The Magazine

People of the Book

No need to be a believer to cherish the Bible.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By EDWARD SHORT
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If some blamed the geologists and their physical science for the eventual desuetude in which the Bible fell, others blamed the liturgical reformers. Regarding these energetic vandals, the Conservative member of Parliament for Aldershot, Julian Critchley, spoke for many when he wrote in the Listener (1982): “The statue of the Virgin is no longer the target of the iconoclasts’ hammer; it is those two distinctive treasures of the English language, James I’s Authorised Version of the Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Now they are seldom heard in church, having been translated into Sunday Supplement Prose. The transfiguration is unforgivable.”

At the same time, Larsen makes a vital point when he observes how our own contemporary scholars have “overlooked or distorted” the primacy of the Bible for the Victorians “by a preoccupation .  .  . with critical approaches to the Bible.” These scholars have also tended to minimize the extent to which the Bible was taken up for devotional purposes. Diverging from these ahistorical accounts, Larsen succeeds admirably in showing how the Victorians “experienced the Bible first and foremost as a .  .  . life-giving source of spiritual comfort and divine promises.” Nevertheless, if the Victorians refused to “ignore or sidestep the Bible,” the same cannot be said for their successors.

Recently, in the towns and cities of England, a fair sampling of those successors regaled the world with scenes that posed anew the question that baffled Lady Chatterton: Why do the heathen so furiously rage? A People of One Book does not answer that rather complicated question, but it will send readers back to the book that more than any other defined the English when they had a common culture.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and a forthcoming companion volume, Newman and His Family.