Not history. Not law. The Bible is poetry that inspires
In a recent domestic scene, I declared to my children that one needed the patience of Job to put up with them. I was appalled when my lamentation was greeted with, "Who's Job?"
The disgrace of it. How has one of the crucial characters in the most important book in the world slid into oblivion? The Bible is, as AN Wilson contends, our Grand Narrative. The book that comes before all others. It is not merely a collection of writings that emerged from history. The Bible has formed our history and culture.
It is this quality that compels Wilson to argue why the Bible must not be so disastrously neglected. He explains that this book is above all books, because it demands action. Therefore it cannot be read as one would read The Iliad; as if it were mere literature or mythology; nor, as political theory, like Das Kapital, because it is not the work of a single author, but many. Its significance lies not in the fact that it is read, but how it is read, and how that reading has changed the world.
My own interest began a few years ago, when I began to attend Mass regularly and found myself increasingly intrigued and moved by the readings - and thus conscious of my ignorance of the scriptures which have shaped us.
Therefore, I approve wholeheartedly of Wilson's appeal on behalf of what he calls - quoting our man WB Yeats - "The Book Of The People". The lay-reader can take some comfort in the fact that this is by no means an academic work. Largely, it consists of a conversation with himself and others as to how one should, and most importantly should not, approach the book. The narrative is conducted over time and draws on his personal encounters with the Bible, from its art to its archaeology. This makes his work a very readable one, but there are some literary devices that irked.
One irritation is that he identifies his co-conversationalists not by name, but initial. For example, he spends several pages describing a conversation with "H"; a drinker; a smoker; a secularist; a former Spectator colleague; living in Washington DC; with a booming voice who ends up dying. This is obviously Christopher Hitchens, so why play games? The "H" is an unnecessary affectation.
Worse, the principal character in the book (other than Wilson) is an enigmatic female friend we know as L. He meets her on random occasions and they conduct an erratic life-long correspondence. He credits her with the inspiration and direction of his book, and then casually drops a bombshell that she is a "composite figure". What?
Enough of the quibbling. Wilson warns against approaching the Bible from what he calls an "archaeological" view. Any effort to use its words as evidence of the existence of historical characters, and the things they may or may not have said is pointless. Having said that, he can't help himself at times and occasionally slips into providing a rationale for the Gospels.
He also warns against a "fundamentalist" approach, using its words literally as law, either to be obeyed by bigots or mocked by secularists. He makes an interesting argument that Protestant Fundamentalism is the fault of Martin Luther, who, by making the Bible the property of "every ploughboy", cast aside authority and rendered its words dangerously infallible.
His central thesis is that the Bible is a work of imagination, and should be read more like poetry than history. But that is by no means a reductionist approach. He argues that the creativity of the Bible began only when the words were written down. Its inspiration is the key.
Frustrated by the work of scholars, religious fundamentalists and secularists, he cites artists and black Americans being amongst those who've got the Bible right. He praises the other Martin Luther - King - for using its text as allegory. It was Black Americans who saw their own struggles and dilemmas reflected in the story of the enslaved Israelites. Wilson says that "while academics...were letting the Bible turn into a dead letter beneath their imperceptive scrutiny, King and his followers found it to be a living Word which inspired them to live and to act and to become free". Mere mythology could not move us thus.
It is only in this book, that "men and women have found echoes of their own heartbreak, their own doubt, their own dejection, their own sins, as well as a staff to comfort and a light to guide". When Sir Walter Scott was asked which book he'd like read on his deathbed, he said "Need you ask there is but one."
The book of the people: how to read the bible
Atlantic books, €26.99
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