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Read, mark, and imagine

by
10 July 2015

Richard Harries on a testimony to scripture

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The Book of the People: How to read the Bible
A. N. Wilson
Atlantic £17.99
(978-1-84887-959-1)
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.

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