Unpopular things I think and say #1

The trouble is, I sometimes think things that other people don’t think. Then when I say them out loud there is trouble.

One obvious example is the inner grumpetiness that I feel when I hear the Kings College Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. I’ve already alluded to that once and Chris has kindly taken the bait.

However, Chris assumes that my primary objection to the service is that it is boring and that’s not quite true. I must admit that though you might often hear fantastic singing in the service, I do find it a bit boring (and a tad too long) but that’s not what bugs me most.

What bugs me is the prologue which sets the whole service in a context which I don’t think the coming of Jesus was all about and the use of the King James Bible.

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving
purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto
the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child…

And thus begins a traipse through the Hebrew Scriptures taking one after another out of context and using them to point as though inevitably towards a child that is away in a manger in Bethlehem.

It seems obvious to me that Genesis was not written with Bethlehem in mind. Others will dispute that, no doubt, and say that as it was all divinely ordered from before time, the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us one salvation narrative all along. I don’t agree with that and I don’t think it is true to the story of the Jewish people. Moreover, the prophetic writings are twisted far beyond their context by the Nine Lessons tradition. We know better than that by now, don’t we?

Being grumpy about the continued use of the King James Version at the service may seem churlish – people like tradition, people don’t like change, the language is beautiful and lovely and all that. But King’s College, Cambridge is one of our foremost academic institutions in world learning. Why on earth are they using in their most public of public worship, texts which have long been superceded for accuracy. Though the KJV provides so many lovely phrases that roll around our consciousness, don’t we care that this makes the Christian faith appear to be an anachronistic antiquarianism. It isn’t true to the religious scholarship of King’s.

I’m aware that this was not a year for King’s to try making big changes. No doubt there will be a new Dean appointed this year. However, I’m not sure that it is entirely the college’s fault. The whole thing seems enslaved to the continuity announcements of the BBC.

Changelessness is not necessarily sacredness. Changelessness is not necessarily traditional either.

When first I said these things about this service I remember causing great trauma to those around me. My view has not changed however, and when I’ve gently muttered these views this Christmas, I’ve been surprised how many other voices murmur in agreement.


  1. Amen and Amen.

  2. I suspect I only listen to the music. Peccavi …

  3. There is usually quite a lot about Adam and Eve and the supposed “fall” in the music too. (Indeed, there was a little of that in our carol service here this year too).

  4. Rosemary Hannah says

    I utterly agree, although I do enjoy the music. I can think of few more congenial tasks that providing lessons which lead up the the Incarnation in a way closer to how I think God actually helped people get there.

    They get away with it because most people have no theological understanding, even less understanding of what the OT contains and is about, and because the whole thing is well done, and at just the right time – the time one wants to start on Christmas Eve proper.

    We can’t expect everybody to share a theology which does not major on fall – but alternative theologies can be preached and taught, of course they can.

    p.s. I have never been sure if others think the unthinkable and are wise enough not to voice it, or they just don’t think it.

  5. I don’t mind reading and marking in Holy Scripture, even reading and marking a tale of how we see God as having loving purposes, just as long as one applies the brakes before rushing headlong into believing it historical.

    Changelessness is not particularly sensible in the face of change.

    Here’s a scary thought: if the sagas of Genesis form part of the Jewish tradition, then maybe the distorted tale that is told in King’s, will itself be the Christian tradition’s story, when it comes to be redacted in the next thousand years or two?

  6. Kelvin, I agree that the KJV is mostly unsuitable for modern audiences because of its use of terminology whose meaning has quite changed over the years, and its sentence structures require significant effort to unpack in many cases where no unpacking should be necessary. Having said that, I’m happy to go with some language that seems clunky if it more honestly reflects the tenor of the original texts. There is a certain “otherness” about ancient texts which ought to be preserved, because when couched in modern vernaculur it sometimes loses its contextual bias. I like (for example) the way the ESV often introduces angels in Matthew with the word “behold”. It’s not a modern term, but it’s effective in making you take note that something supernatural and significant is happening.

    I’m interested to know in what way your attitude towards the “fall” might be construed as unpopular.

  7. it’s all about the music, and the KJV is poetry.

    Jeez, I’m so shallow!

  8. Thanks to all for the comments so far.

    With regard to the KJV and otherness, well, yes and no, Beat. So much of the texts that makes up the Greek Scriptures that we have is street Greek, not necessarily the language of otherness at all.

    Might there not sometimes be the danger of writing the supernatural into a text because of our presumptions about its status?

  9. My thoughts about the service were also music based. Kings isn’t the brand leader in the way it might have been 30 or so years ago, now that most cathedral choirs have been put on their mettle by the establishing of a girl’s choir. The dead weight of Tradition is all to evident in the singing, and choice of music. Yes I know there is a token commission every year, but all the old chestnuts are trotted out.
    Can’t we manage without the Victorian attitude to childhood, and the idea that Snow had fallen, snow on snow, in Bethlehem? Suspension of disbelief only goes so far.

  10. I believe that this year they were celebrating Sir David Willcox for some reason, which may explain why it felt like a retrospective.

    Notwithstanding all my comments above, I’d say that Sir David’s contribution to so many people’s Christmas’s has been an outstanding personal contribution.

  11. Gilly says

    I didn’t think they put it on for the theology. I thought they put it on for the “nice” carols and the “nice” middleclassness of it all. I bet their demographic is very narrow – on telly anyway.

  12. It’s Willcocks. He’s 90 – I think. And he was there.

  13. Ta Chris.

  14. “So much of the texts that makes up the Greek Scriptures that we have is street Greek, not necessarily the language of otherness at all.”

    Fo’ Shizzle. Though modern culture has many more “street” languages to choose from…
    The “otherness” to which I refer is more the reminder that these ideas are being communicated in another language. Sometimes they sacrifice meaning for the sake of brevity, and terms intended to communicate large ideas get smoothed over for the sake of easy reading. I don’t think the bible should be forced into laid-back prose, as though scan-ability is the bee-all and end-all. You can tell I think these things from the way I communicate my own ideas, though 🙂

    Still, I’d rather have any translation than no translation!

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