Lost without translation

by
10 January 2020

Adrian Leak reflects on the implications for ministry when words cease to resonate

Wiki Commons

Jeroboam sets up two golden calves, from the Bible Historiale. Den Haag, 1372

Jeroboam sets up two golden calves, from the Bible Historiale. Den Haag, 1372

“THE golden calves of Jeroboam” was a phrase which cropped up from time to time in our childhood games of charades. Having given the conventional signal for a quotation, and indicated with five fingers the number of words, it required no great acting skill to denote the second word (one of the grown-ups in the room was bound to be wearing a wedding ring), and the third word needed no more than a tap on the back of the leg below the knee. By then, someone — possibly the whole room — would have shouted “The golden calves of Jeroboam”, which was just as well, because no one had ever worked out how to mime the word “Jeroboam”.

The choice of a biblical subject might suggest that we were an unusually pious family, but that was not the case. The golden calves belonged to that stock of half-remembered stories and characters from the Bible which was still common currency in many households during the first half of the 20th century. When the situation called for it, we alluded to the immutable laws of the Medes and the Persians. At times, we spoke wistfully of the years that the locusts had eaten; and, when we shared a secret, we were careful to add the rider, “Tell it not in Gath.”

In those days, biblical quotations cropped up everywhere. Even Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (the hero of “Sapper”’s novels) was moved, in a moment of high emotion, to quote from scripture, when — in reply to his friend Toby’s remark, “You’ll be getting married, old bean” — Drummond replied, “True, O King” (Daniel 3.24).

In popular culture, the Bible shared precedence with Shakespeare. For example, in the radio programme Desert Island Discs, the castaway was allowed to have a volume of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, a tradition which endures to this day. In the first broadcast (1942), the popular entertainer Vic Oliver was invited to be Roy Plomley’s castaway. That an Austrian Jew, brought up in the traditions of a Viennese synagogue, should be offered the Christian Bible did not strike anyone as at all odd. It was taken for granted by the BBC that no English-speaking castaway should be deprived of such a resource, for the Bible was not the exclusive property of Christianity. It belonged to the wider constituency of British culture.

 

POPULAR English authors of the first half of the 20th century — writers such as John Buchan, P. G. Wodehouse, Dornford Yates, Dorothy L. Sayers, and H. C. McNeile (“Sapper”) — were able to dip into a reservoir of quotations from the Bible, confident that their allusions would be familiar to the readers.

When Ian Fleming recreated Captain Hugh Drummond in the character of Commander James Bond, he borrowed several recognisable features: the hero was a well-tailored and understated old Etonian, a connoisseur of fine wines and fast cars. The villain was a nasty foreigner — or, if not foreign, a man of uncertain parentage — who cheated at cards and had links with international crime. In many ways, Bond was interchangeable with Drummond, and Auric Goldfinger with Carl Peterson.

There was a gulf, however, between Drummond’s world and Bond’s. Bond was unlikely to quote from the Bible or Shakespeare. The role did not require it, and it would have been unconvincing if it had. By 1953, when Fleming published his first Bond novel, the world had changed since Drummond’s first appearance in 1920, and those two foundation texts of the English language (three, if you include the Book of Common Prayer) — although still hidden deep beneath the surface of our culture — were no longer recognised or openly acknowledged.

That was how it was in the 1950s. Now, 70 years later in 2020, anyone wishing to communicate with a popular readership cannot assume their readers to have any knowledge whatsoever of the Bible. This means that, for the first time in five centuries, the Church of England must learn to speak to a nation for whom the Bible is a closed book.

Without the ambience of a biblically literate culture, unchurched couples wanting a church wedding will be puzzled by references in their service to “Christ’s bride” and the wedding at Cana. No less of a worry will be the allusion, at their child’s christening, to the Red Sea. These biblical associations, once generally understood, are now no longer so. They need explaining; but allusions that need to be explained miss the point — which is that they do not need explanation.

 

THIS presents us with a problem. It is the same one that confronted Paul in Athens. Contrary to his usual practice of preaching within the tradition of the Jewish scriptures and appealing to converts from the synagogue, he tried to preach a sermon outside the biblical context. It did not work. There was a complete breakdown in communication. The gospel was not rejected: it was not “heard”. The people on the Areopagus that day simply did not get it, and were never likely to do so, as, without the context of biblical Judaism, it simply made no sense.

In our country, we are now in the same position. We believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life”, but to proclaim this amazing truth to people who have little or no knowledge at all of the biblical concepts of sin and redemption is likely to be as ineffective as Paul’s appeal to the Athenians.

An earlier generation, born in the 1930s, many of whom were used to collective worship at school, and church parade during National Service, may have groaned at compulsory religion, but at least their upbringing gave them a familiarity with the language and concepts of a biblical culture. That generation is now rapidly disappearing.

As a parish priest, like most of my colleagues, I relied on the occasional populist service to bring in new families while still trying to keep the attendance of the “regulars”. The liturgical calendar provided opportunities almost every other month to have a “special service”, at which I could add bells and whistles to the basic narrative of the lectionary. This is, perhaps, now the universal practice among parish clergy.

But, as we are always being told, success measured by numbers can be deceptive. Looking back at my own ministry, I suspect that I strove too hard to fill the pews with the many who were not there, and not hard enough to teach the few who were. I saw an easier alternative to the hard slog of patient teaching, with its undeniably slow results.

Jeroboam seemed to offer that easier alternative. By setting up those golden calves to seduce the Israelites from worshipping the true God, he presented an attractive “quick fix”. Centuries earlier, Aaron had done the same. It was the same old story: “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Instead of travelling the hard road, and being prepared to lose some disciples on the way, the Israelites looked to Jeroboam, who offered the easier path.
 

The Revd Adrian Leak is a retired priest in the Guildford diocese, and the author of Nebuchadnezzar’s Marmalade Pot and Archbishop Benson’s Humming Top.

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