I was attracted for literary reasons. For the beauty of the language of the King James’ version of the Bible – a beauty defined by familiarity yes, but by resonances and rhythms in particular. And as the source of so many sayings and proverbs that echo through our defining literature to land, like cuckoos, in our daily phrasing. And also, as I once told my sister who wanted to protect her children from exposure to Bible stories at school and nursery, “these are our culture’s legends, its creation myths. Denying them to our children is like denying any aboriginal people its cultural understanding.”
But 18 hours of the Bible in four days, read by 46 different actors at the National Theatre earlier this month – could I take it? Would I play truant after the first session or two? Well, I made it to the end, and I’m glad I stuck it out. I found the echoes I expected – and much more besides.
During the course of it I nodded off, I grew angry, I fidgeted, I was filled with optimism, I laughed, I blasphemed, I recognised visions, I sang (silently) snatches of pop songs and hymns, I day dreamed. And I was surprised … at what I did know of the roots of this country’s culture, and at what I didn’t.
First off, anger. Burning anger. I had settled down expecting a soothing recitation of Genesis (so familiar) but was quickly appalled by the petulance of God. It seemed to me he reacted like a 3 year old, spoiling things and setting people against each other on no more than a whim. “It’s all his fault!” Cain and Abel, the Serpent, the Tower of Babel – all needless, wrecking interventions on the part of God, causing the path of humankind to be as rocky as it still is. That I reacted so strongly, so personally made me realise how central the figure of God is to how I was brought up understanding the culture surrounding me.
Moses too had to negotiate a careful dance between God’s arbitrariness and his own wayward followers. Centuries later, by the era of David and Solomon, God had butted out a bit. Man seemed quite capable of making a mess of things for himself. The arguing, the jealousy, rape, incest, war. I was saddened and frustrated. Even these figures that had been held up since childhood as heroes turned out to have to the bad. What price the Wisdom of Solomon compared with the extent of his lust?
These readings from the Old Testament traced an arc that could be mapped onto human evolution from primitive societies to modern sophistication. Or the arc of a single human life. First, in infancy, setting oneself face to face with the source of power in which one believes implicitly and obeys – with occasional rebellions. In childhood and early teens – early civilisation – the parent/God is more distant. Conversation is less direct, and carried on through dreams and visions. The omnipresent parent whose rules we follow while pretending to stand independent of them. In the flowering of young adulthood – in the courtly age of the medieval – there are psalms and the love songs of Solomon (how did they get in?). An upwelling of joy at living in the moment, an appreciation of the natural world around, and of love and sex. Art for art’s sake. But then Job and Ecclesiastes, the later years of enlightenment or disillusion. God is far away. One questions the basis of laws and seek to reason oneself into or out of them by intellect alone.
So much for the Old Testament. With the New, too, there were surprises. Where the Gospels differ and where they’re the same. John doesn’t mention the bread and the wine but does mention a lot else which the others don’t. And a lot of long speeches that couldn’t possibly have been remembered. Two dispense with the nativity and only one mentions a virgin birth.
As I listened to Mark’s Gospel, and Matthew’s – a lively, human presentation of actions, travels and advice on how a life should be lived – I thought, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” The Occupy London’s challenge to the St Paul’s Cathedral authorities of “What would Jesus do?” echoed clear in the audience and was answered with complete relevance in the readings. Strip the Gospels of mysticism and miracles and they are still the perfect recipe for a society to live in harmony. Ghandi would have signed up. Tellingly, the further the New Testament goes from the time of Jesus, the more mystical and dogmatic the messages grow. The Revelations didn’t sound much like his thing at all.
Through the whole 18 hours I greeted the combinations of words – as much as the stories – with shivering recognition. No wonder we still consider the Bible as the bedrock of British culture and laws, when from Shakespeare to JK Rowling we never escape the phrases and the lessons they contain. Laws and values come from our culture, and our culture is rooted there.