Why the Bible really is the greatest story that's ever been told
A new poll suggests less than a third of people in the UK would want the Good Book to take to a desert island. Malachi O'Doherty has his copy already packed
I'm one of those people who would take a Bible to my desert island. When the BBC Radio Four programme Desert Island Discs was first conceived by Roy Plomley in 1942, Britain had an easy cultural sense of itself as Christian and white. Guests would be asked what music they would like to take with them when they were banished to a solitary existence among the wafting palms and giant turtles.
Plomley never made clear quite how his guests would reach that haven in the South Seas. When I first heard the programme as a child, I assumed that they were taken away straight after the broadcast and abandoned on the sands with a pile of chosen records and a couple of big books.
If the guest was merely shipwrecked, like a normal strandee, then there would be no music and no books beyond what had been salvageable from the washed-up detritus. This Crusoe was to be offered options.
But the programme assumed that there were three things any civilised person would need to make the solitary years bearable. These were music, Shakespeare and the Bible.
The music would be chosen for its bearing on a life lived. You got to choose your own.
What about the Bible? It was just assumed you would want it. I am not conscious of a time before I was hearing Bible stories. In the same way that I might want Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan with me for decades of solitary self-reflection, to retain, or recapture, a sense of who I was before I got stranded, I would also be glad of the Bible as a repository of the stories which accompanied my growing up.
Yes, the Lone Ranger was there, too, and Top Cat and Noggin the Nog, but they are not on offer. So, the Bible it is.
And it would help me mark the passing of the seasons. Luke's account of the birth of Jesus would awaken a nostalgia for childhood Christmases in the mid-winter, though if I was on a South Sea island I might have to arrange that little ceremony in the middle of June.
John's account of the Last Supper, in the upper room, would remind me of how testing and turbulent a dinner party can be.
This most gripping account of that episode is about the complex camaraderie of men, tainted by nuanced disloyalty as well as outright betrayal.
I think some of the churches don't understand the story, for it is about breaking bread with friends and enemies, people who love you dearly, people who talk behind your back and those will disown you without a forethought.
Somehow, that got translated into communion with the faithful when it is plainly about communion with the unfaithful. And that is one of the pleasures the Bible has often given me.
It underscores repeatedly the failings in Christian doctrine as I was taught it. I have always enjoyed teasing out those anomalies.
My childhood was routinely punctuated with stories from the New Testament. In my prayerbook, these were accompanied by images of Jesus as this wafting, genteel and angelic white man, entirely unlike the flesh-and-blood character who is alive in the text, the one who can scowl at people. "Let the dead bury their dead."
I liked the story of how he stopped men from stoning the adulterous woman before I even knew what adultery was, because it described a psychologically plausible standoff, a powerful man telling hypocrites he could see through them.
Turning water into wine was just a magic trick compared to that and not particularly interesting. I've yet to read all of the Bible.
Much of it bewilders me for its descriptions of a God you'd be as well staying out of the way of.
Brother Walshe got our class to read the Old Testament in the Douay version and it felt like being admitted to X-certificate films. We passed around in class a description of a man being stabbed so deeply that his flesh closed around the handle of the sword. The Book of Judges, perhaps?
Reading the Bible revealed that much of it had been sanitised, that it was amenable to being read in ways your churches and teachers hadn't thought of.
These ranged from the argument that Jesus is an allegory for a mushroom, which I doubt, to one that he was gay, which gets a "maybe".
I noticed that he was lecturing fishermen about agriculture much of the time and that even at the Last Supper he was commending home produce.
He was warning of the imminent end of the world and at the same time urging social stability, telling people to look after each other and to trust that they'd be all right in the end.
Reading the New Testament like a book reveals the man Jesus and the process by which he was turned into a mythical figure for a community.
The churches still emphasise the divinity they divine in him and, while acknowledging his humanity, they never actually marvel at it.
Yet, it is remarkable to find someone with such a mix of wisdom and temperament in these stories. It is the evident humanity of Jesus that for me authenticates the stories, makes them plausibly historic.
A man who can lose his temper with a fig tree definitely reminds me of some people I know. It's not a story that future Christians would have invented to impress us with Christ's all-encompassing love.
And a book full of rich characters, like Jeremiah, David and Jesus, would provide me with the semblance of company on my desert island. It would also remind me of the cultural heritage I grew out of and was estranged from.
This tradition, more than other religions, obliges us to help those worse off than ourselves. We mightn't do it, but we know we're supposed to. Other religions are more fatalistic, or rule-bound.
And who would be worse off than one stranded on a desert island?
And while religion is primarily about holding communities together, and I wouldn't have a community on my island, reading the book might remind me how to behave when I was rescued.
Some are arguing now that the Bible should not be automatically given to those to be stranded. Nor should it.
We live in a multi-cultural society, in which some will find more meaning in the Koran, the Mahabharata, or The Lord of the Rings.
But this book is the cornerstone of our civilisation and one good thing about being stranded on a desert island would be having the time and peace to read it all and take it in.