The Pocket Canons, which are published today, have upset Christians who object to personal interpretations from atheists, a Jew and a Buddhist, being printed alongside the text of the Authorised King James version of the Bible.
Will Self's description of Revelation as "a sick text", Louis de Bernieres' conclusion that God is either "a mad, bloodthirsty, and capricious despot" or the Devil, and Blake Morrison's portrait of Jesus as "self-assured, pushy, and somewhat dislikeable" have been singled out as the worst offenders.
Paul Slennett, who resigned as the sole religious distributor of The Pocket Canons when he realised their content, has launched a campaign to have the licence revoked. If the Scottish Bible Board, the crown body that issued the licence allowing the publisher to use the King James version, does not reverse its decision, he plans to appeal to the Queen.
Over the next two weeks, he will be sending out letters to about 18,500 ministers from the main Protestant denominations, urging them to complain to Jamie Byng, managing director of the publisher Canongate Books, in Edinburgh, as well as mainstream bookshops which are stocking the series.
"Canongate has treated the Bible as a great work of literature, which it is, but to Christians it is more than that. It is the inspired word of God and it needs to be treated with respect," said Mr Slennett, 51, an evangelical Christian.
John Shearer, secretary of the United Protestant Council, a federal body representing 20 Christian organisations in the UK, fully supports Mr Slennett's campaign. "This is the worst bit of blasphemous libel we've ever seen in this country," he said yesterday. Mr Slennett added: "Why get someone like Will Self, who abominates Revelation, to write the introduction to a book of the Bible? Why ask a Buddhist when there are a million Christians who could write about Proverbs?"
But to Mr Byng, who rescued his small publishing house from bankruptcy four years ago, stunts and shock tactics are the name of the game. "The general trade is going big time on it," he said, adding that The Pocket Canons is one of Books Etc's top 10 titles for Christmas.
Of his Christian critics, Mr Byng - stepson of the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland - said: "I think it's so exciting for the Bible to be published in this way and I find it very sad that they're taking this fundamentalist approach.
"The bottom line is that the King James version stands there unchanged. Surely they must welcome the fact that it's there for people to read. If people are going to find faith via the Bible, I don't think a Louis de Bernieres introduction is going to tip the balance."
Mr Byng, 29, who describes himself as "a spiritual person", was wholly unapologetic. "This idea that they own the Bible, it's absurd. It's not just a religious text but a major work of literature, and I kind of resent people who have particular religious baggage saying we shouldn't have done it.
"They're ludicrous. Some of the letters coming in about what's going to happen to us. This apocalyptic language - I find it quite difficult to take seriously."
To Christians, however, what is offensive is the fact that the introductions are printed alongside the texts of the 12 books (price pounds 1 each) selected from the Old and New Testaments.
Mr Shearer explained: "It's almost deliberately seeking to devalue what orthodox Christians everywhere would regard as the infallible, true word of God under which we humble ourselves. These authors have made cruel, mocking judgements of the most precious book in the world."
Ian Matthews, general secretary of the Christian Booksellers Association, which represents 900 Christian bookshops in the UK, said the major chains had decided not to stock The Pocket Canons. "There's a sharp distinction between what is said in these introductions and liberal Biblical commentary..." he said.
"To make an attack on any religious figurehead is wrong. You certainly wouldn't expect an attack on Muhammad or the Buddha, so I don't see why such an attack should be made on the God and Jesus."
Norman Nibloe, chairman of the Christian Booksellers Convention and owner of a chain of six Christian bookshops in Kent and Sussex, said: "The way in which the introductions have been done will cause offence to my customers so I won't be stocking them.
"I find it totally incongruous that we've got people commenting on the text of the Bible who have no knowledge of the Christian faith. It would be like asking someone who knows nothing about football to commentate on the World Cup or asking someone who is tone deaf to review the Last Night of the Proms."
The Rt Rev Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh, was the only Church figure to contribute to The Pocket Canons. He dismissed the claims of blasphemy, saying: "This reaction comes from a particularly narrow religious background and doesn't acknowledge that the Bible is a library of books which can be read in all sorts of ways."
Whatever the immediate result of Mr Slennett's campaign, he is confident that God will avenge the blasphemy by bringing ruin on Canongate Books. "If there is no God, there is no problem," he said. "But there is a God and He will vindicate His name."
Leading article Review, page3
SIX AUTHORS DELIVER THEIR VERDICT ON 'THE WORD OF GOD'
Louis de Bernieres on
the Book of Job
Not only do we have a God, therefore, who is a frivolous trickster, but one who even botches up the reparations when He decides to make them. There are many episodes in the Bible that show God in a very bad light... and one cannot but conclude from them either that God is a mad, bloodthirsty, and capricious despot, or that all this time we have been inadvertently worshipping the Devil.
Will Self on
the Book of Revelation
I read The Book of Revelation once - I never wanted to read it again. I found it a sick text... In its vile obscurantism is its baneful effect; the original language may have welded the metaphoric with the signified and the logos with the flesh, but in the King James version the text is a guignol of tedium, a portentous horror film...To think this ancient text has survived to be the very stuff of modern, psychotic nightmare.
Steven Rose on
the Book of Genesis
Did the editors of this series of volumes of the King James realise that I was an ex-orthodox Jew, an atheist and a biologist to boot when they suggested that I write this introduction? Yes, they said, and that's why we asked you. So now, nudging sixty, I have read King James's Genesis for the first time...I find Genesis to be full of such seemingly
motiveless and often unjust Godly acts.
Blake Morrison on
the Gospel of John
Far from being meek and mild, Jesus here is self-
assured, pushy, and somewhat dislikeable. It may not have been the author's intention, but we see why he caused such anger and resentment, and understand his enemies' wish to have him dead and out of the way. When he's not
speaking in riddles, he's
argumentative. He hectors. He harangues. He throws out
insults and reproaches.
Nick Cave on
the Gospel of Mark
You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched
humanity as you learn to
forgive yourself and the world. That God of Old begins to transmute in your heart, base metals become silver and gold, and you warm to the world ...Mark's Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the
narrative aches with the
melancholy of absence.
Fay Weldon on
Epistles to the Corinthians
And doesn't Paul take up such an annoyingly large chunk of the Bible, after the romance and passion and savagery of the early days are all finished, after that death upon the cross, with his undramatic
letters to here and letters to there? A very Mandelson of religious
politics, demanding his united front?... Listen to Paul in Corinthians ... Don't smoke, don't own guns, don't be unrighteous, don't spit in church, let's have no dissension here! Don't, don't, don't.Reuse content