Chapter and verse

8th March 1996 at 00:00
The Good Book. By Alan Durant. Bodley Head Pounds 8.99. A Time to be Born. By Sue Mayfield. Scholastic Pounds 6.99. Unbeliever. By Robert Swindells. Hamish Hamilton Pounds 10.99.

Once we sat through religious education lessons surfing the Old Testament for the dirty bits. In those days it was likely to be the unadulterated King James Authorised Version, so we missed a certain amount. Judging by his quotations, Ross in The Good Book also reads the Authorised Version, which he studies for the violence. He too is interested only in the Old Testament, remarking of the New: "It's like with all sequels - the second one's never half as good as the first."

Ross runs a gang of football hooligans named The Judges after his favourite book, in which he encounters with lascivious pleasure the slaying of Eglon the Moabite and the strange affair of the Levite's concubine, and from which he draws his battle tactics, modelled on those of Joshua and Gideon, after a fashion.

Then his manor is invaded by pacifists, The Peace Mission. They have little to offer alienated Ross, but one of them is a pretty teenager, Morgan. Ross unwillingly goes back for another look. One cannot help thinking that Ross would learn more military history from, say, the works of George MacDonald Fraser, but by the end of the book he has embarked upon the New Testament. Apocalypse Next?

Tony Sharpe, the narrator of A Time to be Born, is already nominally a Christian, being the son of the recently-widowed vicar of a Northern seaside resort. Religion has been small comfort to Tony since the death of his mother, but then the Beach Club arrives. These youthful proselytisers from down South put on clown costumes and perform on the sands, wooing the unconverted with cries of: "Do you ever feel as if life's like juggling?" Among the back-up team is a pretty teenager, Jodie . . .

The mother in Robert Swindells' Unbeliever is not dead but dying, of cancer. Her daughters Annabel and Sarah are learning to cope but their father cannot bring himself to an honourable and practical despair. He joins a fundamentalist sect, seeing himself as a bargaining counter with God. Since he has "let Jesus into his life" his wife will be permitted to live; naturally he evades engaging with that paradox that so puzzles atheists, namely, if death is the gateway to everlasting bliss for the believer, why are believers so anxious to delay it?

We are accustomed to heart-wrenching accounts of parents attempting to rescue their brainwashed offspring from the clutches of arcane sects. Swindells neatly turns the cliche on its head; it is the parent who has gone astray, hell-bent on dragging his children along the same path. Annabel's is the agonised embarrassment of being withdrawn from RE lessons, forbidden make-up and boyfriends at 15, hauled away from watching a pop group open a music store. The discovery that Pastor Caster's Faith Camp is a front for child molesters hardly seems necessary (his humourless God-bothering is quite gruesome enough) but the device deals the essential shock that opens the eyes of Annabel's father and silences his parroting of half-baked Creationist dicta.

The characters in all three novels take exactly what suits them from the Bible, a book that was debated by the Rabbis for centuries, syllable by syllable, on the grounds that if it were truly the word of God not a single letter could be disregarded. Only in Swindells' account, though, are we asked to face the deleterious results of constructing a religion out of selected scraps from someone else's. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

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