BAD YEAR, GOOD BOOK
Updated: Jan 19
There are few upsides to being in hospital for three months, then spending the rest of the year in various forms of lock-down. One of them is catching up on reading.
We all have books we ‘should’ read (or should have read), usually very long ones that demand more time than we’ve been able to give. War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, Les Miserables, Don Quixote, Infinite Jest…
If we’re lucky – perhaps unlucky? - someone will condense these into films or TV series. Then at least we have some idea of what the fuss was about – even if we don’t have the pleasure of doing the work ourselves. Even then, our time might be better spent doing something else. Lord of the Rings for nine hours, and another eight for The Hobbit?
(Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, Amazon has announced a billion-dollar budget for five series of LotR prequels. Five! Tolkien-generated income must have its own line on New Zealand’s GDP.)
The book that I’ve missed, again and again, has been The Bible. Like many I have started it a few times but run out of enthusiasm – or time – around the middle of Leviticus. Apparently, that’s a frequent ecclesiastical road bump. (I’ll explain that later).
When 2020 lock-down and lock-in struck, it was the perfect time to try again. After all, the Good Book has been a foundation stone to my upbringing. From attending Sunday School aged 6, through a Religious Education ‘O-level’ aged 16 – just for the record, I got an A - to visiting both Liverpool cathedrals forty years later, the Bible has been a source of much I have seen, heard, watched, and read.
(I must come clean at this stage: I am not a believer. At most, I am a spiritual Agnostic. But I have managed to avoid consciously considering the source material while being educated and growing up in a Bible-informed society, breathing in a biblically-informed culture.)
So before looking at the Book in detail, consider the following:
When my parents rented our first colour TV, we spent hours watching 1950s sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings, Ben-Hur, The Robe, and Quo Vadis.
The ‘50s didn’t have a monopoly on biblical films, live action or animation. More recently see The Day Christ Died, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of Christ, The Prince of Egypt, Joseph, Barabbas, Noah, Mary Mother of Jesus, and Exodus - Gods and Kings.
(Side note: In the last two, the same actor plays Jesus then Moses – the appropriately-named Christian Bale. Unfortunately, the star nor the source material doesn’t guarantee an Oscar.)
If the Revelation end-of-days apocalypse more suits your taste, look at The Omen, The Seventh Sign, End of Days, The Omega Code, Good Omens and Apocalypse I, II, III, IV. Who’d have thought the world could end almost as often as Rocky returns?
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are centred on biblical iconography and ideas, so is Se7en. Less blockbustery, Leviathan and A Serious Man are adaptations of the Book of Job, while comedy Evan Almighty is Noah updated.
And it would be churlish to omit The Life of Brian, and the blessed cheese makers. (Perhaps that should be curdish?)
The Bible is a rich source of perfectly crafted stories.
Cinema doesn’t have a monopoly on Bible inspiration. In classical music, Haydn composed The Creation oratorio, Bach wrote St. Matthew’s Passion, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony is called Resurrection, and perhaps the best known is Handel’s Messiah.
Popular songs either quote directly or refer to a biblical story or character: Psalm 23 in His Hand in Mine (Elvis Presley et al), Psalm 40 in 40 (U2), Psalm 137 in Rivers of Babylon (Boney M), Exodus 9 for Let My People Go (Louis Armstrong), Let My People Go Go (The Rainmakers), Ecclesiastes 3 almost verbatim as Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season) (Pete Seeger, The Byrds), and Galatians 6 is the source of “reap what you sow” in Rolling in the Deep (Adele) and at the end of Perfect Day (Lou Reed).
You must know of “David’s sacred chord” at the start of Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen). It has recently been covered (murdered) hundreds of times, becoming a standard in ‘America / Britain / Everywhere Else’s Got Talent’. Even if a wannabe-of-the-week knows who musical David is (Bowie? Gray? Guetta?), it’s possible they don’t know they’re also singing about Bathsheba, Delilah and Mary.
Jonah and the Whale, Noah and the Ark are all named in Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive (Bing Crosby), God and Abraham are in the first verse of Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan). Song titles include Bathsheba Smiles (Richard Thompson), Adam Raises a Cain (Bruce Springsteen), Jezebel (Frankie Lane), Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho (Mahalla Jackson), Israelites (Desmond Dekker), Babel (Mumford & Sons), Eighth Day (Hazel O’Connor), and The Man Who Comes Around (Johnny Cash) on a white horse, one of the four beasts of the Revelation.
This is just a top-of-mind start. If you want more, begin with the songbooks of Joseph and his Amazing Technical Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell.
I began these listings with performing arts. Perhaps I should have started with longer-standing painting and sculpture. There are multiple versions of The Creation of Adam, The Fall, The Tower of Babel, The Annunciation, The Birth of Christ, The Adoration of the Magi, The Lamb of God, The Last Supper, The Last Judgement.
Here is a very partial list from the Renaissance:
Titian’s Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath;
Rubens’ Christ with the Crown of Thorns, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, David Slaying Goliath, Massacres of the Innocents, Raising of the Cross, The Judgement of Solomon, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew;
Rembrandt’s Bathing Bathseba, Belshazzar’s Feast, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, The Adoration of the Shepherds, Raising of Lazarus, The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Stoning of St Stephen.
And if you’re unsure about any of these, here are three images that are virtually universal: Creation of Adam on the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist now in London’s National Gallery, and Michaelangelo’s David.
Or, as they are better known, the start of ‘The South Bank Show’, the Da Vinci cartoon, and the Monty Python Fig Leaf. (Yes, it’s them again).
If you can’t sing, play, sculpt or paint a figure in the Bible, then write. Either a retelling, a representation, or a parallel of Biblical characters or events.
Perhaps most direct is Paradise Lost (Milton) and Inferno (Dante). Most-widely read now is Harry Potter (SPOILER: You don’t think his climactic death and resurrection isn’t based on an earlier story, do you?). Ditto, Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
How about Superman? Sent to earth by his father, adopted by a humble family, discovering his special powers, then using his abilities for the good of the people.
An equally striking link between the Good Book and our literate culture are the phrases used as book titles: East of Eden (Steinbeck), The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), Song of Solomon (Morrison), The Children of Men (James), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Remarque), Lamb to the Slaughter (Dahl), Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Agee), Pale Horse Pale Rider (Porter), A Time to Keep Silence (Leigh Fermor), The Golden Bowl (Lessing), The Way of All Flesh (Butler) Through a Glass Darkly (multiple), In My Father’s House (multiple).
Even out-and-out atheist Stephen Fry called his first volume of memoirs Moab is My Washpot.
But the greatest impact that the Bible still has in Western culture – especially English – is the spoken word. A few on the list below were part of my initial reason to read the source material at all. Many, many more generated the ‘Oh, that’s where it comes from!’ response:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush / a cross to bear / a graven image / a labour of love / a leopard cannot change its spots / a millstone around one’s neck / a multitude of sins / a nest of vipers / a peace offering / a sign of the times / a two-edged sword / a voice crying in the wilderness / as old as Methuselah / as old as the hills / ashes to ashes, dust to dust / an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth / bite the dust / born again / by the skin of your teeth / cast the first stone / charity begins at home / eat, drink and be merry / fight the good fight / fire and brimstone / flesh and blood / from strength to strength / get thee behind me Satan / give up the ghost / he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword / holier than thou / in the twinkling of an eye / land of Nod / law unto themselves / love of money is the root of all evil / manna from heaven / many are called but few are chosen / no rest for the wicked / oh ye of little faith / patience of Job / physician heal thyself / pride comes before a fall / put your house in order / out of the mouths of babes and sucklings / scapegoat / seek and you shall find / sour grapes / spare the rod and spoil the child / strait and narrow / tender mercies / the blind leading the blind / the ends of the earth / the fly in the ointment / the letter of the law / the salt of the earth / the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak / the writing is on the wall / wash your hands of the matter / wolf in sheep’s clothing.
When I was a child my Mother frequently said that something (or someone) was ‘as old as the hills’. I never asked why the hills? That she found a particular politician ‘holier than thou’. And when I was especially naughty, that I was testing ‘the patience of Job’.
I assumed she was talking about one of her friends.
That’s enough for this posting. I hope it reminds you (reveals for you?) just how widely The Bible has impacted us – and still does.
Next time, I’ll tell you how last year I learned that saying ‘I’m reading THE Bible’ is misleading to the point of being an almost-meaningless statement.
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