A.N. Wilson has had a tempestuous journey on the sea of faith. His first port of call was St Stephen’s House, in Oxford, the Anglo-Catholic seminary where he trained for ordination in the Church of England. He jumped ship at the end of his first year and travelled to the wilder shores of atheism, writing the polemical pamphlet Against Religion: Why We Should Try To Live Without It.
Unable to follow his own advice, he created a niche for himself as the biographer of influential Christians such as John Milton, Hilaire Belloc, Nikolai Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis and John Betjeman, while also penning studies of the life of Jesus and the mind of St Paul.
After all Wilson’s literary and spiritual journeys, his fans, of which I am one, cannot quite work out whether our hero is faithfully committed, divinely discontented or celestially confused in his relationship with God.
He calls himself a ‘wishy-washy Christian’. But as he writes in such vivid primary colours which no doubts or agnostic detergents can remove, this is a misnomer. Surely his latest book, a guide to the Bible, must reveal whether or not Wilson has at last been cornered by the Hound of Heaven?
The Book of the People is much richer fare than a conventional guide or commentary. It is more a surprise menu of idiosyncratic dishes created by a master chef. The meal titillates the palate and passes the Churchillian pudding test by having a strong theme. But will it feed the spiritually hungry?
Wilson is an author with a mission. He loves the Bible, and has immersed himself in Old Testament scholarship. He makes a serious attempt to persuade the general populace to follow Augustine of Hippo’s exhortation, Tolle, Lege — take up and read. And his enthusiasm is infectious. He knocks over the easy targets of the fundamentalists and the literalists who claim that every word of the good book is true. Instead, he seizes the high ground of the Bible as an inspirational force in human lives, as exemplified by Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, George Herbert and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Wilson makes his case with such pellucid writing that he deserves applause for his argument even in the most doubt-strewn biblical terrain. Few Christian apologists could surpass his encomium of the beautiful but baffling Book of Job. As the writer of a modest commentary on the Psalms myself, I envied his chapter on the metaphorical riches of their poetry.
Yet for all the delicious morsels that Wilson serves up, there are disappointments. One rule that should have been heeded is that too many cooks spoil the broth. For this book is, in a muddled way, co-authored by a mythical interlocutor called ‘L’. She constantly interrupts Wilson’s flow with letters, questions, suggestions and quirky opinions. This literary device of having L as an appearing and disappearing Cheshire cat occasionally works but more frequently grates. ‘Why the L doesn’t he shut her up?’ I kept wanting to shout. This would have been a more satisfying book if Wilson had had the courage to take the wings of the morning and fly solo.
From such a disciplined author, too much of this book feels wayward. Under L’s influence a grasshopper seems to have infiltrated Wilson’s thinking as he leaps hither and thither across a huge range of topics, people, locations, contradictory theories, and differing points of view. Perhaps this is his way of demonstrating that there is something in the Bible for everyone, as he strives valiantly to persuade people of all faiths and none to share his passion.
It is a noble endeavour. But vox populi and vox Dei are not the same. Reading the Bible is an individual calling, not a populist cause. Wilson fights the good fight with learning and eloquence but he is too unsure of his own voice when it comes to answering Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’ Perhaps the last word should go to Job, who towards the end of his ordeals observes: ‘We only understand the outskirts of God’s ways.’
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Jonathan Aitken is a former Conservative MP; his books include Prayers for People Under Pressure.