Even God's only human

9th January 1998 at 00:00
GOD'S STORY. By Jan Mark. Illustrated by David Parkins. Walker Pounds 10.99

ECHOES OF THE ELDERS: the stories and paintings of Chief Lelooska. Edited by Christine Normandin. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 16.99

Janni Howker reads the retellings of stories from two spiritual heritages

Many Britons will be aware of a deep spiritual unease and a sense of cultural loss as they recover from the most commercialised and secular celebration in the Christian year.

A deep embarrassment pervades most discussion of our Christian heritage. This may be due to a desire to hold an ironic, liberal, rational, materialistic outlook and to embrace a multicultural society. We may have decided to abandon the authoritarian dictates of our grandparents' churches - institutions both dynamic and instrumental in the creation of the welfare state and a literate society, yet capable of justi-fying ruthless exploitation.

Our legacy is sceptical graffiti - "'God is dead' (Nietzche); 'Nietzche is dead' (God)" - and a generation of children who have little or no knowledge of the stories of their heritage, in particular those of the Old Testament. This is a significant loss which hampers their ability to grasp symbolic meaning in writers as disparate as Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath.

It is, therefore, moving and humbling to be presented with these two beautifully made books. Jan Mark's retelling of the major stories shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims is a small masterpiece.

Here are the tales of Noah, Moses, Jacob, Abraham, revisited among David Parkins's powerful, tense illustrations. Jan Mark has pulled off a truly remarkable feat. It is hard to say whether the Synod will give her honorary ordination or have her burned at the stake. Against all odds, she has injected humour into some of the most violent and terrifying recountings of God's relationship with His creation. God, here, is touchingly humanised by the very human failings which He, the Creator, must also learn to mend - a figure more recognisable to readers of Ted Hughes's poem "What is the Truth?" than to readers of the King James Bible.

The 13th-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, "The eyes with which I see God are the eyes with which God sees me." Thank God for the eyes of Jan Mark and David Parkins, who have shared their vision of the stories that have shaped our culture.

To enjoy Jan Mark to the full, it does help to be well versed in the stories prior to reading; I hooted at her reference to Jonah. This is far more than a palatable reworking of the Old Testament - it is a fine attempt to bring back to light a conscious wrestling between myth and faith which both the words of the great Rabbi Hillel, "Do nothing to other people that you would not want them to do to you", and the words of Christ, "Love thy neighbour as thyself", tried to referee.

But it was the spirit of Yahweh, not Christ, that our culture took to the Americas - partial, thunderous, righteous, genocidal. Dying of cancer, Chief Le- looska of the Native American Kwakiutl people obeyed his eld-ers, who said: "Don't take these stories to the grave with you."

It is with the greatest joy, relief and darkest guilt that one turns the pages of Echoes of the Elders while listening to the CD which accompanies it. As the dead man speaks, we enter a spiritual world which is just, grim, funny, harmonious and more ecologically aware than any described in our mythology. These are teaching stories of great beauty and common sense. My eight-year-old son said he thought that Kwakiutl spirits and gods understood people better and played better tricks on each other.

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