Words of the Lord: the significance of the Bible resides in the sum of our disparate readings of it. Photo: HAROLD M LAMBERT/GETTY IMAGES
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The only way to approach the Bible is with intellectual humility

The Bible is, as Wilson’s title has it, the book of the people. We build our meanings together.

The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible
A N Wilson
Atlantic Books, 213pp, £17.99

Strong As Death Is Love: the Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel
Robert Alter
W W Norton, 234pp, £18.99

In 1800, at the age of 16, Mary Jones set out from her parents’ cottage at the bottom of Cadair Idris and walked barefoot the 25 miles to Bala to buy a Welsh Bible from the Rev Thomas Charles. She had saved for six years for this and was distraught to find that the reverend had none left. But he allowed Mary to stay with him until the new stock arrived. She later wrote on the flyleaf: “I Bought this in the 16th year of my age. I am Daughter of Jacob Jones and Mary Jones His wife. The Lord may give me grace.”

Mary’s story inspired the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society. The same thirst that drove her down the mountain drove the intellectual history of Europe for 500 years. The rise of printing and of literacy, the hunger for liberty, the demand for engagement – all have their roots in Luther’s dream of a Bible in the pocket of “every ploughboy”. Yet you wonder how Mary read it when she got home. Did she slog through Leviticus, with its weird dietary restrictions and its detailed description of the parking arrangements for the 12 tribes? Was she strangely distracted by the Song of Songs? Was she unnerved and enthralled by Job? Did she take it all as literal truth? Or did she keep her Bible as a kind of household god, opened at random to tell fortunes and give advice? For a single volume of settled texts, the Bible has unleashed a bewildering diversity of readings. It has been used to prop up power and to topple it, to pursue knowledge and to smother it, to encourage both silence and ranting.

So it takes some bottle to subtitle your book – as A N Wilson has done – How to Read the Bible. People have been telling each other how to read it for centuries, sometimes with the aid of a Hebrew dictionary, sometimes with thumbscrews. But Wilson’s delightful and unexpectedly moving book is characterised by intellectual humility. We are living through a period of literalism: the loopy, poisonously selective literalism of the evangelicals; the pub bore “as if”-ism of Richard Dawkins. Academic quests for historical “truth” are all united, Wilson writes, by a catastrophic failure of the imagination. In their place, he offers us a set of more interesting “readings”, ranging from the prophetic rhetoric of Martin Luther King to the building of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The book is haunted by another, more personal reading – a dialogue between Wilson and an anonymous friend. It’s a measure of how unusual this study is that I can’t talk about that bit without issuing a spoiler alert.

Growing up Catholic, I was not especially encouraged to read the Bible. After reading Wilson, I now realise that I was instead inhabiting a reading of it, a reading that would come to Catholics sensually through music, paintings, architecture and ritual and that structured our social life and our politics. I didn’t sit down for my own reading until I was in my forties and even then I did it for work: I had been commissioned to write a play about the (probably apocryphal) incident wherein rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for breach of the covenant.

Those weeks of page-turning were boring, shocking and thrilling. The God of Genesis, Exodus and the Psalms is fickle, furious and petulant. It wasn’t hard to find Him guilty. I was taken aback, though, when I got to the Book of Job and discovered that its shape was more or less identical to the Auschwitz incident. The rabbis end by finding God guilty and then praying anyway. Job says: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” His faith is an act of defiance, a confrontation with God.

The Bible is surprisingly full of doubt and God-directed anger and accusation. Wilson calls it “the first atheist text”. As Jesus dies, he cries out: “Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve always been moved by this, the idea of a god who loses faith in his own existence. It wasn’t until the year I wrote God on Trial, on Palm Sunday, that I clocked that these words come from the Psalms. What does that mean? Does it mean Jesus was quoting the psalm? Or did the evangelist pop that quotation in to make a point? Or does it mean that the entire New Testament is a literary creation – a tapestry of prophecies fulfilled and questions answered? The same questions could be asked about the Ausch­witz anecdote. Is it an entirely invented update of the Book of Job? Or did those rabbis, steeped in scripture, model their experience on the Book of Job?

Wilson is at his most interesting discussing the mechanisms we use to make meaning. For most of recorded history, the Bible has been a kind of epistemological Geiger counter, detecting and amplifying the buzz of meaning in our lives. I love the way in which Mary Jones – like my parents – added her genealogy to the flyleaf, writing herself into the story. I like to think of her struggling with these texts, as Jacob did with the angel, and after her fight, looking out of the cottage window to see, like Blake, Jesus tending the Welsh mountain sheep and Dolgellau shining like Jerusalem and saying, like Jacob, “This is a holy place and I did not know.” This is what the van Eycks did in the incomparable Ghent Altarpiece – painting real, raddled Flemish faces into Eden and Calvary. This process stretches forward to today and back into the Bible itself.

I was warned when I started to read the Bible: “It’s not a book, it’s a library.” But it’s a library in which all the books dispute each other and recycle each other’s imagery – as when Jesus quotes the Psalms or when Mary at the Annunciation does a cover version of Hannah’s song from the Book of Samuel. To have an emotional encounter of this sort, you probably have to free it from the shackles of its own authority and familiarity.

Strong As Death Is Love is Robert Alter’s edition of the Song of Songs and the Books of Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel. Encountering these books in this form – as ancient literature, laid out as poetry, with copious footnotes – allows you to be dazzled by their range, from the frank eroticism of the Song of Songs to the bucolic idyll of Esther and the downright weirdness of Daniel. Alter also did an edition of the Book of Job, which for me is the richest, most troubling and purely beautiful thing I have ever read. Wilson is fond of a Dominican priest called Thomas Brodie who regards the entire New Testament as a work of fiction. He says you have to kill the historical to free the poetry.

Wilson has a moving account of listening to the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday with a congregation, accompanied by these ancient chants. That’s what I was doing the day I recognised the psalm – the year I’d questioned everything. That day, I listened to the story for the umpteenth time, the story of some fishermen who, blundering in to the city during a tense weekend, had triggered a riot and – being recognisable because of their thick country accents – had run away when the chips were down. This story has been retold on this day through wars, through persecution, through the Dark Ages and the ages of discovery, through plague and earthquake and enlightenment.

I was stabbed by how extraordinary it was to be able to hear these marginal, bewildered voices echoing down the years. For me, that day, the whole thing reeked of truth, of a particular historical moment. Yet I was also aware that the “meaning” was not just that moment but the sum of all our readings – the brilliant and the beautiful and the bad and the bonkers, those of the bigot and the liberationist. Milton, yes, but also the Borgias, Blake and Mary Jones. The Bible is, as Wilson’s title has it, the book of the people. We build our meanings together.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era