*** DEBUG END ***

Read, mark, and imagine

10 July 2015

Richard Harries on a testimony to scripture


The Book of the People: How to read the Bible
A. N. Wilson
Atlantic £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20


THIS is a very personal book, and all the better for that. It tracks A. N. Wilson’s changing stance on the Bible from his use of historical-critical methods, through violent hostility, to a rediscovery of the power and influence of the Bible in the lives of people and cultures.

What brought about this last change was, first of all, a vivid reminder of the crucial part that the Bible played in the civil-rights movement, and, before that, in keeping hope alive in the American slave population; and, second, a deep appreciation of the Byzantine world as expressed in its buildings and mosaics.

Then, third, there were Blake’s etchings on the book of Job, which encouraged him to see the crucial place of the imagination in reading the Bible. As Blake put it, "I know of no other Christianity and no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of the Imagination." This leads Wilson throughout the book to be highly critical of all forms of literalism as a plodding failure in imagination.

Wilson once wrote a book using standard historical-critical methods to state what could reliably be said about the Jesus of history. He now regards all such attempts to do this as vain, because every line of the New Testament is written from faith to faith, and "what really happened" cannot be uncovered from behind this.

He is absolutely correct that faith in the risen Christ colours everything that is written in the Gospels, but I think that he is too sceptical about the possibility of recovering at least the main outlines of what Jesus actually said and did. Moreover, he somewhat undermines his scepticism on this by drawing on Professor Richard Bauckham to suggest that behind the Gospels are eyewitness accounts.

Nevertheless it is good to have such a stirring affirmation of the continuing importance of the Bible both for personal life and for understanding our culture. It is not only our literature that we cannot understand without the Bible but, as he writes:

"Without a knowledge of it the great portion of Western architecture is incomprehensible. It is the key which unlocks the work of nearly all the great painters from Giotto to Blake. It is the libretto of Bach and Haydn and Beethoven. On battlefields, on deathbeds, in hospital wards, and private households rich and poor, its leaves have been turned, its pages opened, its well-known words have nourished and sustained countless human lives. In its poetry men and women have found echoes of their own heartbreak, their own doubt, their own dejection, their own sins, as well as a staff to comfort and a light to guide."

The book also reflects an intriguing relationship with "L", now no longer alive, who originally intended to write a book along these lines. Did "L" really exist? I could not help wondering whether Wilson had deliberately injected this character in order to raise a parallel question to the one whether Jesus really existed.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

24 May 2022
Disability and Church: Intersectionality
A joint webinar from HeartEdge and Church Times.

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)