The Book of the People: How To Read The Bible by AN Wilson, book review

Wilson sees the Bible as so much more than the sum of its parts

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At first sight, the title of this book seems to make an odd claim for the Bible. As far as England was concerned, it was not a "people's book" for centuries. Very few people in the early Middle Ages could read, for one thing, while the authorities later became suspicious about the idea of the laity enjoying unfettered access to the scriptures in case it gave them strange ideas about monarchy and religious authority. It was only once Henry VIII's battle with the Pope had gone nuclear, after he then resolved to "weaponise" the Bible, that translated copies were installed in churches. From then on, the Bible was, perhaps, the "people's book".

Wilson is not thinking of the peoples of these islands, however, but of people around the world at various times and in various conditions, from early Christians in the Near East to civil rights activists in America in the 1960s and some of the Russian dissidents later on. These are people, he says, who drew on the Bible's inspirational power to change the world, partly because they read it the way it was intended to be read. Wilson says that Martin Luther King and his fellow activists ignored the various lines in the Bible that appeared to support slavery and discrimination, drawing strength from a more important, over-arching narrative about redemption.

Wilson is obviously right to see the Bible as so much more than the sum of its parts – as a great mythological poem which, teasingly, asks far more questions than it answers. He does not just take aim at the fundamentalist obsession with certain lines in the scriptures, however. Rationalists, he says, have also missed the point by trying to salvage facts from what was never conceived as a journalistic record. Such attempts always draw a blank, he notes, likening the process to looking into a well and seeing only one's own reflection.

My only cavil with this short and entertaining book (and how often can one say that about a book on the Bible!) is the structure, part of which revolves around a stagey-sounding dialogue between the author and a mysterious woman known only as "L", who we later learn had mental problems. "L" comes across like a wandering seer whose superior spiritual insight comes from a direct encounter with God rather than from boning up on lots of books.

As a literary device, however, this is tiresome. It recalls the structured dialogues favoured by writers of the Renaissance era. I was also left wondering how on earth Wilson had remembered the exact course of all these conversations with his muse on divine topics – but then towards the end of the book he fesses up: "L", it turns out, is a composite figure – a type rather than a person. That answered that, I suppose, but it's still a bit confusing. I get that we cannot locate "true" facts about a man who died 2,000 years ago but "L" was presumably alive recently. Apart from that, this is an elegant and insightful book. I am not sure that Wilson says anything new, but, as you would expect from him, he says it very well.

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