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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor