ELEVEN GOOD men (and women) and true gathered around a long supper table in the chancel of St James's, Piccadilly in London this week for a grave evening of Bible study. (The treacherous, absent twelfth man was Will Self, of course.) One or two may have been believers; the majority were certainly not. The Bishop of Edinburgh seemed to blow this way and that. All these people - scientists, literary types and the Dracula- like Nick Cave - had come together to talk about the introductions they had just written to various books of the St James Bible, newly published by Canongate in handy, pocket-sized editions.
God being the world's greatest controversialist, it was a difficult evening. The biologist Steven Rose (Genesis), with his delicate voice, got into trouble with hecklers because of the sound system. Louis de Bernieres (Job), looking as if he had slept fully clothed in the vestry all night to avoid the crush, struck a challenging and controversial note from the start. "There is no sensible argument to be had with God in this book. He is the oppressor. He hides an evil heart..."
"Blasphemy!" shouted a voice from the nave. And when that didn't stop him, a man in the balcony started singing at him, in a woefully earnest and tuneless voice: "Jesus is Lord! He has risen!" De Bernieres, not to be shouted down by this enemy of free speech, replied: "Some people confuse God as he is with the way he's portrayed in the Bible." The dreadful dirge was not to be silenced by such super-subtleties. A third voice chimed in, challenging the first: "He's not yours! He's everyone's! We're entitled to hear what the man's saying!"
De Bernieres, red-faced, embattled, sat down, relieved to be back in the trenches. AN Wilson treated us to a brief, public-schoolmaster's peroration on the Gospel According to St Matthew. Then he read from the 25th chapter of the book itself, with due solemnity, as if reading the lesson in a proper church such as this one.
Nick Cave (Mark), looking as ashen-faced as Christ in one of those ghoulish Flemish deposition scenes, spoke with a dramatic, almost Gothic violence about his years as a choirboy, and the wishy-washy Anglicanism in which he had been brought up. Blake Morrison (John) led us back to his choir- stall days too, adding a few dabs of poetic description for good measure: the pale lemon light of the church's Sunday morning interior; the melting nothingness of a communion wafer.
And, finally, came Fay Weldon. She had been assigned St Paul's Letters to the Corinthians. At first she thought she had drawn a dud. Then she realised that the Pauline state of mind could, in part, be blamed for the condition of those poor, oppressed creatures called men. "It is good for a man not to touch a woman," she read, quoting the apostle. "Those 11 terrible words," she added. "How easily man is led to forego his pleasures..."
At the end, a Bible-drunk man from Books Etc said that he would shortly be asking the authors to take up their stations at the signing-table.