The Rushdie saga replayed as farce

Had Christ been in St James's, he'd have been hard pressed to know whose side he was on
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The Independent Culture
THERE HAS been no book-burning, as yet. But it seems as if the Rushdie saga is being replayed, the second time as farce. In St James's Church in Piccadilly - that shrine to alternative Anglicanism - a protester appeared from the back of the church on Wednesday evening singing that evangelical favourite "Jesus is Lord". On the platform, the object of his outrage began to sing something else back, though in the melee it was difficult to make out the tune he chose in riposte.

The occasion was the book launch to mark the publication of selected books from the Bible in a boxed set of mini-volumes, with introductions from distinguished secular authors. The protester took particular exception to the contribution from Louis de Bernieres, author of the best-selling Captain Corelli's Mandolin, who has written an introduction to The Book of Job which describes God as an oppressor whose smiling face hides an evil heart. The author has been threatened with a private prosecution for criminal blasphemy.

In reply, the award-winning novelist began to talk portentously about freedom of speech and assert that, if the case succeeds, he will emigrate to France where they still respect the intellect, or words to that effect. Isn't it tedious, he asked, that we have to keep going through the same thing over and over again in this country?

Indeed it is. But as long as we have the combination of religious zealots and arrogant secularists we are probably condemned to such replays. The decision by Canongate Books to ask writers from the non-religious world to write the introductions to its pocket volumes of books from the Bible was two-edged. At its best it brings the uncluttered insights of a secular eye to texts that are nowadays more honoured in the breach than the observance. In the case of an avowed agnostic like AN Wilson it produces an essay on Matthew which is masterful and moving.

Yet the approach has its limitations. The views of Louis de Bernieres may offer nothing new to those acquainted with the analysis of liberal biblical scholars. But where their stance is one of questioning faith, his is one of unflinching distaste - with the vocabulary to go with it. His God is "an unpleasantly sarcastic megalomaniac" who is "a mad, bloodthirsty, capricious despot" - either that or "all this time we have been inadvertently worshipping the Devil".

Perhaps it is surprising that a writer of de Bernieres's calibre takes so literalist a view of the mythic story of God's bet with the Devil which led to the temptation of Job - and which sets up the discussions on the nature of divine justice at the centre of the book. One might have expected a greater appreciation of symbol and metaphor from a writer who would no doubt condemn as philistine so reductive a reading of his own work.

Less surprising is his failure to understand the theological or historical context in which Job sits. Contrary to what fundamentalists claim, the Old Testament is not a collection of inerrant truths. It is the record of the journey in one people's understanding of their relationship with God - an understanding which changed, developed and matured. In the days when Job was written, the received view of suffering was that it was inflicted upon individuals in direct proportion to their sinfulness. It was an understanding which, the writer of Job realised, took no account of the suffering of the innocent. The lesson he wanted to impart was that sometimes faith must be greater than our capacity to understand.

That journey in understanding was, for Christians, to end in the New Testament. Which is why the rather more helpful introduction to the New Jerusalem Bible says of the insights of Job that "at this stage of the divine revelation, the author could go no further". In the end, as Richard Holloway points out in his introduction to Luke in the Canongate series, words about God must not be treated as though they are the equivalent to God. Words point to things, but they can never be the things they point to. "How can the words we use to express the mystery of God," he asks, "be themselves absolute?"

That is a lesson which religious fundamentalists repeatedly fail to learn. In the slippery post-Wittgenstein world of words, it is one which you might have expected a literary novelist to comprehend.

The final irony, of course, is that the Christian journey of faith, which the protesters profess to embrace, ends with a man who had no time for the literalism of the zealots of the established religion of his own day. Had Christ been in St James's on Wednesday he might have been hard pressed to know whose side he was on.