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
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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.