Hollywood, God and Henry

Only the most pure-minded would fail to be tickled by the updatings and the sassy one-liners
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The Independent Culture
STRIPPED to the waist, shackled, manacled, his hair a corkscrewy fright and his hands flung out like Joe Cocker's, the huge man in the picture is surrounded by jeering faces and toothless grins. They're all out to get him.

He begs to be allowed to rest against the temple pillars, and braces himself for a final heave. The sneering crowd - ladies in wimples, chaps in elaborate beards - sneer some more ("What does he think he's doing?" "His mind's gone as soft as his muscles") but then, under a sudden blue filter, the temple roof caves in. Everyone dies. Samson's last recorded speech-bubble is "Let me die with the Philistines!!"

You said it, pal. It's funny religion time once more. No sooner have the crisps and peanuts been swept away from the launch party for The Pocket Canon - 12 books of the Bible, published in tiny paperback, each introduced by a cool, groovy and above all secular modern writer - that a fresh quasi- religious horror assails us.

One minute you've got Fay Weldon dilating on the Peter Mandelson qualities of St Paul; the next, you've got Adam and Eve pictured like Franco Nero and Minnie Driver, and Satan has been transferred into a pert, seductive goanna with piercing orange eyes and a sibilant conversational tic ("Oh I'm ssorry, I sstartled you...") looking deep into Eve's innocent, trusting face and urging her "Just do it!" like a Camberwell crack pusher.

This is the Lion Graphic Bible, a much-heralded yoking together of two best-selling genres - the Good Book and the bande dessinee, better known as the graphic novel. Attempting, like the Pocket Canon, to persuade the generation which stays up late to watch South Park that the Bible has some relevance to their needs, it strives for a vivid, filmic rush through the most tasty battles, plagues, miracles, chariot races and Red Sea partings of the Old Testament, along with the Holy Family stuff from the New, without sparing much thought for the more devotional bits.

It is, the publishers alarmingly assure us, "classic literature translated into a form that works for a generation used to the fast-moving images of mass media and the Internet." It's with no more than routine weariness that you learn the artist is Jeff Anderson, whose previous career peak was illustrating Judge Dredd.

It is, of course, a shocking travesty of the Bible's language, idiom and solemnity, to have its rapt, epic sweep reduced to a series of arguments, wanderings and fights among a bad-tempered crew of bearded and veiled tent-dwellers. But only the most pure-minded would fail to be tickled by the updatings, the Hollywood faces, the sassy one-liners.

"All right, all right!," says Esau to his crooked brother Jacob. "You can have my birthright. Just give me some stew!" Later, a very Burt Lancasterish Moses tells the Israelites: "I'm giving you a command but it's not difficult. It's simply this: Choose Life!" - a sentiment last heard, I believe, at the start of Trainspotting.

Answering the door of their humble Bethlehem home (no longer a stable, notice), St Joseph discovers three fat jolly kings, in Ali Baba robes, on the doorstep. "Mary?" he says, his eyebrows ironically waggling in imitation of Matt Le Blanc, "You're never going to believe this." "Jesus, what are you doing here?" demands his father in the Temple later, "Your mother and I have been worried sick about you."

You really expect the face of Woody Allen to appear among the Pharisees, complaining that the bottom has dropped out of money-lending; but then you realise he has already appeared, as Jonah, stomping around the wilderness smelling of fish, and complaining petulantly to God ("I don't understand. I mean, I really don't get it. The people of Nineveh are amongst the wickedest on Earth and you let them off... ") It's easy to disapprove of this Dan Dare meets Friends approach to the sacred text of Christianity; but any book that represents Noah's Ark as a vast avocado pear with a thatched roof is worth taking seriously.

I SEE the Economist is up to its old tricks again. It has always boasted about its know-all, whither-the-tiger-economies-and-while-we' re-at-it- whither-the-English-novel completeness. Read us, the ads proclaim, or you won't know what to say.

There you'll be, standing at the bar of some international bankers' Valhalla, and the chaps in the Hugo Boss suits will be banging on about, I dunno, exchange rates, and they'll be saying things like "Greenspan is definitely on board" and occasionally glancing at you as you stand, silent as a caryatid, eyes bulging with embarrassment because you were under the impression that Greenspan was an environmental pressure group not a bloke.

This minatory approach has often been tried before by newspapers whose readers are afraid of ignorance but much more afraid of embarrassment. The Financial Times did their "No FT... No Comment" line, smoothly suggesting that the paper would supply you with not just the important facts about global business, but also the opinions you were supposed to have about the facts, so you need never think for yourself again. The Times's campaign ran "Have you ever wished you were better informed?" and was jokey but carried the same subterranean message about the importance of being up to scratch and up to speed or you wouldn't be a real human being.

Now the Economist has come up with a real pair of beauties. One ad asks, bluntly, "Would you like to find yourself sitting next to you at dinner?"; a TV version shows a middle-management bloke trying out a business class seat and discovering that the chap who'll be sitting next to him and sharing peanuts and conversation for seven hours is Henry Kissinger.

This targets so cruelly our notions of personal worth and self-esteem, it really shouldn't be allowed. Oh dear, all the Mondeo drivers will think, as they cruise glumly past the first advert - am I an interesting person? Am I an amusing and witty conversationalist? Have I not a tendency to rabbit on about garden centres and Kate Winslet and self-assessment tax forms? Oh dear.

The Kissinger advert, meanwhile, presents life as an exam you're in danger of failing. Instead of being allowed to think, "Christ, not that futtutal White House bore beside me all the way to Newark", you're supposed to think, "Help, help, why do I not know more about Eurocurrency/ the World Bank/ the Japanese crash/ the Millennium Bug....?" You're meant to panic at your own inadequacy to fail the exam before it even started.

I wouldn't play. I've long held the opinion that, when you meet a celebrity you talk about things that are nothing to do with his or her area of celebrity. Don't talk to MPs about proportional representation, don't talk to cardinals about sin, don't talk to pop stars about cocaine.

If I found Henry Kissinger parked on the Airbus seat beside me, I'd ask him about wine. I'd ask him if he still, generally speaking, went for tall blondes. I'd offer to explain to him the rules of cricket. And if inspiration dried up completely, I'd ask him: "How low does the self-esteem of a former international statesman have to fall before he agrees to do advertisements on the telly?"