A Week in Books: Christian high culture owes debt to unbelievers

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The Independent Culture

This Good Friday, movie-goers of any faith or none might feel tempted by the re-release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, its pre-Crucifixion carnival of horror and humiliation cut in order to gain a 15 certificate.

This Good Friday, movie-goers of any faith or none might feel tempted by the re-release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, its pre-Crucifixion carnival of horror and humiliation cut in order to gain a 15 certificate. But new takes on the Gospels come (praise be) in other guises. You might, alternatively, track down a DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, the 1964 masterpiece that surely ranks among the most beautiful, moving and reverent films ever made. Gibson, a multi-millionaire businessman, is a noisy right-wing Catholic ultra-traditionalist. Pasolini, an outcast poet and revolutionary, was a gay Marxist atheist, murdered a decade later by one of his pick-ups. Now, whose company would the protagonist of their films have preferred?

Christian high culture owes a huge debt to the work of unbelievers, waverers, sceptics, heretics, backsliders, non-churchy mystics and seekers. It's a debt that will never be paid, or maybe even acknowledged. For official Christianity now fights on the terrain of law and ethics as a with-us-or-against-us evangelising army, scornful of doubt. It's hardly a surprise, then, that church-based culture should decline into an artistic wasteland. Its narrow gates would open for another Cliff Richard but slam shut on a new John Donne.

Thankfully, a brilliant host of secular, lapsed or heterodox artists have never ceased to re-imagine the stories that fuel faith. The roll-call of novelists alone who have, in recent years, sought scriptural inspiration runs from Joseph Heller to Michèle Roberts, Norman Mailer to Jenny Diski. And, in 1998, Canongate started to reprint books of the Old and New Testaments along with lively, heartfelt prefaces from a wide variety of authors.

Readers who have lost their slim Canongate "Canons", or never saw them, should now cry hallelujah. All the prefaces have returned, with extra items, as a 33-essay volume: Revelations: personal responses to the books of the Bible (Canongate, £10). The fresh material includes Pasolini's intriguing exchanges with Catholic theologians over his film; they deemed it "both ethically and doctrinally orthodox", by the way.

The individual Canons were hosannaed to the heavens, and rightly so. Together, they make a scintillating congregation, but share one fault. All of these authors have so much to say that you can hear the screeching of creative brakes as each brief essay ends. Everyone (P D James to the Dalai Lama, Fay Weldon to Peter Ackroyd) brings heart and soul to the project, mingling memoir and meditation, satire and scholarship. Even the pop celebs - Bono and Nick Cave - turn in smart pieces, respectively on the Psalms of David ("the Elvis of the Bible") and the Gospel of Mark.

Elsewhere, A S Byatt unravels the erotic mysteries of the Song of Songs. Louis de Bernières denounces the God who tortures Job. Mordechai Richler recoils hilariously from the same hard text and wonders if, after 5,000 years of God "choosing" the Jews, "possibly he might consider favouring others with his love". Joanna Trollope touchingly explores the migrants' tales of the Moabite Ruth, among Jews, and the Jewish Esther, among Persians. Francisco Goldman celebrates the church of the poor and despised preached in Matthew's Gospel, as he found it in Guatemala. Will Self stages a scorching finale as he fuses the visionary madness of Revelation ("a sick text") with the suicide of a beloved friend.

Believers, secularists or don't-knows, all the contributors respect their texts as Pasolini respected his Jesus: as a force that "challenges the grey orgy of cynicism, irony, daily brutality, compromise, conformity" of modern life. So spend your Easter with his near-miraculous film, or with Canongate's extremely good book, and leave St Mel to carry his cash-rich cross alone.

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