Those who wish to banish religion from public life dismiss any enduring legacy of Christianity on the way we live or think now on two main grounds. The first is that the legacy is widely exaggerated by scheming bishops. The second is that, even if it exists, it is wholly negative, saddling us with the baggage of sectarianism, sexual repression and illogical thought. Melvyn Bragg's elegant, accessible and passionately argued account of the influence of the King James Bible, in its 400th year, quite simply blows such arguments out of the water. The King James, he writes, "is one of the fundamental makers of the modern world".
What gives this book its particular power, beyond Bragg's own reputation as a broadcaster, novelist and one of our foremost public intellectuals, is that he separates the importance of the King James from the role of Christianity itself. Raised an Anglican, he has no formal ties with any church now. That does not stop him – like the remarkable Karen Armstrong, whose best-selling volumes on religious history The Book of Books most readily resembles – from finding religion both fascinating and in many, although not all, of its aspects a force for good in our world, rather than its caricature as a cause of conflict and strife.
As might be expected from the presenter for three decades of The South Bank Show, he is strong on the influence of the language of the King James Bible on writers and artists from Milton to Toni Morrison, TS Eliot to DH Lawrence, Emily Dickinson to John Updike. But Bragg also tells the history of the King James with the vigour and pace of a storyteller rather than the dry precision of an academic. He traces his tale back to William Tyndale, a gentle scholar and priest, ordained in 1521 and determined to make the Bible, then available only in Latin, accessible to the ploughboy by producing a popular translation into English. In the turbulent English Reformation, Tyndale's ambition, sincerely but not politically meant, brought him nothing but trouble (especially from a narrow-minded Thomas More, here presented as a sinner rather than the usual saint). First Tyndale was exiled to Europe, and then executed in 1536. But 80 per cent of what he had produced subsequently found its way into the 1611 version, after the accession in 1603 of James VI of Scotland to the English throne finally brought the royal imprimatur to the task of compiling an English Bible.
And it was the poetry in the translations of Tyndale and others – already, Bragg shows, old-fashioned compared to the English usage of their time – that made the King James such an influence not only on Shakespeare but on the politics of the four centuries that followed. In the trial of Charles I in 1649, the monarch's claim to divine right was both defended and attacked (and rejected) by direct reference to the words of the King James Bible.
Above all, Bragg argues, the King James was a force for democracy. It gave a potent weapon to that mass of the population previously excluded by their ignorance of Latin from reading, digesting and then acting on the radical gospel of Jesus, with its emphasis on justice, fairness and equality. In the hands of radical preachers such as the Wesleys, founders of Methodism, the words of the King James became a manifesto for change and empowerment. It is an inspiring and fascinating tale, as relevant today even to militant non-believers (Bragg devotes a chapter to a devastating attack on Richard Dawkins) as to those who still find in the words of the King James a perfect expression of their beliefs.
Peter Stanford's latest book is 'The Extra Mile: a 21st Century Pilgrimage' (Continuum)