New bibles for old: Writers are re-casting the Scriptures in secular, humanist and satirical ways
Boyd Tonkin explores their differing motivations
Challenging the church: Titian’s David and Goliath
What a difference it made tofinish reading AC Grayling’s The Good Book in the city of Buenos Aires. Suddenly, all the current hubbub around the humanist philosopher’s “secular bible”, with its 600-page pastiche-cum-appropriation of the scriptures, faded into a distant background buzz. For inventing or revising systems of value and belief seems to have been a popular pastime in these parts.
On Palm Sunday, I climbed a stairway to heaven built by a man who devised its own creed and then, literally, set it in stone. In 1919, the Italian-born cotton baron, Luis Barolo, funded the construction of a palace (really, a speculator’s block of 400 offices) which mirrors from hellish basement to heavenly turret the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Yet Barolo viewed the poet not as a Christian thinker so much as a pioneer freemason who had filled his epic with the sort of wacky numerology to keep Dan Brown in plots for years. In Buenos Aires, you will also find a museum devoted to the maverick author and artist Xul Soler. He not only liked to fashion composite languages – South American answers to Esperanto – but devised synthetic “universal religions” too. Soler once told a close friend that he had cooked up a dozen fresh faiths in a single afternoon. The friend’s name was (of course) Jorge-Luis Borges.
Has Grayling, with his huge compendium of godless virtue, committed a Barolo-scale folly: an act of self-sabotaging hubris that only goes to show the supremacy of the real, supernatural thing? Or has he, a valiant David armed only with a well-aimed moral sensibility, taken on the Goliaths of dogmatic monotheism and slain them on their home ground? Join one of the armed camps, secular or spiritual, if you prefer to carry on the fight.But readers with no sectarian axe to grind, or sling to wield, can take another approach.