Publish and be damned

9th October 1998 at 01:00
Canongate, #163;1 each. (Box of 12, #163;14.99).

Blasphemy is an odd charge to level against The Bible. Especially the Authorised Version. But what has upset a Christian bookseller in Essex is not the text itself but the introductions to certain volumes in this new series in which 12 books of The Bible (six Old Testament, six New) are reprinted in pocket-size format.

The introductions have been commissioned from distinguished writers, scientists and others, not all known for their Christian sympathies. So, for example, the Buddhist Charles Johnson (literary critic and professor of English at Washington University) finds Proverbs "chilling", while the atheist and biologist Steven Rose scrutinises Genesis with a secular eye - albeit as a one-time Orthodox Jew.

A S Byatt explores the eroticism of The Song of Solomon; Doris Lessing assesses "the most wonderful English prose ever written" in Ecclesiastes; and Bishop Richard Holloway (writing on Luke) admits "all theology is a doomed . . . attempt to express the inexpressible".

The fireworks explode elsewhere. A N Wilson believes The Gospel According to St Matthew to be "more arresting, disturbing and truthful than most reading matter . . . you could buy on a station bookstall", but he also suggests Matthew is "the great (definitive text) of anti-Semitism". Similarly, Fay Weldon finds "timeless truths" in Paul's letters to the Corinthians but damns the sound bites in which he vents his sexual hang-ups, such as: "It is good for a man not to touch a woman". Weldon fairly adds, "As a result of those 11 words for near on 2,000 years women have been seen as temptation or blamed . . . and sex a source of so much shame."

But it is Will Self on Revelations who has upset the Essex bookseller. He does, after all, describe this apocalyptic vision as "a sick text" and quotes a friend: "It's all a load of superstitious bollocks really." You can, however, see what he means when he also compares it to a "portentous horror film".

Bizarrely, it is the novelist Louis de Berni res's sane and careful remarks on The Book of Job that have caused even greater offence and may even yet result in an attempted prosecution. In Job, God allows the tragic hero to suffer terribly for 40 chapters just to prove a point. It seems a valid reading, therefore, to suggest that the God of the story is "morally tarnished", "bombastic" and "capricious". He does, after all, allow a number of children and servants to be killed as part of a mere debate.

What the critics of these booklets have failed to realise is that they are not primarily for the faithful; they attempt to market (yes, market) and explain The Bible in a post-Christian age. You do not need the baggage of years of church-going to understand the introductions; they open up the texts succinctly, and the books themselves (with their discreet black, photographic covers) are both handsome and delectable. Luckily, Canongate is an Edinburgh firm and the law of blasphemy has been removed from the Scottish statute book.

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