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The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible by A N Wilson

The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible
by A N Wilson


The British writer, A.N. Wilson, recommends books that have helped him understand what Christianity means and to truly believe.

Interview by Harry Mount

The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible by A N Wilson

The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible
by A N Wilson

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Let’s start with Augustine’s Confessions.

It’s better to read this in parallel texts even if you don’t know Latin, because it reminds you that he’s one of the first great writers of Christian prose in Latin. St Augustine reinvented Christianity, as perhaps all these great thinkers do. He went back to St Paul, and he took, as the starting point, the absolute necessity of grace. A lot of people think being a Christian or becoming a Christian is a decision you make. St Augustine doesn’t really think that: he thinks that it’s God coming to catch you.

And was he the first to write in terms of, ‘I was a sinner and I was saved?’

St Paul says similar things, but that’s the line of St Augustine. For one thing, he is shockingly, by modern standards, impenitent about all the things that we would think were scandalous about him. We wouldn’t think the sex was scandalous. We would think dumping the woman—who was his common-law wife for a long time—and his son was a scandalous thing. She then died. I think most people in the Western world, reading the story, would think he had behaved wrongly.

And, quite soon after he dies, it becomes well known?

It is one of the most widely disseminated Christian texts. As far as the West is concerned, it’s the beginning of mysticism. A lot of his work is philosophical, particularly The City of God. It’s an account that he wrote after the destruction of Rome. He was thinking to himself that this absolutely confirmed all his scepticism about the political, material set-up. When he was a lecturer in rhetoric before he became a Christian, he was very close to being a Manichee or Neoplatonist. What he was converted to by St Ambrose, philosophically speaking, was the belief that nature had been redeemed by Grace. So, in other words, it is wrong. Again, people associate him very much with fear of the flesh or fear of sex, in particular. In fact, what it is is the story of being converted into a belief in the incarnation, i.e. that all matter is sanctified because of the incarnation.

He wrote it in 400 AD. At this stage, has the Roman Empire become entirely Christian?

Officially, it has and once you’ve made something into the religion of the empire, it spreads all over the Mediterranean. Obviously, what St Augustine and friends would call heresies were springing up everywhere. One of the things he did, as the Bishop of Hippo, a place in North Africa, was to thunderously defend the idea of unity of the Western Church — particularly against the heretics called the Donatists.

What they were saying was it didn’t really matter, belonging to a universal church. They said that Christianity flourishes in little groups all on their own. St Augustine had this great doctrine of “Securus judicat orbis terrarum”, or “the world judges right”, and that Christian truth must be held onto by church unity.

“By the time you get to the 4th-5th century, there isn’t really any intellectual defence of paganism on the market, and Christianity wins the debate.”

Why I like the Confessions is it’s the direct confrontation between him and God, and it is a mystic work. I think perhaps all the things I’ve chosen are, in a way, by mystics.

One of the things that held him back from conversion was the idea that Christianity was a crude, unlettered, peasant religion or a slave religion. He was an intellectual snob. That’s one of the things he confesses to. That’s a much bigger barrier than the sex, which is what makes the book famous.

He doesn’t go into the sex at all in the book. Everyone thinks — if they hadn’t read it — that it’s sex confessions. 12 out of the 13 books have nothing to do with this.

Is he the first to turn it into an intellectual religion?

He was far from the first. Ambrose was an intellectual. Cyprian of Carthage was an intellectual. Lots of the Greeks were. I would maintain at least five of the writers in the New Testament were intellectuals. But he is a philosopher. That’s one of the interesting things about him. He’s the first person who is a professional rhetorician and philosopher who writes about Christianity.

Does he have a direct effect on North African Christianity?

He certainly does because he went back and took over the Roman town of Hippo and stayed there for the rest of his life.

You mentioned the conversion of the Roman Empire: one thing worth saying is that the reason the bishops wear purple is that, in places like North Africa and Gaul, they were, in effect, taking over from the old Roman magisterium. So they were powerful people. They were magistrates as well as being church leaders. Now we think of bishops practically as joke characters, but they weren’t then.

Also, these places were not just backwaters, were they? They were very sophisticated.

Highly sophisticated. What St Augustine reminds you of is the fact that Christianity is a pretty extraordinary intellectual and literary exercise from the beginning.

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Things like the Letters to the Hebrews and the four gospels are absolutely extraordinary. If you think what they’re writing about: the public execution of a wandering preacher. They’ve managed to translate this, within however many years, into a total rewrite of all the Jewish scriptures and a cosmic understanding of the universe in terms of this death.

Is that one explanation for why this small cult spread across the world — that it’s so beautifully written and with such sophistication?

Yes. By the time you get to the 4th-5th century, there isn’t really any intellectual defence of paganism on the market, and Christianity wins the debate. The only thing which could have gone on was Platonism. That was the only other option going. St Augustine was really a bit like Mrs May stealing all of the best bits of the Labour Party and the Lib Dems and UKIP. He took all the good bits out of Plato. That’s why Plato, in a way, is the first Christian writer, as far as the history of the religion goes.

That moves us quite well onto Dante’s Commedia. There seems to be a fascinating mixture of classical history and Christianity…

One of the things which four out of the five books I’ve chosen all have in common is a belief that the kind of truth which Christianity embodies was available before the coming into the world of Christ. What Dante does is take all the classical mythologies of monsters and harpies and make them into a part of the underworld in Hell, which is fascinating.

It’s actually very weird.

And it is also very odd that he’s being taken along by Virgil. Although this is, in a way, little more than a technicality, Virgil does have to admit, at certain points, that he’s never going to get to Heaven because he was a non-believer. In fact, Dante takes over Virgil’s world view completely — not just the classical mythology but also the view that Rome is central to the whole European story, and the Virgilian political myth of Aeneas coming to start the Latin dynasty. Part of the Dantean myth is that the redemption of the world wouldn’t have been possible without the Roman Empire because there had to be a trial. There had to be a trial in which the victim was guilty.


Because otherwise he couldn’t have redeemed the world. You then get the rather nasty aftertaste of that – that, although he was, technically speaking, guilty in Roman law, the ones who are really to blame are the Jews. He doesn’t labour that point in the Commedia but it is there.

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In that arch in the forum in Rome, you see Titus taking away all the treasures from the temple and wrecking the temple — which is very creepy, given what has happened ever since. But Dante certainly believed that the punishment had to be lethal otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. He is incredibly Roman in his Christianity, not just Roman Catholic, but pre-Catholic Roman. He hates popes by the end of the poem.

Do you think most of his Florentine audience would have had the same combination of deep Christian and classical knowledge?

They certainly would have the knowledge. They wouldn’t have had the beliefs. One of the things about Dante which doesn’t come into the poem is that he wasn’t a Christian as a young man. Cavalcanti, who comes into the earlier bit of the poem in the Inferno, was specifically non-Christian. They didn’t believe that the soul was immortal. They thought that, when you die, that was it. In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil approach these people who are claustrophobically locked into stone tombs and they’re trying to get out. One of them is Cavalcanti’s father, who has been what Dante called an ‘Epicurean.’ The only Epicurean thing about him—for the purposes of the poem and for modern readers—is that Epicurus didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul.

Do you think most of his audience would have been shocked by this mix of the classical and Biblical?

I think they’d have been thrilled by it. They knew all this stuff and he’d put it all together. He manages to synthesize all the modern thought, and the clash between the schoolmen and the Epicureans. It’s an extraordinary synthesis. It is a total mistake to think the Middle Ages are an age of blind superstition where everybody followed the Pope; quite the reverse is the case. There was a possibility of being a Muslim, being an atheist, being a materialist, just as there is nowadays. Dante opted for all this stuff. One of the things which makes him original is that romantic love, in the earlier part of the Middle Ages, was an alternative to Christian faith. He makes romantic love the pathway to Christian faith.

Also completely odd and unusual to throw in Beatrice.

That’s unusual, absolutely. Charles Williams—who was a friend of C.S. Lewis and a publisher at Oxford University Press—wrote a book about Dante. He said that the Church still hasn’t really managed to absorb what Dante was saying, and I think that’s absolutely true.

What particular aspects?

When you look at what the Church says about sex—whether it is gay sex, or sex before marriage—they still are in the situation, most of them, of the Manichees that St Augustine is attacking. They think there’s flesh on the one side and spirit on the other, and we should always be spiritual. What Dante was saying was that romantic love and full-blown love between men and women is a path to God. Although he hadn’t had full-blown sex with Beatrice. She was a figure on a pedestal.

And never did, in the end?

No, no, no. She died when she was a very young woman. She was married to someone else and, although he did have affairs—as he tells us in his letters—he didn’t have one with her.

It’s beautifully written.

It is unbelievably beautiful, unbelievably skilful. Somebody said WH Auden could have rewritten Paradise Lost in limericks. Dante had that knack. The first book he ever wrote was a rewrite of an incredibly boring medieval poem called The Romance of the Rose. He rewrote it in another verse form completely. He’d then invented this thing called ‘terza rima’ — a three line rhyme. Some people try and do it in English and you can’t, it doesn’t work — but it is extraordinary.

And beautiful sounding.

Beautiful sounding and it is clever. As well as being an extraordinary, imaginative creation, it is a synthesis of modern thought, modern science, technology. He puts in his similes all sorts of things which had hardly been mentioned in literature before; partly because they only just began to exist: for example, the clock. There’s a whole simile of a clock, so he must have seen a clock. There weren’t many clocks in Europe.

And he wrote in Italian, so his readers would understand it?

He invented the Italian language. Some of his work is in Latin and some of it is in Italian, and he decided to write it in Italian. About a third of the words in the modern Italian dictionary are coined, for the first time, by Dante.

He was very sophisticated by modern standards. He wrote a whole book about linguistics, called De Vulgari Eloquentia, about how languages develop and about the differences between Latin and Italian and about different dialects in Italy, some of which he’d encountered on his wanderings as an exile. His writing is in very pure Tuscan.

Some people think the reason he was writing in Italian was because he wanted to appeal to the courtly, aristocratic people who weren’t necessarily readers of Latin.

But everybody would have had a bit of Latin. Until the 16th century, people like grocers kept all their notes in Latin all over Europe, and nearly all trade agreements. There was an awful lot of travel going on between merchants. Not that they had anything as close as the European Union, but there were trade agreements.

One of the things Dante is the first person to think about is whether spoken and written languages are different languages or just funny versions of the same one.

By the end of the poem, Dante has a vision of God. He is in heaven.

He loses Virgil and Beatrice leads him on, and he has all these conversations. He meets his ancestor who appears rather grand. And he is then led even further up and even Beatrice has to abandon him and swan back into the background. Then he is led by St Bernard into the presence and he sees God. It is extraordinary. I don’t think there’s anything in world literature to compare with the last few cantos of the Paradiso as a Christian statement.

Let’s move on to Julian of Norwich. The third book you’ve chosen is Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian of Norwich is something else. She is writing about the same sort of time.

It’s not known who precisely she is, isn’t that right?

We don’t know anything about her.

Even her name?

Some people think that, but I think that’s rather ridiculous: she probably was called Julian. She lived in the little cell which you visit when you go to Norwich. She had a weird experience in the reign of Edward III and wrote up a very short version. Then, much later in life, because she thought she was going to die, she wrote the long version, which is what most of us read. That was at about the time Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales.

And what do you think happened to her? Is there a modern illness that we can compare it to?

I don’t know what the illness was. She doesn’t describe the symptoms, but she was obviously going to die when she was quite young. It was quite easy to die in those days. It is still quite easy to die, but it was even easier in those days. She is remarkable on many levels. One is that she was the first English, female writer— indeed the first female writer of prose. The other is that she completely removes from Christianity the concept of punishment and anger, the anger of God. It’s revolutionary.

How does she do that?

She says it is inconceivable that a God of love could be angry and that all the bits of the Bible with anger are myth, basically. So she is rather radical. When I used to do book reviews in the Sunday Telegraph, the literary editor was Nicholas Bagnall. He sent me a biography of Frank Buchman, who started the ‘Moral Re-Armament’ movement and thought he could convert Hitler. He believed that all that mattered was to become personally pure. I wrote a review of the book which was really quite kindly and Nicholas took me out to lunch and said, ‘I’m going to publish your review. But it really is complete and absolute twaddle and I’d like you to know why.’ I asked why and he said, ‘Because the best book ever written about Christianity is Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.’

The famous line in it is the one that TS Eliot transports into the Four Quartets, that sin is necessary, or as she says, “sin is behovely, and all manner of things shall be well.” You’ve got to accept a fact which Buchman—and probably Hitler—didn’t accept: which is that we are all utterly fallible. She’s profoundly Augustinian. She owes everything to Augustine.

Our sinfulness, our fallibility, the fact that we are absolutely filled with imperfection is inescapable; you will never get rid of it. It is absolutely illusory to think that Christianity is something that, once you’ve embraced, will make you a pure, perfect, shining saint. It won’t. You will still go on being.

But you will not necessarily be punished for these things.

You can’t be punished — but that’s where she is almost unique. She gazes in what many modern people, particularly non-Christians, would think of as a terribly morbid way, at the crucifixion. What she realises happened in her revelation was that the crucifixion was a sign of God taking all human sin upon himself. So there isn’t any punishment: what you’ve got to do is accept.

All the five people you’ve chosen, do you think they are correctly interpreting the Bible?

It wouldn’t be for me to say. They’ve been tremendously helpful to me, but I’m not like them. They’re very mainstream, I think, but with one exception, which we’ll come onto in a moment. But Julian of Norwich grows and grows and grows. If all Christians in the world read her, it would totally transform the world of Christianity: a lot of those people in America who think that God hates gays or whatever it might be. They are punishment freaks. Of course punishment freaks are attracted to religion, particularly to Christianity, with its whips and chains and mortifications. She releases one from the necessity of trying to be a punishment freak.

Was she immediately a success?

She was famous in the way that hermits could be in the Middle Ages. For instance, Margery Kempe describes going to see her. People did go and talk to her. She was rediscovered in the 20th century.

On to Simone Weil’s Waiting on God

Now we are into slightly strange territory. She worked for the Free French in London. Charles de Gaulle said she was mad, and it is an arguable point of view, it must be admitted. She died of anorexia and chain-smoking. I love her. I’m actually sort of in love with Simone. She was the most uncompromising human being who ever lived.

It’s an extraordinary life story. They were a prosperous, middle class family in Paris, completely secular. She got a job, first of all working at a car factory. She never quite joined the party, but she was more or less a Communist. I wouldn’t drive a car she’d been assembling. She was a very short-sighted woman, utterly impractical.

She then got a job as a supply teacher. She was completely committed. All the people who were taught by her failed their exams because she said things like, ‘I know I’m meant to be teaching you Greek, but I want to teach you about the real spirit of Homer.’ They never concentrated on the stuff they were meant to be learning, the boring stuff.

Then came the dreaded war. Even before the war, the French were rounding up the Jews. They practically had labels round their necks before the Nazis invaded. She got a letter from the local authorities, that she wouldn’t be wanted for the next academic year. She wrote back saying, ‘I don’t know why you shouldn’t want me.’ The answer was probably that she was a terribly bad teacher — but she said, ‘I wonder if you think I’ve got a Jewish surname.’

She then goes into one of her, to my mind immensely lovable, to other people very, very annoying tirades, saying, ‘I don’t quite know if you realise that the Emperor Titus went into Jerusalem and more or less obliterated the people who could have been described as Jews. I grew up in a completely secular way. As far as I know, I have absolutely no connection with any of the people who were murdered by the Emperor Titus, and I’m not sure I even believe that the people who say they are Jews have any connections with ancient Jews.’ A lot of Jews hate her for that because she doesn’t believe in the continuity of it. They think of her as a self-hating Jew. I don’t think she was at all.

She was very brave as well as foolish. She then went to Marseille, where she had this mystical experience. There are various other moments: she became convinced that she’d been spoken to directly by Christ. Then she wrote these extraordinary things, none of which, except for the one called The Need for Roots, saw print in her lifetime.

They were all published after she died. They were all put into print, even her notebook.

The one I read was Waiting for God.

You get the hang of it from the title – that Homer, in particular, anticipates Christ.

It is crazy.

Beautiful. Simone would never accept baptism. The real reason, I think, is that she was suffering with the Jews — even though she said she wasn’t a Jew. When she was in London, she went to mass at the Jesuit church every day, but she would never accept baptism. She claimed it was because Homer hadn’t been baptised.

What I love about her is that I think if one—I haven’t got there—were able to take Christianity completely seriously, as St Augustine did and she did, you would realise it was a terrifying, burning fire kind of thing which will consume your whole soul. It did consume her whole soul and burnt her up. I know that she was also probably suffering from all sorts of mental illness.

There are similarities with Julian of Norwich and with St Augustine.

In all three cases they had direct experience of Christ. Completely heartfelt. Her way of praying was to say Herbert’s ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ and then the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. She was passionately keen on Greek and believed that Jesus spoke Greek. She believed the Lord’s Prayer in Greek is what he delivered to the world. I think that’s unlikely, but I love Simone for thinking it was Greek and for thinking that Homer was an early Christian.

Lastly, we have David Jones’s The Anathemata.

He’s a recent discovery for me. David Jones has something of that quality of Simone and Dante, of foreshadowings all the way through: he even finds them with the Neanderthals. I went completely bonkers going to the exhibition of him in Pallant House Gallery in Chichester this year. There are some wonderful watercolours. To me, The Anathemeta really says more about Christianity than even the first four books we’ve mentioned.

It’s bits, and he admits that some bits he put in a completely different order when he was starting it. What lies behind it is that the central event of history, the central event of anything, is the Crucifixion, but that it is a mistake to think of history in a linear way. There’s a statue from 400 BC of a man with a calf around his neck on the Acropolis. That, for him, is a foreshadowing of the good shepherd. Simone would have loved that, but, unlike her, he’s very genial. As well as being modernist and difficult, his attitude of humanity and of life is very genial.

You do need the notes, particularly for the Welsh bit, which many of us would struggle with. I know it’s a bit mad to choose it as one of the great Christian works but, to me, it is. It absolutely encapsulates what’s interesting about Christianity, whether you believe it or you don’t. It’s important to see what is interesting and distinctive about this religion or mindset, even if you don’t believe it. And I think that this book, almost more than any other, certainly of books written in my lifetime, shows what is so very distinctive about it. Because it is not a set of moral commandments, it isn’t just a myth that happens to be true, it is something which encapsulates everything that’s ever happened. David Jones, in this poem, sees it going right back to prehistory.

The extraordinary thing which he captures completely brilliantly is that Christianity is something that is universal, but it only makes sense in terms of each individual person who subscribes to it. He manages, almost in the same breath, both to retell the story of the last supper, for instance, and turn the disciples who are going to prepare the room for the last supper into people like his mother’s ancestors in Rotherhithe.

Was he himself very devout?

He was brought up as ordinary Church of England, I think, not particularly devout. It was World War I that changed him. He became a Roman Catholic as a result of World War I. He went into a barn when he was serving on the Western Front and saw a priest saying mass. It had an extraordinary effect on him. He didn’t become a Catholic until several years after that moment.

He actually went to Jerusalem to meet up with Eric Gill. He met British squaddies saying, ‘Christ, what an awful, bloody place this is,’ as they threw a cigarette on the corner of the street in Jerusalem. That’s what gave him the idea for The Anathemata actually: it was just ordinary soldiers who’d led Christ off to be crucified. It was just part of their day’s work. It is obviously true, and there had been all kinds of attempts — either very sentimental or excruciating — to reconstruct what it must have been like for the soldiers and other people.

Jones gets it because he never sentimentalised World War I. He is the only poet of the First World War, I think, who didn’t. Even Robert Graves does, and Wilfred Owen is fantastically self-pitying.

Are you saying he quite enjoyed it?

He loved it. My old art teacher loved every second of it. He was gassed. He said it was the happiest time of his life. David Jones loved it. He wasn’t gay, but he liked the companionship of men. Which most men do, of course.

Are you a believer?

Yes. I had a phase of being a non-believer. I also realised, looking back, that I had a long, long phase—probably most of my grown-up life—of being a keen churchgoer without really believing it.

When did you start believing again?

Over the last ten years. I wouldn’t quite know when. I think I started believing, I don’t think it was ‘again’.

Even when you were training to be a priest?

I don’t think I quite knew what it was, even. I’ve been very, very inarticulate this evening—I’m sorry—but I don’t think I quite knew what it was and I think these five do know what it was, and they’ve helped me to see what it was.

I’ve never had any mystical experience at all, but I completely believe it now. Partly because of our five friends. I think they are onto something.

Interview by Harry Mount

December 22, 2016

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A N Wilson

A N Wilson

Andrew Norman Wilson is a British biographer, novelist, journalist and essayist.

A N Wilson

A N Wilson

Andrew Norman Wilson is a British biographer, novelist, journalist and essayist.