The Press Saturday, September 26th 1998
One way to get people to read the Bible is to pay them. The set of twelve prefaces by professional writers to various books of the Authorised Version has produced some of the most startling, grown-up and interesting coverage of religion in the cultural sections of the press that I have ever seen. The fact that one evangelical book distributor has refused to handle it just adds to the pleasure.
Over the past fortnight we have had Will Self on Revelation and Nick Cave on the Mark's Gospel in You magazine, Steven Rose on Genesis in both the Observer and the Financial Times; Edward Norman reviewing the whole lot in the Sunday Telegraph and no doubt others that I missed owing to a general lack of culture. A friend of mine, a country vicar, once said to me when I asked him how much of the Bible was historically true that "Jesus gets me by the bollocks"; but this kind of language about religious engagement is not used from pulpits and still comes as a shock in public.
I am sure that some vicars swear almost as much as religious affairs correspondents, and for the same reason: to show that they are real men despite their jobs. But even allowing for professional deformation there is still a sense in which profanity is the natural response to contact with the Bible. Any story that matters is going to provoke emotion; and the Bible contains numerous stories like that, as well as claiming to constitute one itself.
Edward Norman accepts this larger claim, of course, which gave a slightly odd tone to his review of the prefaces in the Sunday Telegraph. He wants to like them, and he responds to the quality of Will Self's memoir of his dead friend Ben which is indeed excellent — the first piece I have read by Will Self on any subject that shows what the fuss is about. He also wants not to be priggish and almost succeeds. "This piece of writing has already been received with prissy outrage, and the language does in fact incorporate some expressions of our day which do not attract universal usage."
As it's almost impossible to think of any English expression which attracts universal usage, we should be grateful to Dr Norman for disambiguating this comment with an example later on. "In moments of self-conscious realism, anyway, the dead Ben apparently used to own up to finding Revelation 'a load of superstitious bollocks.' There might be better ways of putting it."
This broadmindedness does not really extend to the Christian contributors, though: "Perhaps the most agnostic contribution is the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh's piece on the Gospel According to St Luke." If anyone can explain to me quite why Bishop Holloway is so widely loathed and sneered at, please write your answers on one side of a postcard only.
The explanation for these variable sympathies comes at the end, where we realise that he is making allowances for the benighted heathen, who cannot be expected to do better than to "append unsympathetic commentary to sacred writings"; of course he holds his own side to higher standards. None of this, though, explains why he devotes the longest section of the review to praising A.N. Wilson's preface to Matthew. I'm sure it's excellent but it is hardly likely to be an instrument for the propagation of the Faith.
The real surprise of the ones I have read was the Australian rock musician Nick Cave's essay on Mark. It was startlingly grown-up and literate, and made me resolved to get hold of his records, if not to return to the book in question.
Steven Rose, the professor of biology at the Open University, used his preface to Genesis as a chance to get back at Richard Dawkins, as well as at God: "Today's evolutionary psychologists argue that why we do what we do, for good or ill, is written into our selfish genes whose interests have shaped out evolutionary past — hence determinism. But, flinching from this prospect they suggest that perhaps we can rebel against the tyranny of these genes — hence free will? Whence comes thus power to rebel? From the Bible, the answer is that God gave it to us. And, in essence, ultraDarwinists have no other answer except to adopt a quasi-religious one. Me, I'm a thoroughgoing materialist, If we have the power to choose, that choice too must be inscribed within our human and biological capacities, given not just by our genes, but by the self-organising creative way in which each of us, as biosocial beings, constructs our own developmental trajectory, our lifeline."
This is unfair to the ambitions of evolutionary psychology, though fair enough as it is popularised. But it's worth quoting because no one has yet properly set free will in a Darwinian context and Rose is one of the earliest people to point this out.
The departure of to Rome of Mr Francis Bown was yet another scoop for the Yorkshire Post. It is possible to detect some of Michael Brown's sympathies in his description of women priests as "females donning vestments"; I think, though, that the end of Ecclesia it was genuine news because one had thought Francis Bown was totally wedded to camp. At around the time of the vote to ordain women, his organisation held a solemn Mass of commination in a church in Cambridge. It was combined with some other occasion, I forget which: probably the veneration of the Relic of St Origen. I sat at the back to observe the rites. As billows of incense filled the nave, the altar vanished from view. For a while I caught glimpses of intermittent acolytes tinkling through the murk until they too disappeared, and all I could see was the pew in front. Looking sideways down my own pew, I caught the eye of another worshipper who smiled enthusiastically back from under a heavy moustache. His fingers were covered in heavy golden rings. He started to shuffle his bottom with surprising speed towards me. I made no excuses. I left.