Listening to the word of God

Gabriel Josipovici lends his ears to the Bible on tape
The history of the Bible's reception in England is in effect the history of English culture. The coincidence of the rise of print technology and the onset of the Protestant Reformation meant that suddenly, in the 16th and 17th centuries, ordinary men andwomen felt they had the right to read and could afford to buy the Bible for the first time - with dire consequences, as Christopher Hill has recently reminded us, for both the state religion and the authority of kings and bishops.

From the 17th century until the First World War, the Authorised Version, published at the instigation of James I in 1611 in order to reconcile the warring theological factions, was an integral part of every English home, constantly quoted from and referred to, and read aloud to the assembled household every day. Such readings still persist among certain Nonconformist families, but the practice has to all intents and purposes died out. At the same time the churches are emptying, so that today very few people have grown up sharing and unconsciously being affected by those sonorous phrases, powerful poems and stirring narratives. For generations, though, the Bible was in effect the only work which, heard like fairy-tales and nursery rhymes in earliest childhood, went on being heard into adolescence and adulthood. It is impossible to calculate the enormous tranformation which the people of this country have undergone as a result of the disappearance of this practice, and no amount of exhortation to returnto Victorian values will ever be able to reverse the trend.

But, such are the paradoxes of civilisation that, just as the predominantly aural and communal experience of the Bible is dying out, new technology and a revival of interest, which is more cultural than religious, have given it a new lease of life. Alec McCowan's marvellous one-man performance of St Mark's Gospel in the Eighties showed how thrilling and even how funny it could be; more recently the BBC has put out an ambitious reading of the entire work from Genesis to Revelation, heavily cut, every weekday morning for a year, with memorable performances from Gielgud and Scofield among others. And now comes this: the complete and unabridged King James version, genealogies, laws, diatribes and all, making 66 cassettes, or roughly 85 hours of listening (though individual books such as Genesis and Exodus or the whole New Testament are available separately).

There are no stars of the magnitude of Gielgud and Scofield reading here, but there are some of the best readers of prose and verse at work in Britain at the present time: Michael Tudor Barnes, Christopher Scott, Stephen Thorne. The project is mercifullyfree of gimmicks: there is no attempt to make more dramatic what is after all quite dramatic enough by, for example, having God spoken by one person and Abraham or Jeremiah by another. Stephen Thorne reads Genesis on his own, with a remarkable ability to let the text speak for itself, and the entire book of Isaiah has been imaginatively entrusted to a female voice, that of Rosalind Shanks. There are exceptions, of course, with those parts of the Bible, such as the Book of Job and the Song of Songs, which are already dramatic works, so to speak, and this is eminently sensible. The latter is, by and large, a passionate dialogue between two lovers, and here Rosalind Shanks surpasses herself in a reading that is at once tender and erotic and which should nail for ever the myth that the Hebrew Bible is harsh and dour.

All this is splendid and very welcome. Unfortunately the whole project is marred by a single disastrous editorial decision: the readings are interrupted every few minutes by an impersonal voice telling us that this is "chapter nine, verses 16 to 28" or "Psalm one, verses one to six" (there are only six verses in Psalm one). In one go, all that had been gained by returning these narratives and poems to the aural realm is lost as they are anchored once more to a text. The publishers actually boast of thisin their woefully inadequate accompanying leaflet, saying that the "reading is supported by a unique indexing on tape, making it easy to access [note the computer jargon] the contents of this great work.'' But the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible are medieval and Renaissance impositions, with no authority whatsoever; and even if they did have authority there is nothing more frustrating than getting involved in the story of David's relationship with Saul or Jesus's Passion only to be pulled backby an impersonal voice. It made me quite unable to let the marvellous stories and poems take hold as they should, so much so that I soon found myself dreading the thought of putting on the next cassette.

As a result of this single decision the whole project turns from being a wonderfully imaginative idea and a real force for good into a moderately useful tool. I would urge the publishers, if they want ordinary people to go out and buy these, to delete the editorial intrusions right across the board. I also feel that we have got the right to expect a booklet, to go with what is after all quite an expensive item, of the kind that we have got used to with opera recordings - something that would include ess ays on the Bible, on the interaction of ear and eye in the history of its reception, and on the readers themselves. As it stands, we are being asked to pay a lot of money for something which falls between every stool. This is a shame because the actualr eadings are often superb and the idea of having the whole King James Bible on cassette is an excellent and timely one.

`The Bible, the Complete and Unabridged Reading ' on 66 cassettes is available from Isis Audio books, £199