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.

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