Long life

2 March 2013

Eight years ago I was in Rome for The Spectator to write a piece about the election of a new pope after the death of John-Paul II. Within two days,… Read more

The frontiers of freedom

28 January 2012
You Can’t Read This Book Nick Cohen

Fourth Estate, pp.224, 12.99

The problem with Nick Cohen’s very readable You Can’t Read This Book is the way that you can, glaringly, read this book. This isn’t quite as glib an observation as… Read more

Helping our unbelief

21 January 2012
Religion for Atheists Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton, pp.320, 18.99

Over 125 of the 320 pages in this book are either blank, or taken up with black-and-white illustrations, of subjects as various as Madonna and her former husband Guy Ritchie,… Read more

Friendships resurrected

3 September 2011
Lazarus is Dead Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, pp.263, 14.99

A fact which often surprises those who pick up the Bible in adulthood, having not looked at it for years, is how very short the stories are. Adam and Eve,… Read more


The gay Lambeth way

9 July 2011
As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson Rodney Bolt

Atlantic, pp.362, 22

Archbishop Edward Benson was the ideal of a Victorian churchman. Stern and unbending, he was a brilliant Cambridge scholar and a dreamily beautiful youth. Older men fell over themselves to… Read more


When wailing is appropriate

7 May 2011
The Good Book: A Secular Bible A.C. Grayling

Bloomsbury, pp.597, 25

This is a strange exercise. It is a commonplace book of quotations from great authors, assembled by the philosopher A. C. Grayling. The extracts from the great books, how- ever,… Read more


Great among the nations

9 April 2011
The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 Melvyn Bragg

Hodder, pp.370, 20

The King James Bible, while uniting the English-speaking world, gave birth to centuries of radicalism and Dissent. On its 400th anniversary, Philip Hensher examines the translation’s legacy Considered as a… Read more


Sins of the fathers

26 March 2011
The Popes: A History John Julius Norwich

Chatto, pp.506, 25

The Journey of the Popes Gerard Noel

Catholic Herald Ltd, pp.382, £15 UK, Euros 23, $24 US

The trouble about writing a history of the popes is that there are so many of them. Usually elderly when elected, most of them have only lasted a few years.… Read more

So farewell, John Bull

26 February 2011
The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change c.1920—1960 S.J.D. Green

CUP, pp.333, 60

His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Fisher, keen to counter the dreadful spectre of the atomic bomb in the 1950s, observed that the very worst it could do would… Read more


The battle for the holy city

19 February 2011
Jerusalem: The Biography Simon Sebag Montefiore

Weidenfeld, pp.638, 25

In a tour de force of 500 pages of text Simon Sebag Montefiore, historian of Stalin and Potemkin, turns to a totally different subject: the city of Jerusalem. Founded around… Read more

Can it be described?

12 February 2011
A Thousand Darknesses Ruth Franklin

OUP, pp.256, 18.99

Treblinka Chil Rajchman, translated by Solon Bienfield

Maclehose Press, pp.183, 16.99

Where was God in the Holocaust? This question confounds even learned rabbis, so let’s not linger there. Where was God in the Holocaust? This question confounds even learned rabbis, so… Read more

Sweeter than honey

25 September 2010
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language David Crystal

Oxford, pp.336, 14.99

The only thing I can remember about a Tesco advertisement on the television the other night is the line: ‘No rest for the wicked.’ It was meant ironically, of course.… Read more


Amid the encircling gloom

4 September 2010
The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief V. S. Naipaul

Picador, pp.325, 20

Africa is the setting for several of V. S. Naipaul’s finest fictional stories — In a Free State, A Bend in the River, Half a Life. Africa is the setting… Read more

Physical and spiritual decay

7 July 2010
The Misogynist Piers Paul Read

Bloomsbury, pp.257, 16.99

The most striking thing about Piers Paul Read’s early novels was their characters’ susceptibility to physical decay. The most striking thing about Piers Paul Read’s early novels was their characters’… Read more


Mystery of the empty tomb

2 June 2010
Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint John Cornwell

Continuum, pp.273, 18.99

John Henry Newman was an electrifying personality who has attracted numerous biographers and commentators. John Cornwell, in his excellent guided tour around this well-ploughed field, recalls the young woman in… Read more

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

2 June 2010
The New Testament Rabbi Sidney Brichto (translator)

Sinclair-Stevenson, pp.480, 20

Two hundred years ago Jeremy Bentham wrote a tract which purported to demonstrate that the Christian religion was in effect manufactured by St Paul and not by Jesus. This was… Read more


Not every aspect pleases

2 June 2010
The Making of the British Landscape Francis Pryor

Allen Lane, pp.848, 30

Half a century ago I read W. G. Hoskins’s book, The Making of the English Landscape, when it first came out. It was for me an eye-opener, as it was… Read more


Crying in the wilderness

12 May 2010
Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution Alastair Crooke

Pluto Press, pp.288, 17.99

For 30 years Alastair Crooke was ostensibly a British diplomat working in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Columbia and Pakistan. Ten years ago he became Middle East adviser to Javier Solana,… Read more


The woman behind the god

12 May 2010
Empress of Rome Matthew Dennison

Quercus, pp.320, 20

The emperor Augustus was the original god/father. Julius Caesar was often referred to as ‘the divine Julius’, but his nephew (and adopted son) was the first Roman to have temples… Read more


No earthly good

21 April 2010
The Rage Against God Peter Hitchens

Continuum, pp.256, 16.99

Peter Hitchens writes a stern column most weeks in the Mail on Sunday. It expresses disdain not only for today’s politicians but also for those of us who vote for… Read more


Unholy warriors

14 April 2010
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents Ian Buruma

Princeton, pp.142, 13.95

Taming the Gods is an extended essay about the secular state, something which would until recently have been regarded as a non-issue by English-speaking readers. The separation of Church and… Read more


The greatest puzzle of all

31 March 2010
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Philip Pullman

Canongate, pp.245, 14.99

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is one the best works written in English in my lifetime. Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is one the best works written in… Read more

Faith under fire

24 March 2010
Souls in Torment Giles St Aubyn

New European Publications, pp.590, 25

Giles St Aubyn, in this long, scholarly book, sets out to chronicle the shifts in the Christian churches from the scientific revolution of the 17th century, and the Enlightenment of… Read more


Addle-pated modernist

6 January 2010
How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers Sarah Bakewell

Chatto, pp.9780701178925, 16.99

In 1564 a book was published calculating that there were 7,409,127 demons at work in the world, under the administrative control of 79 demon-princes. Eight years later, Michel Eyquem de… Read more

Parsons’ displeasure

14 December 2009
The Old Rectory: The History of the English Parsonage Anthony Jennings

Continuum, pp.296, 25

Despite its prosaic title, this is a humdinging page-turner of a book, revealing in livid detail the scandal of how the Church of England jettisoned onto the market what the… Read more