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A substitute for Sunday school

05 October 2010

Rebecca Paveley enjoys a look at basic Bible stories for those who no longer know them


The Writing on the Wall: High art, popular culture and the Bible
Maggi Dawn

Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
ChurchTimes Bookshop £15.30

MAGGI DAWN’s latest book was inspired by questions from bib­lically illiterate English-literature students at her university, Cam­bridge. Told to read the Bible before they begin, most do not get beyond the first few chapters of Genesis, and spend their first session with Dawn, a college chaplain and Fellow in theology, eagerly ques­tion­ing her about the stories within it.

After hearing of a feminist art student who demanded why, in paintings, the Madonna always had a boy baby, she decided to write this book.

It takes well-known Bible stories, retells them, and then sets out what art has made of them down the centuries. It was intended for educated beginner readers of the Bible, yet Dawn told an audience at this year’s Greenbelt festival that she hopes committed Christians will also learn from it just how much the Bible has been imprinted on our culture.

Bible stories are not taught in school any more, and, as there is a huge drop in the number of children attending Sunday school, it is no surprise that modern students are not familiar with ordinary biblical references.

But this illiteracy means that huge chunks of English and international literature, art, and music lose layers of their meaning. When Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote their great works, they assumed their readers and audience to be as familiar with Bible stories and references as they were.

Dawn’s explanations of the influ­ence of the Bible on art, literature, and culture travel through Shake­speare, Rembrandt, Milton, Spenser, Jacob Epstein, Wilfred Owen, John Steinbeck, Oscar Wilde, and even the Beatles and Monty Python, to show how each reflects, re­interprets, and brings to life the Bible stories.

It is a consciously unpreachy book — an introduction to the Bible that does not demand a religious response. It is written in a lively and readable style by the multi-talented Dawn, and would make a good present for would-be English students who have skipped Sunday school — or even for those who haven’t. It contains much that is interesting and insightful for regular worshippers also, who are almost certainly not as biblically literate as Christians of 50 or 100 years ago.

How widely is it known, for example, that the phrase “right-hand man” originated in the fact that angels are shown in art on the left of the picture, because in biblical tradition a chief servant always stood at his master’s right hand?

Or that the orb and sceptre a newly crowned monarch receives is a direct reference to the hurried anointing of Solomon, who made a last-minute dash for the throne of Israel with just a royal mule, oil for anointing, and a prophet and priest. The fact that we continue to hand over an orb and sceptre today carries the implication that the authority of a monarch is conferred by God, and is not just an accident of history.

Dawn already has a wide readership through her much praised blog and her other books, but this latest is certain to open up her writing to a whole new audience.

Rebecca Paveley is a journalist, and media adviser to the Bishop of Exeter.

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