Press Column

If only Isaac Newton had had a computer. He wouldn’t then have needed to waste his time faffing around with physics to found ways of predicting what will happen in the world. He could simply have read the whole of history out of the Bible. So the Daily Mail argued, in its long serialisation of a book called "The Bible Code", which was carried on three days last week.

The Bible code turns out to be disarmingly simple: by reading every nth letter of the Book, in Hebrew, you find that all the important events of human history appear in acrostics. As is traditional with these predictions, the Bible turns out to have heard of Robert Kennedy, but not of Mohammed. Of course, you need a fast computer to find this out, since it appears impossible to predict which sequence of letters will announce the arrival of Saddam Hussein, or the assassination of Robert Kennedy until you have found them. But, once found, the Bible predicts that its prediction will have been discovered: "He recognised the words: they will be computerised: his reports they heard on this day, the secrets, the magical words of the book."

The Mail treated all this stuff as respectfully as if it were the word of the proprietor, and not merely of God. The sub heads were tremendous: "Terrorists will ignite an atomic holocaust within nine years, the Bible code warns. Does this mean we are all doomed .. or does the code itself hold the key to man’s survival?"

I could not find the answer to this interesting question in the text. But it certainly wasn’t prayer and repentance. One of the interesting things about the story was its gnosticism: salvation was nothing to do with morality and all about technology: "The bible was first chiselled in stone, and handwritten on parchment scrolls and finally printed as a book. Now that we have computer technology it can be read as it was always intended to be."

No wonder they had to leave the vowels out if they were chiselling it all on stone.

None the less, the publication of this great steaming pile of fertiliser is an important moment in the history of British culture. Much will grow in it. The Daily Star was the only paper I saw to have followed it up straight-faced: "Computers have unlocked a secret code in the Bible that has predicted in astonishing detail every momentous event in human history. And now scientists are trying to discover whether we can avert future disasters by deciphering biblical warnings about them in advance."

But it can only be a matter of time before the Times serialises something similar.

One of the interesting things about this story is that it shows how close New Age stuff and fundamentalism can be. Normally, these are regarded as opposites; but both have a fondness for technology and gnosticism. The belief that a book encodes the future was one that Isaac Newton held; all that is modern about the Bible Code is the use of computers rather than the unaided human intellect to do the decoding. A belief in the trustworthiness of the written word, or formula, is common to both science and fundamentalism, as is a confidence that the secrets of the universe will prove humanly comprehensible, even if by means that seem arbitrary.

It all makes the paper’s attitude towards the Church of England seem even odder. Say what you like about that well-known photo caption, George Austin: scandalous, he is not a fundamentalist.

The Times, meanwhile, had a genuine scoop, in the form of an infinitely depressing interview with poor old Roddy Wright, the Roman Catholic Bishop who did a runner last year from his flock, his Archbishops, and the mother of his fifteen-year-old son in order to set up house with another mistress, Kathleen MacPhee. His shame was still further compounded when he sold his story to the News of the World, and run down in Carnforth by Bill Frost, he sounded absolutely miserable. Mrs MacPhee is working as a supply nurse, the Bishop, of course, is unemployed.

At least he has stopped lying about his sex life. "There was a clash between celibacy and desire — I lost" he said. How ghastly that use of "I" seems: it was not celibacy that lost, but the man himself; and how cruel to poor Mrs MacPhee.

"Because of that", he went on, "I have caused suffering to so many, myself included."

"There are so many black days, and there are a few slightly better ones. But then, what should I expect when I have let so many people down."

It is not entirely clear form the context of the story which lapse form celibacy he most regrets. But it is all certainly a pretty grim contrast from the interview he sold the News of the World last autumn.

That paper meanwhile, had a great tabloid headline: "Cheating Rev dumps wife for an angel" But the angel in question turned out to be a nurse from a charity hospice.

For most of the papers, though, the problems of divine interventions centred on Katowice, where the England football team was playing Poland. Mysteriously, the Bible Code had no mention of this earth-shattering event. But the Daily Mirror had no doubt of the religious angle.

"Say a prayer for England’s footballers tonight. They fly into a World Cup showdown facing their toughest-ever opponent — The Pope.

"As Glenn Hoddle’s boys play a vital qualifying match in Poland, soccer fan Pope John Paul II flies into his homeland hoping to inspire victory with a few words of his own."

How wonderful to know the real reason the Pope was returning to Poland. But Polish journalists can be just as crazed by nationalism: the Independent on Sunday had a piece detailing the row that has broken out over the most recent English-language biography of the Pope, one of whose authors is Carl Bernstein, the Watergate journalist. Its Polish publishers have cut out all references to Polish anti-Semitism, or the Pope’s declining health, and only after furious American protests have these been reinstated in a special appendix of "drastic, undocumented, or over-subjective theories".

At least there’s none of that filth in the Bible Code.

Front Cuts Book Back

This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.