Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (2)


"Open up Mark's Gospel, which is the probably the oldest and certainly the shortest, and pretend I am reading it for the first time."

That is always my starting point. What if it was 1977 and you were going to see a new space film you had heard was pretty good? What if it was 1963 and Kennedy had just been shot and you'd turned on some new kids TV show and had no idea why the old guy lived in a phone box?

It isn't the only way of reading a text. It is not necessarily the best way. Star Wars is certainly a film which came out in 1977; but it is also the fourth chapter in an eleven part trilogy, and the big fix-up universe is just as much a thing as the very old art house movie. More so, arguably. You can sit down and watch parts Star Wars Episodes I - VIII this weekend. But it will never be 1977 again.

And, in fact, very few people did see Star Wars for the first time. Most of us saw it in the context of the comics; the toys; the cultural phenomenon. And, in fact, hardly anyone saw Doctor Who for the first time: there were trailers and playground gossip and spoilers in the Radio Times. But it is true, very nearly, that when my grandfather brought me that first Spider-Man comic, I had no idea who Spider-Man was. 


Some years ago, for reasons I do not choose to remember, I was talking about Astrology. I remarked that it was something of a category mistake to ask if Astrology was true. I said that it was more interesting to ask what people do with Astrology. Some people (I argued) like newspaper Astrology because it provides a simple social ritual and conversation starter: they read out each other's star signs in the office over coffee and have a little laugh about how right or wrong they are. Other people (I suggested) like the more complicated casting of horoscopes because it helps them talk to girls at parties: "So, what is your Star Sign?" is a gentle way of saying "You seem nice. Tell me about yourself." Some people sincerely believe that astrology works. Others think it's quite obviously a load of old rubbish. But that's not the point. The point is that it has a social function.


I forget who it was who said that the Bible was like a guitar. If you didn't know what a guitar was, you might think it was a wall decoration; a racket used in some kind of sport; a weapon be used in a martial art; an implement for punishing naughty children. And you could, in fact, use it for any one of those purposes. But you would have missed the point of guitars. Once you have worked out what the guitar is, almost anyone can get some kind of noise out of it; and it only takes a lesson or two to make it play some chords. But to play a guitar well takes a lifetime. And there is more than one kind of music to be got out of it.

Point being: there is a right way and a wrong way of reading a book. But once you have figured out the right way, there are still good readings and bad readings.


What is the Bible for?

The answer is printed on the front page. "Appointed to be read in churches", it says.

The Bible is a collection of texts to be performed in a liturgical setting, six a week, three in the morning, three in the evening. If you go to church every morning and every evening then you will hear the entire text, minus genealogies, read out loud in four years. In particular, the Bible is a collection of short verses for clergymen to base homilies on. ("Now Jacob was an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.")

For nearly all of us, that is the function of the Bible: that is what we do with it. The Bible is the big book they read to us from in Church. Church is where we go to hear people reading to us from the Bible.

For a very small number of exceptionally holy people, the Bible is also a component of a smaller social gathering called The Bible Study Group in which people take it in turns to read verses out loud and try to say what they mean. At the end of the session the leader tells you the correct answer and you all drink coffee. (The Tolkien Society do something very similar with the Lord of the Rings.)

For an even smaller and holier sub-set, the Bible is the focus of a private guided meditation exercise called Personal Devotions or (god help us all) The Quiet Time. This tends to involve reading a very small number of verses and a short homily by an American evangelical clergyman, and then saying very specific prayers for people and causes that are important to you. 

It can be used in other ways as well. St Ignatious thought it was all about imagining yourself in the situation, pretending you were on the river bank seeing Jesus getting baptised; imagining that you are one of the fisherman he called out to. Some people use it like the I-Ching or the poems of Nostradamus: they search it for codes and clues and allegories about the future development of the State of Israel. 

But hardly anyone just reads the thing. Was anyone ever really meant to?


I have a mental image of a very old man with a beard, wearing a toga and sandals, solemnly reading from a scroll to a very earnest group of equally sandal-wearing saints, somewhere dark, and secret, possibly a cave or a catacomb. I also have an image of a much younger man (blonde, curly haired, clean shaven) extemporizing the story with much gesticulation to a band of eager young children, also with sandals.

Mark's Gospel is definitely a text; it definitely exists; so there must have been some particular moment in history when someone read for the first time. But even if my bearded story-teller is something close to the truth, he doesn't bring me any closer to the original meaning of the book. I am not a rosy-cheeked child. I am in no immediate danger of being thrown to the lions. My feet are quite the wrong shape for sandals.


There has been fad for producing editions of the Bible which look like novels. The whole text, translated as colloquially as possible, printed in single columns with no chapter or verse numbering. There is nothing terribly wrong with this. People translate the Iliad and the Odyssey into chatty modern prose so those of us who know no Greek can get the gist of the story. Poetry is lost in translation, but it's probably no more lost in a chatty modern translation than in a ponderous archaic one. Rocketing through your Living Bible in Modern English is a good enough way of distinguishing your Zebulons from your Zephaniahs and knowing what St Paul actually said about marriage. But I am a little unconvinced. If I sat down in Cafe Kino and tried to whip through 100 pages of the Old Testament at the speed of Dickens I would feel irreverent, or pretentiously hyper-spiritual, or both.

Even if we were reading the Bible for the first time, I think the stories would come crashing down with total familiarity; like going to see Hamlet for the first time and discovering that it was full of quotations. I don't think that there has been a single person who, when he first heard the Gospel, thought that the Prodigal Son's dad was going to send him on his way with a flea in his ear and a boot up the backside. We may not sing Tell Me The Stories Of Jesus in infant school assembly any more, but we can hardly avoid The Greatest Story Ever Told and Monty Python's Life of Brian.


If it is hard to remember when I first heard about Sherlock Holmes, it is naturally going to be ten times harder to say when I first heard about Jesus. I wish I could. I wish I could give you one of those full throated evangelical testimonies. "Brother, I was in deep sin, injecting pornography into my artery and chain smoking women of ill repute; I even listened to role-playing games while playing rock and roll. But then someone said did you ever hear of Jee-zuz and I swear I have never smoked a drop since." But I can't even run to "The first time I heard about Jesus was from a book my Granny used to read me." (You could get a country and western song out of that, at least.)


I have a dim, dim memory of a small room, near the top class room of my nursery school. (We say "nursery school" in England, not "kindergarten" although the idea that toddlers are a kind of rare flower is implicit in both names.) There were morning children, afternoon children and all-day children. The top class room was the one inhabited by the all-day children, those strange creatures who brought packed lunches and had a nap around noon. I think that the room may possibly have been the head teacher's office. The office of the head teacher of a pre-school is not as awesome as the office of the head teacher of a Big School, but still, you normally had to be very good or very bad to be asked inside it. I remember putting on some kind of robe, made of fake red velvet, and a cardboard crown; and being given an old shoe box covered in a gold foil. Two other little boys had crowns and boxes of different colours. We walked along the corridor, and onto the stage in the all-day-children's classroom, and gave our shoe-boxes to the baby Jesus.

Before that, before I was a person at all, there was Sunday School. There was a square room with white walls flecked with black; and a framed pictures of lots of little children hovering around a man with a beard, all in silhouette. Each time a new baby was Christened the Minister wrote his name under the picture with a fountain pen. My Daddy showed me where my name was written, an unimaginably long time ago, three years ago, maybe even four.

Mrs Someone who ran the Sunday School sang hymns while an older lady accompanied her on the piano:

Jesus bids us shine first of all for Him
Well, He sees our noses, if our light grows dim
In this World of Darkness we still can shine
You in your small corner, and I in mine.


(Years later the jolly Srilankan clergyman from the Baptist Church said he hated this song because it suggested that religion was a solitary thing and left the church out completely.)

Dropping dropping dropping
From each little hand
Tis our gift to Jesus
From His little band
Now while we are little
Pennies are our store
But when we get older
We will give Him more

Someone who lived in a place called heaven, then. Luminous, like a light or candle or the moon. Likes shiny things, like gold cardboard boxes a new pennies.

A sum bean a sum bean
Jesus wants me for a sum bean
A sum bean a sum bean
I'll be a sum bean for Him.

There was a tiny little strip in one of the smallest children's comics, with a name like Playland, about a family of moonbeams. So Jesus was inexorably connected with the moonbeams in my head. There was also a comic strip about a talking hot water bottle. Perhaps I invented them both. There may have been a weekly bible stories. And koalas. We will come back to the koalas. I am on the very threshold of consciousness.

Jesus. Wandered around in sandals. Chums with fishermen. Particular thing about people with skin conditions. Said how great it would be to be nice to people for a change. The Scribes and the Pharisees wouldn't dance and they wouldn't follow he. Did anyone ever hear this story for the first time?





12 comments:

  1. I'm not sure if it's just the familiarity of the gospels that works against any attempt to re-tell or reimagine them. A more fundamental issue is that Christ's story isn't a very good story. Your classic Aristotelian character is a mixture of good and bad - readers are thus curious enough to see the subsequent character arc. The Son of God he may be, but Jesus as a character is dramatically inert. The logical focal point should then be the apostles, but here you run into another problem.

    Let's suppose God was to turn up on my doorstep some day, take me up to Heaven in a Cadillac, show me around, then deposit me back on my doorstep with the promise that this is what awaits me if I am a good boy. I would then behave myself, but there would be no spiritual dimension to my decision to do so. I'm just playing the percentages. Behave myself for my allotted span on earth in return for an eternity of bliss? It's a no-brainer.

    But of course real religious belief is predicated on faith. When we say we take something on faith, we mean we choose to believe it despite a lack of evidence. The story of Jesus (and again, I mean just as a story, nothing more) should be the story of the disciples first and foremost, and their loyalty to a man who may or may not be the son of the God. And for the story to work, they must never know for certain either way.

    Only this is a thesis completely undermined by the resurrection. How is Christ's resurrection in any way relevant to what went on before? When Jesus talked about life after death, he was clearly talking about the afterlife, not literal physical resurrection. His return always made me think of a guy pitching an idea to some Hollywood Agent (ie, the faith-based narrative) only for the agent to shake his head, chomp on his cigar, and say he doesn't get it. 'You say this guy says we'll survive death, right? What if he does just that? Puts his money where his mouth is? That might get bums on seats!' - ie, it is has the feeling of something that has been tacked on as a crowd-pleaser.

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  2. I think in a way I heard it for the first time twice. Once was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I did not recognise as an allegory and therefore it had that effect. I was three, or possibly four. The other time was the movie Jesus de Montreal, which is a film about some people putting on a passion play, until it isn't, until it is the real story, which is so meta and so powerful that it really was on one layer like hearing the story for the first time, while on other layers it was "how is he going to do that?" The thing these experiences have in common is that I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know (spoiler!) that Aslan was going to come alive again, I didn't know what was going to happen in Jesus of Montreal once it started to come true -- were they going to crucify him? Was he going to die? Was he going to come alive again? I mean really that's the experience of knowing it, but it was knowing it without knowing it.

    I disagree with Aonghus above, and agree with Lewis. I think it's a very good story. I can't bring myself to believe in it, but it's a great story -- and really it would have to be to take the cultural part it has taken.

    Incidentally I read the bible last year as sort of research for a fantasy novel I was writing at the time. (It's called Lent. It's coming out on May 28th.) It was a very odd experience, and it kept causing me to ask how the heck anyone started with this text and came up with the concept of biblical inerrancy. Four contradictory accounts? I'd be more likely to come up with postmodernism than inerrancy.

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  3. I haven't seen 'Jesus de Montreal' Jo, but you make it sound very intriguing! I'd certainly agree with you about 'The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe'. It was the first (and possibly the only) book I read which managed to convey the mythic appeal of the resurrection, something which I subsequently found ironic, as - like I say - I think the resurrection is the weakest and least convincing part of the Gospels.

    But are there any other corollaries? The LWW lacks the Gospels' moral and philosophical dimension. That is, it ignores Christ's teachings, the meat of the story - with the consequence that Aslan is nothing like Christ, and the most compelling character is Edmund.

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  4. A more fundamental issue is that Christ's story isn't a very good story.

    Things that really happened seldom are.

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  5. Aonghus Fallon wrote:

    A more fundamental issue is that Christ's story isn't a very good story.

    You think? G. K. Chesterton would differ:

    "That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist."

    Jo Walton wrote:

    I think in a way I heard it for the first time twice. Once was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I did not recognise as an allegory and therefore it had that effect.

    That's great! It is of course precisely what Lewis intended:

    "I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could."

    And thank you, Jo, for your comments about Jesus of Montreal, which I am now going to go and watch.

    I note that I have posted a comment consisting almost entirely of lengthy quotes from Chesterton and Lewis. I should do it more often.

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  6. I guess it's unsurprising that Chesterton - with his love of paradoxes - should find the notion of a god not believing in himself particularly appealing, but do you really think it makes for a better story, Mike?

    In passing, I think it's only fair to point out that Lewis was always at pains to say that the LWW - whatever else it might be - was not an allegory. Instead he asked himself how the gospels might unfold in some world other than our own. If it were an allegory, surely Christ would be represented by the lowliest of beasts (e.g. a donkey) as opposed to some kick-ass lion?

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  7. Yes, of course I think the God who loses belief in himself makes a good story! Really, what better could there be? In a sense there are only three other stories: God who does believe in himself, man who believes in God, and man who does not. Seems to me that the Christian story is by far the most interesting of them.

    On "surely Christ would be represented by the lowliest of beasts" — I remember reading someone else, I think Polly Toynbee, writing much the same, and thinking how very comprehensively she'd missed the point. It no surprise when a humble creasure is humbled. For a donkey to be sacrificed, or even let itself by sacrificed, is merely mundane — after all, it's only a donkey: what else can it do? The point of Christianity is that the lion is the lamb; it is a lion who allows himself to be sacrificed, though could summon twelve legions of angels. The story is not a weak god who can't save himself; it's a strong God who chooses not to.

    Now, whether or not you actually believe it, you can't tell me that's not a storming story,

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  8. Well, I was really thinking of how the LWW wouldn't stand up as an allegory - given Christ's relatively humble origins, he might be better represented by some lowly member of the animal kingdom, as opposed to a lion - that said, I guess what constitutes a strong or a weak storyline is largely subjective?

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  9. … which I imagine is part of what Lewis insisted that LWW was not an allegory — at least, not one that was worked through in detail. To try to convey Aslan's dual lion/lamb nature all in one book that already has quite a lot of ideas and plot to get through would surely have weighed it down rather. (Though note that he does appear as a lamb, briefly, at the end of Dawn Treader.)

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    1. No, it is theological sci-fi. Also, a way of teasing Tolkien

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  10. A lamb in lion's clothing perhaps?

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  11. That's a neat phrase, but it doesn't really work. The point of Aslan (and I suppose of Jesus, too) is that he's not one thing masquerading as another, but really and fully two things: both lion and lamb; both man and God.

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