The Good Book can’t be bettered
Remember this song from Sunday School? “The best book to read is the Bible/ The best book to read is the Bible/ If you read it every day/It will help you on your way/ The best book to read is the Bible.”
Not any more it isn’t, at least if philosopher A C Grayling and his fellow humanists, secularists and atheists have their way. This week sees the publication of The Good Book: A Secular Bible by
Well, it isn’t by anyone. Rather, as the book jacket informs us in a typographical style imitative of the Christian template it seeks to displace, it is “made by” A C Grayling, in a process of redaction, editing and re writing “in just the same way as the Judaeo Christian Bible was made”.
“If the Creator of the Universe wanted to guide us morally with a book, why give us a book that supports slavery along with the occasional genocide and human sacrifice? Why instruct us to kill people for imaginary crimes, like witchcraft? Granted, there are some beautiful precepts in the Bible, like the Golden Rule. But none are unique to the Bible.”
Last week, meanwhile, a Vatican Jewish dialogue commission warned of a “moral crisis” in modern secular society, and we saw the paperback edition of Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In it, the theologian and former nun says “our religious leaders behave like secular politicians” and bemoans a “flagrant abuse of religion in recent years”.
That’s just one week in the life of our nation. Is it a snapshot of a secularist age in which organised religion has no cultural foothold, or just a bad week for a faith that is used to being bullied by atheistic firefighters such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins? Who is right? The Blackburn with Darwen vicar Rev Kevin Logan, when he commented: “I am certainly not worried about Christianity. It can stand against any belief and come out in a good light”? Or Grayling, who cites diminishing church attendance and a recent YouGov poll in which two thirds of the population said “no” when asked if they were religious?
If the humanists are in the ascendant, then Grayling’s self help book for the spiritually rudderless will be snapped up. It is an easy read distillation of aphorisms, parables and words to live by, concocted from non religious thinking from classical antiquity in both East and adidas superstar West through to the 19th century with, I note from the sources cited, Grayling the sole 21st century representative.
And what company he keeps. If one of our most virulent public opponents of organised religion and, it was announced yesterday, the next president of the British Humanist Association could be accused of a sin, pride might spring to mind.
“If I hadn’t acknowledged that I had edited the sources and counted myself among them,” counters Grayling, “it would have been disingenuous. It is not out of a vaunting sense of being up there with them. I am a humble member of the team.”
The tome is divided into 14 books: Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Concord, Lamentations, Consolations, Songs, Sages, Histories, Proverbs, The Lawgiver, Acts, Epistles and The Good. The last contains Grayling’s humanist version of the Ten Commandments: “Love well; seek the good in all things; harm no others; help the needy; think for yourself; take responsibility; respect nature; do your utmost; be informed; be courageous.”
The format, equally cheekily, is the same as the King James Bible, whose 400th anniversary is being celebrated this year: a template of chapters and verses, set across two columns. “It is not intended as an affront,” says Grayling. “It is practical recognition that the Bible is very successful because of the way it is structured. It is very inviting to readers. It allows you to read small amounts, to reflect, or find something that is quotable. I didn’t want page after page of dense text, which is rebarbative.”
Traditionalists may find the content itself rebarbative as it subverts the Old and New Testaments, kicking off with Grayling’s version of Genesis, a natural scientist’s riff on the importance of knowledge and what it means to be human. In another act of mimicry, the language of The Good Book is self consciously formal.
“The great beauty of language in the King James Version was deliberate,” says Grayling. “It used more than 90 per cent of Tyndale’s Bible and its makers were very conscious of the fact that the language they were using was already archaic.
“The language of my book also has that formal feel because I am saying things that have a slightly heightened importance in our lives. It enables you to ask what is being said, and then to ask: which of the two books do you find speaks more warmly, humanely and generously about the human condition?”
I am not sure how generous it is to pit the two books against each other. To some, it may feel like an act of blatant hostility. But the 62 year old Birkbeck philosophy professor and broadcaster is not afraid of being caught in the crossfire. “People will be offended, without even having read it. They will see it as a terrible act of arrogance. It absolutely isn’t at all. Without being all Uriah Heep about it, it is modestly offered as a contribution to the conversation of mankind.”
It surely couldn’t be the voice of Grayling himself writing in the first person in Lamentations, then? Chapter 1 begins: “When I was without comfort, and sorrowing; when the grief of life was present to me, and afflictions common to man were upon me, then I lamentede_SLps”
“Yes, I did write the first chapters out of my own personal experience,” says Grayling. “I did it because some years ago I realised almost all of us, if we got beyond childhood, had experiences of great grief and loss and desperate things.
“My own family had a terrible tragedy. When I was young my older sister was murdered. It was a really awful situation. Her husband was arrested. She had been thrown in the river. My parents had to identify her body. My mother, who was terribly ill at the time, had a heart attack and died. It was terrible for my father and difficult for all of us to come to terms with. For quite a long time afterwards I never spoke of it.
“Many people have happy lives, but I found that once you got to know them you would find that they too had suffered. It is important to let other people know we do understand. People say all these formulaic things when you tell them of your suffering, but if you share your own, then they know you mean it.”
Yet I sense Grayling the whole way through. Take Epistles. You can positively hear his rarefied tones in those of the father who writes to his son, opining on politicians or the yobbishness of today’s youth. “Many young people are so light,” we are told, “so dissipated and so incurious, that they can hardly be said to see what they see or hear what they hear.”
Not me at all, says Grayling. “You are witnessing someone giving advice to his son, giving good common sense and being paternal about what youngsters get up to.” It is based on Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son “a monument of enlightenment,” according to Grayling. “You may agree or disagree with Epistles; that is the right approach.”
“The humanistic view of ethics,” he continues, “is that no one is in a position to tell others how to live. You can give advice, and exhort them to think about their moral lives, but not in a goody two shoes, Mary Whitehouse way.”
The Bible, by contrast, is bossy, Grayling says, with control meted out through rewards, punishments, Old Testament atrocities and barbarism. He is not the first to find it distasteful, of course.
But Grayling’s audacious alternative is not to her taste either. “I do not think the inner life edited by AC Grayling is how I want to live,” says Winterson, who reflects on the values of the Bible in her forthcoming memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? “What secularists forget about Christianity is that belief in that system prompted the creation of an astounding body of imaginative work that in turn uplifts and alters the human spirit.
“I do not believe in a sky god but the religious impulse in us is more than primitive superstition. We are meaning seeking creatures and materialism plus good works and good behaviour does not seem to be enough to provide meaning. We shall have to go on asking questions but I would rather that philosophers like Grayling asked them without the formula of answers.