Thursday Book: Canons fired by spiritual mystery

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The Independent Culture
THE STATUS of scripture has become one of the most sensitive religious issues of our time. For centuries, in almost all the major faiths, the holy book has been a symbol, in the word's original sense of bringing two disparate realities together.

One of the main problems of religion has always been the difficulty of traversing the gulf that separates us from the divine. What we call "God" or "sacred" has never been experienced directly, but has always been found in a mundane entity that falls short of the ineffable Reality: in a stone, a mountain, a river, or a human being. One of the most universal of these symbols has been a sacred text.

But, recently, scripture seems to have been losing its symbolic power. Instead of introducing men and women to the divine, it has itself become the focus of anxious attention. People have worried about the integrity of their holy books. Christian fundamentalists fear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contradicts God's word in Genesis; Muslim outrage over The Satanic Verses was partially inspired by the novel's suggestion that the Koran was tainted by the demonic inspiration of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.

Instead of seeing scripture as a sacrament that brings us to the sacred, we subject it to the same rational scrutiny as any other text. Where pre- modern readers relished allegorical exegesis, we have become more literal. We expect accuracy from the Bible and are often disappointed.

The Bible has, however, been one of the most formative influences on Western culture, especially in the King James version. So, to make it more accessible, Canongate has published 12 of its books in pocket-sized editions, each introduced by a distinguished writer. These illustrate many of the difficulties we have with sacred literature today.

Thus, the biologist Steven Rose expects clear facts about the origin of life from Genesis and, not surprisingly, finds it wanting. He concentrates on the first three chapters, retreating in obvious confusion from the rest of the book, which as he rightly says, teems with "seemingly motiveless, and often unjust, Godly acts". Louis de Bernieres finds the ending of the book of Job highly unsatisfactory. We miss God, he concludes, "but we admire tyranny no longer, and we desire justice more than we are awed by vainglorious asseveration of magnificence".

There is here, as in Doris Lessing's introduction to Ecclesiastes, a lofty assumption that we have now got beyond religion and have left such puerile theology behind. The biblical authors are credited with none of the sophistication we expect in a literary masterpiece today. But perhaps these confusing and inadequate portraits of the divine are meant precisely to bring home to us the fact that all our experiences of "God" can only be fragmentary and paradoxical.

In his excellent introduction to St Matthew's gospel, AN Wilson warns the reader that the evangelists were not attempting historical accuracy, but were directing people to confront more disturbing and self-contradictory realities within themselves. Similarly, David Grossman believes that Exodus raises profound and difficult issues for the Jewish people and the state of Israel. This perceptive essay argues that myth can have more far-reaching effects than any historical fact.

Other writers - Blake Morrison on St John's gospel, Nick Cave on St Mark's - also show how these texts have impacted on their own lives or have helped readers to articulate important questions. Will Self's powerful essay on Revelation shows how the text spoke to a friend whose mental balance had been shattered by drugs.

AS Byatt's immaculate literary study of the Song of Solomon takes a more objective line, but shows how, in this erotic text, the natural world, human beings and their artefacts become transformed by "the poetic, or the religious imagination". This is an important equivalence. Theology should indeed be seen as an art form, an exercise of the creative imagination, rather than as a statement of facts. The most powerful books of the Bible work upon us like great literature, touching our fears and desires.

Official representatives of religion, however, too often treat the Bible as a holy encyclopaedia, to look up objective facts about God. It is, therefore, refreshing that one of the best introductions is by Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh. The danger of religion, he warns, is that it "can trap us in language about mysteries, rather than open us to the mysteries themselves". St Luke's gospel reminds us that Jesus keeps breaking out of the tombs built for him by the devout.