Book of a lifetime: The Bible


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The Bible is one of those books, and there are others, that everyone thinks they know. In almost every case – from deranged fundamentalists to raving neo-atheists, and including me – they are wrong about what is in it. This is partly because it is so large it is hard to "know" it all and partly because none of us come to it clean. It has been so used and abused, has so permeated our language, our culture and our civic lives that for better or worse it is a book of everybody's lifetime.

I came to it early and luckily, as "stories" told in a kindly Church of Scotland Sunday School; I confronted it critically as a socialist feminist adult in the 1970s, and eventually came to realise that it had embedded itself in my imagination. It has deeply influenced my writing, and indeed my self-understanding. At the moment, and this may change, I find it a weird, wonderful anthology. I love it for its enormous range. Not many books offer such a fabulous variety of genres: history, political theory, theology, legal codes, myths, dietary advice, letters, gossip, biography, visionary ravings and, perhaps above all, poetry.

I love it because it is the story of a community rather than an individual; over a vast span of chronology and geography its central message seems to be "we got it wrong again – let's give it another go". Most of the principal characters are horribly flawed (Abraham, Moses, David, Peter). But it is an honest attempt to deal with all the truly big issues and does it through literary strategies that are crafty and satisfying.

I love it because it gives the lie to the post-Romantic conviction that all great literature must be created by individual geniuses. This book was put together by a ragbag of writers and then edited (and in most versions we know in English, translated) by committees. It is not just communal in its themes, but in his form and composition. I find this deeply pleasing.

I will admit that portions of it are incomprehensible or tedious and sometimes both; that it reflects certain appalling historical biases, particularly when sexist or jingoistic; that parts of it are tendentiously moralistic – though usually in conflict with other similar bits; and even that it has been used to inflict hideous wrong on others.

But there it is: a huge brave adventure story struggling to give form to the most profound human aspiration. It is not the world's bestseller ever, and over centuries, for no reason. It has affected me for almost all of my lifetime.

Sara Maitland's 'Gossip from the Forest' is published by Granta