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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Why I refuse to read the Bible

I'm reading a history of the French Revolution at the moment by the great prose stylist Simon Schama because Grant and I will be talking about it in Book Chat Oz, due for production at the end of the month. The book - Citizens (1989) - was suggested by Grant and this fact causes me to rack my memory because I'm trying to think of the reason he picked this book. I'm getting close to the half-way point in the book and in what I've read so far it's as clear as the nose on my face that Schama identifies dominant narratives used by people alive in the late-1780s, that were based on a set of notions that had been expressed in the books of Rousseau a generation earlier, to rationalise their actions even in the lead-up to the crisis of 1789 that we commonly refer to as the storming of the Bastille. But perhaps "rationalise" is the wrong word here. Perhaps those notions organically motivated people alive at the time to take attitudes toward the different actors in the contemporary French polis, that led to the well-known events. (The cliches multiply to populate popular consciousness even now: on the ABC's QI program the other night the program's participants were asked to identify a sound made by running the blade of a heavy knife down a length of steel pipe. The person holding the knife then hacked a cabbage and, finally, threw another cabbage into a steel bucket. Together these sounds mimic what the action of the guillotine sounded like.)

We are products of our time.

Since I was about 12 years old I have experienced pleasure from the act of reading. Part of the credit must be apportioned to my brother, who is two years older than me and who started reading hungrily even earlier than this. There was a time in my childhood, I remember, when my brother decided to read the Bible and I remember him walking slowly in the top garden lost in his thoughts. Reading was common in our household. Dad read Fortune magazine and my mother and grandmother - a woman who lived in our family throughout my childhood - read crime novels. My brother mainly read science fiction and his interest infected me until I started to become interested in European literature in my final years at school. I also read hungrily the Gerald Durrell books about travel and animals and other books of the same kind. Although my grandmother went to church every Sunday and my brother and I attended an Anglican school - where we went to chapel once a week and sang hymns during church services held at significant times during the year, and in the weekly assembly in the hall - the household was noticeably secular.

My Anglican grandmother - my father's mother - had married an illegal immigrant from one of Portugal's African colonies who had probably been raised a Catholic but who was fiercely anti-clerical by the time he arrived in Melbourne. On my mother's side her parents were brought up in the Presbyterian tradition, although her father later became a loyal Communist. All these different flavours of observance and non-observance seem to have had the effect of eliminating any ecumenical efficacy that might have endured in the others and in the process of mutual cancellation any last residue of attachment to God was forever and ineradicably lost.

I loved my brother but there was something fishy about his enthusiasms - and he had many in those years - and the Bible enthusiasm struck me as particularly fishy. I preferred to think about the blue plains of Mars created by Ray Bradbury and the immense plains of the ziggurat-world invented by Philip Jose Farmer. I grew attached to Gavin Maxwell's otter as described in Ring of Bright Water and thrilled at the adventures of Durrell in Africa, in South America, and in Greece. I was busy encasing myself in sentiment, forming deep attachments to fictional characters, and understanding my actions according to how far they strayed from the notions inhering in these examples of humanity. So the enthusiasms of the peuple in later-1780s Paris make more sense to me now than did then the philosophical abstractions of the Bible that preoccupied my brainy brother.

After school I went to university and the process of secularisation was accelerated through the study of the Renaissance and other historical periods, but at least that reading brought me to understand the importance - to people of the past, that foreign country - of the Bible in European history. Gerald Durrell and (later, during my university years) Henry Miller to me were what King David and Jesus were to Humanist book-lovers of the 16th century. I also came to understand how historical awareness animated the imaginations of the science fiction writers I had enjoyed so much in earlier years.

As for the Bible, for a secular youth of the late-20th century the Church was always going to cause problems. Studying Italian culture, as I did, brought me face to face with examples of great injustice. The names Giordano Bruno (pic) - burned at the stake - and Galileo - censured and attacked - endure in memory as the names of martyrs to the cause of the Enlightenment project I had been brought up to celebrate. What strikes me now is not so much how blind people had been for continuing to revere the Bible - which had, nevertheless, functioned in such a liberating way on the imaginations of so many people in the early Renaissance period - but that they did so for so long. It wasn't until the generation of my grandparents that irrational links to revealed religion had started to loosen.

Revealed religion is so anathemical to my view of the world that even to pick up the Bible to read it appears to me to be an act of pure disloyalty to the people who fought so hard so that I could be everything that I am.

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