The Bible on the Installment Plan

Leslie Griffiths reviews the word of God in handy installments. Leslie is a Methodist minister at Wesley's Chapel, London and a former President of the Methodist Conference.

At first sight, this Canongate series seems little more than a bright marketing idea. The Bible is the world's best-selling book; it could easily be thought that this unusual publishing venture is just another way of turning that commercial fact to account. Maybe these pithy introductions by as eclectic a bunch of writers as could be imagined are destined, like the books they introduce, to gather dust on people's shelves or end up in high street charity shops at knock-down prices. If so, it would be a pity.

All those writing the introductions seem quite overwhelmed by the prospect. They come from a variety of faith positions (and none). They're not always sure just how to do what they've been asked to do. Some give unnecessary details about the history of the text, or its accuracy. Others are drawn into the specialised fields of biblical exegesis without having the space either to set up an argument or even develop an illustration. A discussion of "the synoptic problem" or "the status of wisdom literature" surely belongs elsewhere. And when non-specialists pretend to know more than they do, there are sometimes comic results. Where exactly are Ephesia and Corinthia, for example?

But these defects should be set aside. As too should the choice of the King James version (more than once referred to as if it were the true, or the original, biblical text). Within these essays, offered by scientists, novelists, political analysts, poets, journalists and (even) theologians, there are far more significant things going on. In every case, they dig deep within themselves and manage to show keen insight into the universal plight of human beings.

Steven Rose, a Jewish atheist and biologist, who left the world of black hats for that of white coats, discusses the "deep, natural and inevitable dichotomising between body and soul, determinism and free will, gene and organism". His reading of Genesis "with a secular eye" helps him recognise the roots of a tendency which has so marked human culture and self-understanding.

For David Grossman, a reading of Exodus should ask the most radical questions of every contemporary Jew whose historic fate burdens him "by ascribing to him either a heavy load of sentimental ideals or a refutably demonic character". He has been stretched between these two extremes throughout the time of his suffering and wandering. There are important issues where his success in internalising his history and the various aspects of his identity can be judged. One is the way he builds and directs the modern Israeli state. "Are Jews capable of conducting a life of minutiae, of concessions, of practical compromises with their neighbours, [of being] a normal people like any other?"

Louis de Bernieres takes on the age old theme of good and evil in his introduction to Job. In his view, Job won (and is still winning) the argument with God who, by failing to appear in court, can properly by accused of non-existence, hubris, apathy, or even pleading guilty. "We miss Him, we would dearly like to see Him going to and fro in the earth and walking up and down in it, but we admire tyranny no longer, and we desire justice more than we are awed by vainglorious asseverations of magnificence."

Such nuggets could be dug out of each of these introductions. They are eminently worth finding. So too is the warm personal tone of some of them. Charles Johnson's love affair with Proverbs, Will Self's meditation on the death of a young friend (a long time drug user) and his association of that sad event with the strange apocalyptic configurations of the book of Revelation, Nick Cave's linking of the pithy gospel of Mark to his journey back to faith: personal testimonies like these represent another immensely attractive element within this enterprise.

All in all, the publishers seem to have done what many worthy theologians and spiritual leaders have failed to do. Namely, they've linked the questions raised within the world of faith to those being faced within the arenas of science, politics and the arts. There should be a good readership of these essays written by these celebrated writers but whether this venture succeeds in getting more people to read the biblical books that follow them is another question altogether. The jury's still out on that one. But the experiment seems eminently worthwhile.

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