The Good Book: A Secular Bible

August 4, 2011

When I heard about this book, I assumed it was a joke. A.C. Grayling's satirical new "college" shows he's capable of it. But this book is much stranger and more interesting than that. It's deathly serious: and it's not comedy, it's tragedy.

Above all, though, it's pastiche. Grayling's "bible" consists of 14 books: "Genesis", "Lamentations", "Proverbs", "Epistles" and so forth - with one glaring, deliberate omission. Instead of "Gospels", we have the "The Lawgiver", which has almost the opposite meaning. Grayling is not selling good news but old wisdom, to remind us of what we have forgotten.

The pastiche is pervasive. Each book is divided into chapters and verses. There is a double-column layout and a ribbon bookmark. The language is archaic. The "Epistle to the Reader" at the book's start begins: "It might be thought vain to offer a work such as this to humankind in the hope that it will be useful...but in truth it would be a greater vanity to offer a work for any other reason." Who in the world writes or speaks like that?

In fact, the writing throughout has the distinctively blunt, abrupt yet formal style of an English translation from Greek. And that is no coincidence, since the book is soaked in classicism. "Histories" - by far the longest section, nearly a third of the whole book - is an account of the Persian Wars, redacted from Herodotus and Plutarch. The next longest book, "Acts", is on the life and works of Lycurgus, Solon, Pericles, Cato and Cicero. Throughout the text, the names leap out at you: Scipio, Epicurus, Xenophon, Socrates.

The book claims to have been "made" by Grayling, not written or edited, and that queasily semi-detached, faux third-person feeling persists. All we have on sources is a page at the back claiming that more than 1,000 were used, and listing 120 of them. "Grayling" is there, between "Goethe" and "Greek anthology". The rest is a who's who of great writers, albeit with some odd omissions. No Shakespeare? Seriously, no Dr Johnson? (Perhaps that explains the lack of any humour.)

The accompanying press release explains a little more. That weird "Epistle to the Reader" is, says Grayling, "a joint production of me, Aristotle, and John Locke". The "Book of Songs" is "the result of heavy rewriting by me of poems from a wide variety of sources". "I don't think there is a line in the whole thing that hasn't been modified or touched by me." That is not, I think, meant to sound Orwellian.

It would be easy to laugh at this book's monumental hubris, or to pity its white-elephant futility: it claims to be a "bible" but is in fact a curiosity that will go largely unread (frankly, if you want Herodotus, go and read Herodotus) and will soon sputter out of print. But it is also, manifestly, a colossal labour of love, and that alone deserves some respect.

The press release makes the book's purpose explicit. It is a "humanist Bible": a guide to the good life that is also a religion-free zone. No God-talk is allowed, which unfortunately excludes an awful lot of human wisdom. (Milton does make Grayling's list, but Milton knew all about devils and good tunes.)

How "good" is this good life? The last book - "The Good", which Grayling claims as largely original work - veers towards banality. His "Ten Commandments" read more like the Scouts than Moses: "take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost".

The classical material is much crunchier, but it has its own problems. Grayling's moral wellspring is a world based on military might, slavery and female oppression. (Women's voices go mostly unheard in this book. I spotted just one female contributor, Sappho.) It is also a world that despised mercy, compassion and self-sacrifice as weaknesses. For those virtues, we need sources that Grayling would rule out of court.

And there is a deeper problem. One of the ugliest features of Christianity is its textual authoritarianism. One of the ugliest features of the "New Atheism" is its humourless arrogance. This book risks giving us the worst of both. The real Bible, at least, isn't the work of a single editorial hand. Compared with this book, it's also more quarrelsome, more shocking, stranger and funnier. New Atheists regularly deny that they are teaching a religion. So what is this book?

What it is is a sign of the times. "Atheism" is well named: it exists only in relation to what it denies - which is why Protestant atheism (as here) and Catholic atheism are so different. But atheism, therefore, reflects Christianity's vices as well as its virtues. Christians, clearly, need to stop using traditions as safety blankets; to stop using texts as weapons; and to have the guts to do the compassion and self-sacrifice thing for real. So do atheists.

The Good Book: A Secular Bible

Made by A.C. Grayling. Bloomsbury, 608pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780747599609. Published 4 April 2011

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