The greatest story never told

The Book of God Walter Wangerin Lion, pounds 20: Karen Armstrong is uni mpressed by a simplistic rendering of the Bible as fiction

Walter Wangerin has attempted to rewrite the Bible as a novel. "He has given the Bible back to the people," proclaims the endorsement on the cover of The Book of God. "The Good Book becomes the Good Read." Christians who have found the Bible perplexing and arcane, its message obscured by centuries of musty commentary, can take heart. In prose reminiscent of that of Jeffrey Archer or Judith Krantz, Wangerin traces the biblical story from the destruction of Sodom to the foundation of the Christian Church.

Despite the growing fundamentalist trend that insists the biblical stories are literal statements of historical fact, there is nothing new about perceiving the Bible as fiction. Scholars have demonstrated the immense literary skill employed by the writers and the complexity of the text, which makes a simplistic interpretation impossible. It is becoming increasingly difficult to treat the Bible as a holy encyclopaedia in which we can find accurate information about God: instead it forces us to confront the complications of the human condition.

Wangerin's novel, however, seems to go out of its way to drain the Bible of both depth and complexity. At the end of a century scarred by genocide and holocaust, for example, he finds nothing disturbing in Joshua's indiscriminate slaughter of the inhabitants of Canaan, nor does he seem troubled by God's extermination of almost the entire human race during the Flood. He prefers to take the text at face value than to ask difficult questions.

Not so the biblical-writers, who often hint at untold complications. They leave us with the distinct impression that Isaac was profoundly damaged by Abraham's readiness to offer him as a human sacrifice. Yet in Wagnerin's novel, Isaac takes the projected sacrifice serenely in his stride.

In the Bible, our glimpses of the divine are often perplexing, fearful and ambiguous. We frequently have to wrestle with the text as Jacob wrestled with the angel and, like Jacob, experience only an elusive sense of blessing. But there is no such struggle in The Bible According to Wangerin. Purple prose offers a facile substitute for spirituality. Of Moses, for example, Wangerin plangently notes: "When one caught him gazing upon the people in the evening, there appeared in his eyes a dreaming gentleness. A kindness." He makes no effort to square this with the fierce Lawgiver who, a few pages earlier, had ordered a ruthless massacre to punish the worshippers of the Golden Calf.

Jesus himself appears as a soap star, his clean-cut looks (much is made of the fact that he shaves regularly) revealing his nobility of soul. His appearance effects a "small commotion" in the breast of Mary Magdalene, when she sees that his "black hair reflected a deep red sheen'' and that he was "radiant and ruddy, his teeth perfectly white." Unsurprisingly, her response is as banal as Jesus's good looks. "She blurted: 'Raisin cakes, Rabboni! A little lunch, sir, while you are sitting here?'"

This lush but trite lyricism recurs with greater frequency in the gospel portions of Wangerin's novel, probably reflecting his belief in the richness of the New Testament as opposed to the Old. Indeed, we leave the Hebrew Bible with a grim picture of the religion of Israel. We see the people of Jerusalem listening to Ezra's reading of the scriptures during a freezing rainstorm. Nehemeiah looks up at the grey clouds and "thinks he hears thunder, a muttering in heaven, and he takes this as a sign of divine approval." The implication is that Judaism has become a frigid, comfortless faith, its deity remote and ambiguous.

This apparent failure to recognize the integrity of the Jewish religious experience points to a basic flaw in Wangerin's project. Unlike his novel, the Bible does not represent a single viewpoint. It is a collection of texts, which present conflicting visions. It thus bears witness to the fact that no one human expression of the divine can ever suffice. If we forget this, our understanding of the Bible is likely to be as reductive and trivial as Wangerin's empty epic.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel