Essay: Fifteen secular authors could not help finding spiritual resonance in a new selection

There's nothing wrong with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, said a questioner from the floor, it's a very good book. Doris Lessing looked despairing. There could, she said, be no comparison between the kind of literary excellence of the King James Bible and the story of Willy Wonka. To anyone who thought the two might be compared, she said, she had nothing to say.

The notion of the Bible as literature is what lies at the heart of the publication of selected books from the Authorised Version in individual volumes with introductions by celebrated authors, of whom Ms Lessing is one. She was speaking last week at an event to mark the publication in the church of St James in Piccadilly. The defence of the Roald Dahl classic had come from the floor after the novelist had dismissed it in a philippic about the current state of children's literacy and comprehension. Was it any wonder it was so poor, she said, when all they were offered were television programmes and books which seduced rather than stretching?Today's children never hear hard words. They are not challenged by language.

Contrast that with the privileged position of previous generations whose childhood was charged with the wonder of the language of the Jacobean translators. "Generations of writers have been influenced by the rhythms of the Bible, which may be observed in the prose of the best of them - as well as the worst - and we are very much the poorer because the Bible is no longer a book to be found in every home, and heard every week," she says in her introduction to the thundering magnificence of the prose of Ecclesiastes.

But the Bible is more than a mode of speaking woven into our language and culture (even if in threads that are increasingly frayed and faded). For many of the Pocket Canon writers it was a window on to some other reality - whose memory persists even long after faith has departed. For the rock musician Nick Cave, who writes on the gospel of Mark, it lingers from his choir-boy days in Wangaratta Cathedral choir. For the biologist Steve Rose, now an atheist but brought up an Orthodox Jew, it is lodged in the memory of the Torah chanted in the Old Hebrew as he sat at the back of the synagogue. Blake Morrison, writing on John, conjures something for all of them when he speaks of: "The touch of cold stone flags on a bended knee; the lovely sound of 'daily bread' and 'trespasses'; the melting nothingness of a communion wafer; the head-swoon from a sip of wine; the rotting-body smell from water that stood too long in flower vases; the whitewash walls, the spread-winged golden eagle lectern stand, the pale-lemon morning light, the wood of the nave so dark it might have been burned - the long hours of boredom have faded, but the sensuousness has stayed."

There is more to this than the freedom to reject religion without casting loose all sense of mystery. These are avowedly secular readings of the scared texts - the 15 authors include a couple of Christians, a Jew and a Buddhist but in the main are atheist or agnostic - and yet they embody the same range of approaches to religion which have down the ages marked humanity's discourse with the transcendent. It is evident, of course, in the believers, whether in the admonitions against literalism in the essay on Luke by Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh or in the excitement of Nick Cave's treatment of Mark, a gospel "in which everyone runs, shouts and is amazed" and where Christ's rage against the mundane is contrasted with the dull rationalism of those around him. And it is there too in the spiritual ache of the commentary on Matthew by the apostate A N Wilson in which he poses an altogether different version of the celebrated question "What is truth?" Only Wilson stays for an answer and what he finds erupting from the clash of the tectonic plates of the old Judaism and the new Christianity is, especially from someone who has renounced Christianity, singularly poignant.

But the insight of A S Byatt and Blake Morrison that in some way religion and poetry may be the same thing - thick as they are with myth and symbol and incantation, and oblique and gnomic as both must be - is one which has persisted since at least the writing of the Song of Songs on which Byatt comments. Doris Lessing's fear of how "living springs of knowledge and wisdom become captured by institutions" is one which Christ himself understood. And Will Self's bewildered threnody chronicling the fear and self-loathing which brought about the inexorable death of his friend Ben in a drugged-out psychotic nightmare has precedents without number. It makes only passing reference to the book of Revelation which is his text - with its violent images, cabbalistic numerology and visceral mysticism which so obsessed his dead friend. But the self-indulgence of making religion fit the self (rather than the other way about) has been one of the great delusions throughout the history of belief.

There is even an ironic mimetic to the two fiercest denunciations in the collection. Fay Weldon accuses the Apostle Paul in Corinthians of ranting, railing and reproaching - and then proceeds to do pretty much the same in a sarcastic diatribe every bit as dogmatic as those of her victim (whose love of God she gauges as a substitute for his apparent lack of love of any individual human beings.)

Similarly Louis de Bernieres' ferocious indictment of God in Job has a precedent in faith. The novelist insists that God has failed to appear in court to answer for his unjust imposition of suffering on the undeserving Job - and that we should therefore "construe His absence either as non- existence, hubris, apathy or an admission of guilt". Compare that with the case of the Jews imprisoned in Auschwitz who held a formal trial to put God in the dock. After witnesses for the prosecution and defence were examined and cross-examined, the jury retired. When it returned it was to pronounce, unanimously, that God was guilty of breaking his Covenant with his people. There was a hush in the concentration camp hut. But when the silence was broken it was by prayer.

Perhaps the most interesting of the parallels is that of the biologist Stephen Rose who looks at Genesis and the creation of the world. Unlike some of the other authors he is conscious of the correlations. Secularisation likes to think that we have arrived in the post-religious, rationalist and reductionist world of modern science. Yet, says Rose, the modern vision of the world - and humanity's place in it - is essentially unchanged from that of that first Hebrew scripture story in which God gives Adam dominion over other living cre atures by inviting him to name, control and own them.

But he finds more correspondence than that. The story of the Fall began the debate on free will versus pre-destination which has run through theology and philosophy ever since and survives still in the argument among biologists and evolutionary psychologists over whether our behaviour, for good or ill, is fixed by our selfish genes or whether we are able to transcend them. Perhaps, he argues, with a pointed glance at Richard Dawkins, the argument is not part of our biological inheritance but of our religious one.

Of course we may build upon the insights of our ancestors, but the paradox is that, as the historian Herbert Butterfield observed, every generation is equidistant from eternity. And that is a truth from which this secular generation, for all its insistence that the Bible is now only literature, cannot appear to exempt itself.

Words of the Wise, the Pocket Canon series of books from the Bible are published by Canongate Books at pounds 1 each and are to be broadcast on Radio 4 FM daily at 9.45am from 12 October.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence