essay on Politics and the English Language (full text here). When you think of the drivel we’re subjected to in political speeches nowadays, you can see why his advice is needed more than ever:-

 I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English.

I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.

When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors.

The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

 

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Show comments
  • poran

    If this were the case they would be a lot easier to fight. They are left-liberals. Or Social Liberals if you will…
    otomatik kapı Otomatik Kapılar

  • shiva
  • Q46

    The modern English translation is quite wrong, partly because it is still good English.

    The proper modern translation would be: Sh*t ‘appens… innit.

  • http://www.artofwork.ca/ Vance Neudorf

    Completely agree. Not only have we lost the beauty of Kohelet’s words we have lost the very message the author sought to communicate. Ecclesiastes is a great book of wisdom that answers a question that everyone asks “What do I gain from all the hard work I do every day?” Its an amazing book but completely lost to a generation of workaholics and perfectionists who desperately need to understand what Kohelet has to teach them.

    I have just spent 5 years working on a translation of Kohelet and am amazed by how he wove his wisdom together. His early biographer (writing at the end of the book) said “Kohelet was wise and he passed on his teaching to the people. He studied to find just the right words and what he wrote was honest and true.”

    Unfortunately, when we use incorrect words and traditions to interpret Kohelet, we loose what is honest and true.

    Vance – http://www.artofwork.ca

    • allymax bruce

      ” “What do I gain from all the hard work I do every day?” ”

      Correct; typical Judaic intepretation of the Old Testament. Absolutely contradicts the ambience of the New Testamant; hence why the New Covenant; it is Christian, not Judaic.

      • http://www.artofwork.ca/ Vance Neudorf

        Actually the more I read and study Kohelet (I now have it memorized and perform it on stage) the more I realize that Kohelet and Jesus were in complete agreement. Once you get past all the negative baggage we have attached to Kohelet and begin to understand his message apart for current ideas about his writings he fits in with Paul and James quite nicely as well. Its unfortunate that very few understand what he has to say.

  • rtj1211

    ‘There is a time and a place for every activity under the sun’.

    It’s just that, for many, studying the Bible may not necessarily best take place in a class room with children who don’t relate to it.

    Why??

    For many, the words only have resonance when they can relate it to their own experience.

    Otherwise it’s just more rules and regulations handed down by hoity-toity establishment figures who children have realised at a young age don’t live by their own strictures.

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    To me, the obvious qualitative difference between these two passages is to do with what they are; the first wields the simple but profound power of an authentic lay – indeed the best kind of preacher is a layman, I think.

    But the second passage is meaningless, being contrived to high heaven, so to speak.

  • London Calling

    I have always struggled with words, but I know dribble when I hear it and it is true that our politicians sometimes dribble on ……..speak from the heart and the heart gets it…………….:)

  • Grumpy

    It is quite useful committing as many phrases from the KJV to heart as possible, it gives you a suitable phrase for every occasion and as people are still scared of offending religion face-to-face (as opposed to in newspaper columns), other are slow to contradict you.

    • rtj1211

      What a poor argument: ‘I expect to lose the argument so I”ll try and embarrass my opponent through quoting the Bible’.

      Trust me, anyone who knows their bible can come up with a counteracting quotation.

      I’m sure you’ll be able to quote me an alternative thought of Jesus to: ‘To him that hath shall more be given’, won’t you??

      • Grumpy

        Actually I can’t think of a snappy biblical comeback, but if you mean–“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”. Sounds like good fiscal policy.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Well of course you will. Any author worth a damn can do that. Shakespeare does it all the time.You are looking for propaganda.

        • allymax bruce

          rtj1211: “I’m sure you’ll be able to quote me an alternative thought of Jesus to: ‘To him that hath shall more be given’,”

          Fergus: “Any author worth a damn can do that”

          Fergus, you never disappoint!

      • allymax bruce

        “anyone who knows their bible can come up with a counteracting quotation.”
        Yes, and usually completely out of context.

  • Iain Hill

    What you might add is that this kind of gobbledygook, garbled out by newsreaders, weather forecasters and call centre staff at the speed of an express train, is utterly incomprehensible to deaf people. Throw in the propensity to mumble and you have a stream of senseless sounds.

    The biblical sentence might just be heard ! Let my people hear!

  • Andy

    We should give thanks for the life and work of William Tyndale. In the KJV 84% of the New Testament and 75% of the Old is by Tyndale. He paid for his work with his life.

  • roger

    But surely the CoE and schools dumped the KJB, Book of Common Prayer, even HA&M decades ago, cultural icons even without god.

  • allymax bruce

    There’s a strange anomoly according to the Bible, as it is ‘understood’ in ‘generalised’ Christian philosophy; that being it governs our lives, when in fact, it was meant to illuminate our lives. I blame the Church for this; especially Scotland’s Churches. I believe Scotland needs The Church more than ever now, but all they’re ‘preaching’ is babbling orthodox soundbites, while Scots peoples are starving, committing suicide, and living degenerating family lives going to foodbanks! Scotland’s massive Poverty, Imposed on Scots & Scotland by the Herodic Westminster Class-System; but the Churches in Scotland say nothing! Scotland’s Churches need to Publicly come out and support Scottish Independence.

    • telemachus

      Or
      Encourage a better together vote that will give a more dynamic economy and hence more wealth to share with the poor

      • roger

        I though Britain was almost run by Scots.Look at how people came south during the clearances , including ancestors of mine.

        • telemachus

          Some of our best leaders were in fact Scots
          *
          Independence would deny us leaders with the stature of Gordon Brown

          • Kitty MLB

            Little wasp, I’d hate to rock the centre of your
            world but Gordon Brown was like the archetypical lunatic professor.
            Only 3 months to go until we can send that man
            and many others back to the Lochs and Glens
            of Scotland.

            • telemachus

              Swifts and swallows
              *
              You know well that Salmond will be given a bloody nose

              • Kitty MLB

                Well if Mr Salmond is given a bloody nose,
                and that’s not certain. I hope we don’t give
                the poor wee fellow Devo Max as a concelation
                prize.

                • telemachus

                  Devo Max is only fair and equitable
                  *
                  Indeed if the rebellious Scots thought about it it is better than giving them so called independence while cotrolling their currency and interest rates

                • allymax bruce

                  Devolution, ‘Maximised’ to give Scots ‘a bloody nose’, is not something I think will particularly sway the Scots voters!

                • Bill_der_Berg

                  Presumably, if the Scots give the wrong answer, there will be a second referendum so that they can correct their mistake.

              • allymax bruce

                As usual, you descend to personal abuse; we’ve had enough of your Westminster evil; Scotland is voting Yes for Scottish Independence, Separation, anything you want to call it, we’re gone!

            • rtj1211

              If you had ever lived in Scotland (as I did for seven years), you’d know that Scotland is a far wilder, more beautiful country than England. Not saying England doesn’t have beauty, just saying Scotland has more of it. A sense of wilderness and space such as you will never find in England – try Glen Affric (hint: it’s one of the great Western Glens to the NW of the Great Glen) for starters. If you went to Rhum, you’d find an island beauty beyond compare. No shooting birds on a country weekend there, the RSPB will have your guts for garters. Get a train in a hard winter to Corrour and see if you can get to Dalwhinnie alive using solely a pair of skis and a rucsac on your back. Then you can get the sleeper ‘back to civilisation’.

              Mrs Thatcher was a lunatic too. It’s just that you happened to like her.

              I know that’s all that matters in the small world of Kitty MLB, but unfortunately for you, not everyone agrees with you.

              In an adult world, those who disagree with Kitty MLB aren’t by definition ‘socialists’, ‘ignorant’ or ‘immoral’.

              They just think that Kitty MLB is talking out of her derriere.

          • allymax bruce

            Lord huv mercy!

      • allymax bruce

        You’re obviously joking; you’ve had 300 years to fulfill your empty promises, and all you’ve done is make Scotland an impoverished basket-case. No more promises of jam-tomorrow; Scots & Scotland know you’re lying.

    • Kitty MLB

      Dear Ally, unfortunately the church does that, an awful
      lot of preaching and not enough guidance.
      I am surprised the church of Scotland has not said much
      about the referendum in September.And I am sorry that
      so many have difficult lives. You are a good hearted
      fellow Ally, pity there is not more like you in the world.

      • rtj1211

        How patronising to think that only men of God can give guidance.

        Guidance has to do with knowledge, not simply knowledge of the Bible.

      • allymax bruce

        And, you’re a sweetheart, Kitty; God Bless you.

    • paulus

      That was hilarious that, I never realised that you were insane. Can you evidence the explosion of suicide since the SNP got into power.I would have thought they would be more likely to cut Sturgeons throat than their own, considering she’s just boshed any viable currency by declaring Scotland will default on its debts.

      Uninformed lunacy is always comedy gold: what about martians?

      • Iain Hill

        Re read and simplify?

      • allymax bruce

        You laugh at the mass impoverishment of a Nation-State, and its Peoples; it is you that is ‘insane’.

    • Iain Hill

      Where have you been sleeping?

      • allymax bruce

        Homeless, usually.

    • rtj1211

      What do you suppose they were doing in the Middle Ages and during Empire when Christianity was all the rage, eh??

      Killing and murdering. Highland Clearances, McDonalds and Campbells, the East India Company, Jardine Mathieson helping to run the opium trade.

      No correlation between Christianity and higher human actions, laddy.

      • Fergus Pickering

        The Highlanders were pretty good at killing and murdering on their own account.

        • allymax bruce

          You’re a bad-un.

      • allymax bruce

        rtj1211, what you have described is not ‘Christianity’, it is exactly what I have described it as; god, made in the image of man.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I say – John Knox rides again.

      • allymax bruce

        I say you’re full of ‘it’.

  • Kaine

    It’s not so much the Bible as the KJV, which is rather distant from being a literal translation (making it’s use by biblical literalists all the more odd).

    • JoeDM

      Indeed. Stepping aside from the religious / superstition nonsense, it is a wonderful work of English literature.

      • Iain Hill

        Ie a great book!

      • allymax bruce

        I think you are defaming English Lit’.

  • DaveTheRave

    Not just the Bible, surely, but also Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, Dickens, Kipling, Lawrence, Joyce, Auden, Heaney… et al

    • Kitty MLB

      Very well said Dave wholeheartedly agree.
      We have a plethora of beauty and wealth within the literary
      greats of our country . With the history of our great language
      reaching back centuries and delightful old words such as
      Yclept not used by most, only our poets.
      Yet in this age, we have lessened the quality of our
      language, as to be modern and up to date with the rest of
      the world. I always make a point of using lesser known
      words from time to time, people wonder what I’m waffling
      on about, but never mind.

      • DaveTheRave

        Yes, thanks, very interesting – the English tongue is an astonishing tool.
        I have made several attempts at learning Old English (Anglo-Saxon) but have failed, I’m sad to say, yet have picked up quite a few old-fashioned/redundant words which are interesting, like ‘frumshaft’, for instance, which means creation. Words like these make you realise the Germanic origin of our language.
        I remember reading about Churchill’s ‘we shall fight them on the beach…’ speech, where every word except ‘surrender’ is of native/Old English origin… fascinating. Yet, at other times we can use language which is almost wholly of Latin/Green origin. English has a fascinating history and flexibility which many or our people are missing out on because of ‘dumbing down’.

        • swatnan

          Correct, it was the Committee of Elizabethan scolars (aka Shakespearian) that put the King James together. Hate to think what the original Dead Sea Scrolls read like.And it was the Black Pentacostalists that brought it songs to life in their Churches.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Old English is a very easy language if you know any others beyond English. Get out that grammar and try again. Beowulf is not quite Homer, but it’s good and no translation does it justice.

      • Iain Hill

        Plethora? He wants simplicity! A lot of, perhaps?

      • telemachus

        I wish I wish I wish in vain
        That we could sit simply in that room again
        A mess of words at the drop of a hat
        I’d give it all gladly
        If our lives could be like that

        • Fergus Pickering

          That’s vaguely familiar. Isn’t it a pop song?

          • allymax bruce

            Whatever it is, it is terrible!

            • Fergus Pickering

              You speak true, O allymax. Are you related distantly to the Bruce, by any chance?

      • Fergus Pickering

        Excise Lawrence, a ghastly man who wrote in a style both turgid and repetitive. Include Hilary Mantel however, the greatest living English novelist. She doesn’t seem to like the Royals much, but I think we ca live with that.

    • Neverbuynewclothes

      The “alia” should include Austen, Eliot, Gaskell, even Sayers, Thirkell, Pym, a list I made by looking across the room at my bookshelf of favorite reads.

  • telemachus

    I suspect the end route of this line of thought will be to stimulate schools in Sparkbrook and environs to teach directly from the Koran
    *
    On grounds of prose and grammar
    Of course

    • global city

      The Koran’s prose and grammar are strangulated and amateur…. and to think, it comes direct from God!

      • lookout

        It didnt

        • global city

          Your post is not as funny as mine!

        • glurk

          I know someone didnt have a synonym for ‘begat’….

        • telemachus

          The point is that both were written by godly men

          • lookout

            You will know them by their fruit

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