Matthew Parris

The Bible is too important to be left to believers

But beneath the sneering, it might have something important – if also wrong – to say

The Bible is too important to be left to believers
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May I write a review of a review? I have to get this out of my system, having been unable to sleep last night, for anger at Christopher Howse’s beastly, scoffing and unjust treatment of a new book: Simon Loveday’s The Bible for Grown-Ups, reviewed in our 30 July issue. Somebody needs to call a halt to the tedious practice of using review to show off at somebody else’s expense.

It happens that I feel a special protectiveness towards this book, having seen the manuscript last year and encouraged its author to seek a publisher. Icon books have now published him, and done his study proud.

The book deserves it. Let me tell you first (as Mr Howse, who writes about religion for a national newspaper, finds no time to tell his readers) what Mr Loveday sets out to do. Many valuable studies of the Bible place the Christian (and, more generally, faith-based) message of the great book at the centre of the examination. Others are intent upon proving or disproving, or even mocking, its claims.

Loveday’s study is different. Written neither from the viewpoint of belief or unbelief, he aims to explain what nobody ever tried to explain to me in my own religious education: how this vast collection of stories, poetry, historical records, reports, genealogical tables, inventories, testaments and legends ever got stapled together — as it were — into the thing we call the Bible.

Who wrote the various bits, and why? What other aims might they have had, beyond the composition of a sacrament to their God? How did this all end up between two covers? How were its contents chosen?

How much is meant to be a factual report, and how much allegorical? How much is included just because it is beautiful, uplifting, solemn? Which of its famous stories occur in other cultures, religions, or literatures?

And though Loveday insists he wants to set aside belief or unbelief, there is a kind of message at the core of the decade-long adventure that this work has represented for him. His book (and, he believes, the Bible) is a hymn to an irrepressible longing in the human spirit for higher meaning than the humdrum. Indeed, the great 18th-century bishop Joseph Butler argued that this longing was tantamount to a proof of the existence of the deity who placed the ache in every human breast.

Howse snipes at Loveday by reminding us that long tracts of the Old and New Testaments are workaday and uninspiring, which I think we knew. Unaccountably he then launches into sustained and unpleasant disparagement of the kind of people who want Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ at their weddings, or feel moved by the Victorian poem ‘Invictus’ by W.E. Henley. Howse appears to have been irritated by Loveday’s suggestion that — be it through the psalms or Gloria Gaynor — people want to be inspired and uplifted at significant moments in their lives.

God knows how one comes to be defending Gaynor or Henley here, except that Howse suddenly attacks them; but I’ll do it. ‘I Will Survive’ is an anthem to women’s spirit of self-worth in the face of men who bully and put them down, and it resonates for millions, and should. ‘Invictus’ — a brave and original poem for its time — is a shout of defiance at God himself, arguing that we have the last word as to our destiny. It is charged with meaning, particularly for those who contemplate taking their own lives. Howse belittles the people who find such anthems moving: presumably because they are easy to understand and therefore (he insinuates with a sneer at Desert Island Discs) vulgar. He seems to have some difficulty with the common man, tittering that ‘The Good Book’ is a ‘folksy’ expression, of Wesleyan origin. Millions of folk, I suggest, meant the expression quite literally. They will not have been aware they were being folksy.

But underneath his sniggering at common people, and his dismissal of Loveday’s (to me, fascinating) discussion of the sources of the different Gospel accounts (on the grounds that he is already familiar and bored with it all), this Casaubon of a reviewer does have something big to say, half-glimpsed skulking beneath his jerky peregrination of a review.

I think Howse thinks the Bible cannot usefully be assessed or understood unless in a quest for religious truth. I take it this is what he’s saying in his conclusion that ‘Loveday’s big mistake is to think that “it is possible to set aside theology and history” and be left with anything in the Bible, except by accident, that is more “grown-up”.’

Now this is interesting. The implication is that the Bible shorn of witness and revelation is a windsock with no wind. Bible study is a pilgrimage or it is nothing. ‘Stand-back’ analysis like Loveday’s is not a welcome guest at the faith community’s feast.

If that’s what Howse thinks he should come out with it. It walks straight into David Hume’s trap. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher argued (‘On Miracles’) that it takes a miracle to believe in miracles. In other words, unless you have faith, then, presented with a range of possible explanations for an apparently unnatural event, it cannot be rational to prefer ‘divine intervention’ to the more mundane explanations, such as mistake, invention or hallucination. Miracles are Catch-22: your world has to have a place for miracles before you can rationally conclude that one has happened.

Howse (I think) thinks Bible study is like that: dead without the Living God and the Living Christ. If that’s right then there’s no point exploring belief unless we already believe.

Loveday disagrees, finding the Bible moving, instructive and beautiful even when its central figure is pixellated out. Though I am an atheist, this book has sent me back to the Bible. Make up your own mind, but take it from me: Loveday writes with a clarity that is little short of gripping. He will engage you in a way a sneering reviewer can only envy.