The King James Bible, or KJB: God's Original "Shock and Awe'. Reflections on my conceptual art work a year on
2011 A.D. was the 400th anniversary of the Bible that King James commissioned to be read in the parish churches of his kingdom. Hence the "KJB' for short, though I refer to it as the 90% Tyndale Bible. William Tyndale had nearly completed translating the whole Bible when he was garrotted and then burnt as a heretic in 1536. To this day no KJB title page acknowledges Tyndale as the main translator.
My 2011 Lent project was to read the Bible again from cover-to-cover. Religious and cultural events in thr UK during the first half of 2011 rightly focused on the KJB's beautiful language. Its exquisite English prose. The British media even embraced the anniversary as a major cultural celebration in the English speaking world. To date no journalist working for a national newspaper sees any merit in doing a serious piece about an alternative perspective on the KJB celebrations.
As Lent got underway I was even more surprised that no one was asking who or what this beautiful language is talking about. Because of my epic undertaking, I was being bombarded almost daily by the cruel and violent bits in our supposedly "Holy' Bible. Four words in King James' introduction hit me in a way that they had never done before, "Sacred Word.Holy Truth". Surely no one is meant to treat these barbaric passages as being sacred and holy?
I found a stained and tattered copy of the KJB. Damaged beyond repair, I was challenged to do my theologising with a scissors. By Passion Sunday I had started cutting out all the violent passages from the old Bible. I did so deliberately. And respectfully. At first it was not an easy task. Eventually it became liberating in a way I could never have imagined.
I discovered how easy it is to ignore the "nasty passages' in the Bible, spread out as they are from cover to cover. It's easy to pretend that there aren't all that many of them in the first place. Close the holy book. Out of sight. Out of mind. That's how we have coped over the centuries with the actions of the "God of wrath'. I realize now that my favourite phrase was symptomatic of how subtle the great denial is. These hundred of passages aren't "nasty bits' at all. They are plain evil.
And so once a week the long wooden table in our living room played host to the ever growing number of cruel Biblical verses. A veritable banquet of "man's inhumanity to man'. I soon ran out of space. That's when I bought three large wooden boards. The finished work measures about 9feet square. It wasn't long before I had graduated to doing my theology with dozens of adhesive sticks'. The pasting had begun. Verse after verse. Passage after passage. Row after row of all the vile bits were glued to the huge newly painted blood-red boards. I eventually bordered the middle panel with hundreds of a stamp sized picture of a human skull. Skull after skull after skull.
And then a sobering thought. I would be really hurt if my then ten year old grandson grew-up believing that I had given a lifetime of service to such a cruel despot of a God. I am already offended when people assume that I hold every word in the Bible to be divinely true. As I struggled with these and other emotions generated by the emerging Wall of Shame, the 60 year-old priest in me would regularly enter into dialogue with the young choirboy part of me in the late fifties. Christmas became a favourite topic as I returned to those magical days of old. That fairy-tale time of mince-pies and carols, "there-might-still-be-snow" and ever-so-many fond family memories. I've always loved Christmas. "There's wonderful God is", as an aunt of mine would have it, caught up in the sentimentality of it all.
Other than cutting out the vile pieces, there was no grand plan for my KJB art work. It just emerged. Gradually. Over many months. And then an idea. I had also collected hundreds of Christmas cards back in January. Family and friends had contributed. They had been left in carrier bags in my studio. All the major British Christmas icons were there in abundance: robin redbreasts and post boxes, snowmen, Father Christmas and the ubiquitous angelic choirboys singing outside snow clad parish churches. I decided to use the cards to frame the Biblical passages. What better way to crown the special 400th anniversary than by uniting the cruel patriarchal "god of armies' with his antithesis, the ever smiling, rosy-cheeked, "Father Christmas' and his many attendants? Two of the key players in Western religiosity united in such a unique way. I'll be posting early this coming Christmas to make sure that the heavenly patriarch gets his jumbo-sized card in good time. "Happy Christmas God!"
As I continued with my rudimentary art work, I discovered that the British Museum in London was holding an exhibition of Christian relics. Beautiful art objects, many of them grotesque and reeking of superstition. The exhibition could also have promoted itself as a celebration of the macabre at the heart of Mediaeval Christianity. An array of body parts of saintly celebrities that embody the lunatic world of religious fraud, deceit and gullibility. All of them ideal tools to exploit and control the faithful, and, of course, to generate huge amounts of money for the church.
When art critics point out that this kind of art can make the ugly beautiful, I realized that my KJB art work was intent on doing the very opposite. It highlights the bad and the ugly behind the beautiful language. But wait a minute! Shouldn't that make the language ugly also?
Religious language is often vile and this kind of conceptual art is truly liberating in that it is deliberately designed not only to disturb our cosy domesticated spirituality but also to challenge us to look again at what Jesus meant by the word "abba".
I'm surprised that the British Museum didn't join forces with Celebrity readings from the KJB, under the banner of "The Foolish and Downright Perverse within Christianity!"
Then at the beginning of July, Cy Twombly, one of the outstanding figures of American post-war art died. Any lingering doubts I might have had about going public with my "Wall of Shame' evaporated as I read an obituary that included one of his most famous creations. Created in 1998 it is entitled "That which I should have done. I did not do". I'm glad I had the courage to do it. Not only for my own spiritual well-being, but also for those who exclaim how liberating it is to "just look at it". A " true breath of fresh air".
The Holy Spirit really does "blow where she wills"!
And so to the finishing touches. At first I wanted the three panels to be "topped-off' to look like gothic windows or church doors. But the jig-saw had other ideas! They ended-up looking like the top of well-rounded gravestones. What better way to crown an art work that by now had another sub-title, "House of the Dead'. Having painted the two side semi-circles black, something didn't feel right. Another black semi-circle on top of the middle panel would offer no sign of hope. It had been a depressing enough project at times. I remembered a phrase at the start of Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead', where prisoners could look at another world through the cracks in the fence. And in looking discover a little strip of blue sky. I bought a tube of the most beautiful sky blue paint. I never imagined that a few basic brush strokes could be so cleansing.
I had already decided to introduce some more Christmas cards into the centre of the work. A haphazard collage this time round to surround Tyndale's memorial, its creation my first bit of painting in decades. They would be accompanied by three large silver tear drops covered with verses containing the "good bits' in the Bible. Difficult for many to find, these passages have been reduced in size and have to be viewed with a magnifying glass.
It's ironic that the Bible was put together for our education and salvation and yet for many it has become an idolatrous handbook of everything that is life-negating in the Christian religion. A Book of Death instead of The Book of Life. In this respect the KJB's Wall of Shame is art as exorcism.
A few days prior to unveiling my art work, I heard about an explosive new book on Chairman Mao's Great Famine 1958-62. About 45 million people died unnecessarily in China's effort to boost agriculture and industry, and thus give it an opportunity to compete as an equal with the West. If failed. Tragically. And all because of one man's meglomaniac dreams for his nations future. Frank Dikotter, the books author, drew on a mountain of archive material that records in the most graphic details the unimaginable suffering that millions of people were enduring as I was about to enter my teenage years in North Wales. I suppose the Wall of Shame is the founding archive material of Judeo-Christian cruelty and brutality?
After the Reformation many parish churches in Britain were adorned with the three main texts of the Christian faith, namely The Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. Instead of being full of statues and images Protestant churches were to become giant scrapbooks of the Bible. Where better to unveil my KJB? Unaware of church history, a family member had actually called my art work an oversized scrapbook! Strange that while reformers wanted to get rid of statues, because they saw them as the prime cause of idolatry, the Bible itself became an idol. And not just an idol but an ideological weapon that has sanctioned and legitimised human suffering down the centuries.
I needed a simple monument to the "Bible' dead. I looked at the numerous pages that were left over from the discarded Bible. No book, I mused, however holy, is worth more than one human life. I built a simple free-standing wooden support and painted it blood-red. I fixed a plain aluminium bowl on its top. I would burn a few of the left-over pages. The charred remains a stark memorial to the countless nameless ones whose deaths are recorded in the Bible. A silent witness to all those whose cries and protests no one will ever hear.
It was a solemn moment when I lit the match. A moment that would soon hasten my voluntary resignation from the Anglican church and priesthood.As I turned away, after sharing a moment of silence with those present, I couldn't help but look at Tyndale's memorial and shuddered as I thought of the charred remains of this one individual. It was too much to think of all those who were burnt as heretics by the Christian Church, whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant. The thousands who died tortuous deaths because of the pathological beliefs rooted in the Bible and pathological Christians only too ready to carry them out.
And finally to the pretend blood. To complete the work I wanted at least one blood bag to hang from the top left corner. I researched the possibility of even using animal blood A lamb maybe? But it involved skills beyond my capabilities. In the end I acquired a saline bag and added a red cooking dye. The long tube that flows from it looks as though it disappears into the Wall of Shame, in order to supply a god who needs a never-ending reservoir of human blood to survive.
To enter The KJB Wall of Shame, no locks or bolts have to be thrust aside. You don't even need a key or written explanation. It will automatically arouse your curiosity as you approach it. Then probably confusion and even disgust. Maybe even anger. And pity. And much much more""
For some of us, it is like being caught up in a net of words, cruel words, religious words, all too human words, that sooner or later you have to come to terms with, and then in your own way, break free from.
I rejoice that my unveiling of God's Original Shock & Awe was my liberation.