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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear