The Telegraph published a good article by Allan Massie, “We can’t cast away our Bible”, on August 12. He is always worth reading: cultured, conservative in outlook, and humorous. As a Scottish writer, he naturally also likes Sir Walter Scott – he was a past president of the Walter Scott Society – which puts him up a few notches in my estimation. My father, who grew up in Glasgow before WW1, once told me that his reading as a boy had been “Dickens, Scott and Thackeray”. I expect he also read GA Henty, a popular boys’ writer of the time, on the quiet; but wanting to impress him I went off and read a lot of Scott. Today his novels are as dead as dodos unfortunately, which goes to show that the greatest reputations don’t last forever.
Except for Shakespeare. This is why he is always included as a matter of course on the imaginary shipwreck of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – alongside the Bible. It is this latter work that is the subject of Massie’s article. It seems that the National Secular Society, “a body not noted for its sense of humour” according to Massie (which makes one wonder if a rather stolid solemnity and a public proclamation of secularity go together) has called for the Bible to be dropped from the programme on the grounds that most people no longer believe what it says.
Massie hints that the subject might have been discussed within the BBC although this august body has stated there are no plans to ditch the Bible. A little voice inside my head says “I bet they would if they could get away with it”, but I immediately dismiss this cynical thought and return to Massie’s article. He rightly contends that the Bible is central to our culture. It is not just a matter of a collection of compelling stories and characters; it is because the Bible is, alongside Shakespeare, at the very heart of the English language and has thus shaped the way people have thought for several hundred years.
Massie is referring in this context to the King James authorized translation, commenting, “One reason to be thankful for having been born into an English-speaking culture is that the English Bible is a great resplendent work of literature, made when our language was at its most fecund and vigorous.” He makes the point that our inherited culture, expressed through our finest literature, is deeply Christian: “our ideas of what is right and what is wrong remain essentially Christian and have been inculcated by the reading of the Bible over generations.” Even if “we may have come to disregard many of its prohibitions…whatever is admirable and generous in our morality derives from it, and especially from what Jesus taught…”
One should add here that for Christians, including the greatest (and secret Catholic) poetic dramatist of them all, the Bible is not simply one of the finest achievements of our culture; it is also the word of God – although Catholics of the Jacobean era would have been acquainted with a Catholic translation as well as the King James. The weakness of Massie’s case is that he appears to be writing as a champion of traditional culture rather than as a Christian believer. In response to his article Bishop Nazir-Ali wrote a Letter to the Telegraph on 14 August, stating “Yes, the Bible has formed our notions of right and wrong. But these will not survive if we abandon the vision of the Bible concerning ourselves, the world and God.”
No indeed; the National Secular Society take note.