Shortly before the turn of the millennium, Matt Darby suggested to Jamie Byng of Canongate Books that the books of the Bible be published as a series of individual volumes. Byng invited a wide range of celebrities to write introductions to these volumes, and so the Pocket Canon series was born. After the series was published, all the introductions were brought together into a single volume entitled Revelations: Personal Responses to the Books of the Bible.
The list of celebrities is impressive. Most are writers, including such household names as E. L. Doctorow and P. D. James, but others are most famous for some other achievement, e.g., Thor Heyerdahl or Bono. Some are known for their religion or religious writings, such as the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, or Kathleen Norris, but Byng intentionally tried to avoid anyone with any kind of official status in the Jewish or Christian religious communities. From the prefatory note, I gather that Byng was seduced by the money-making potential of brilliantly written, scandalously controversial essays about the Bible by oh-so-sophisticated iconoclastic intellectuals. Byng’s attitude reminds me of the philosophers that the apostle Paul encountered in Athens. As the NIV puts it, “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” Predictably, when the Pocket Canons first came out, many Christians were outraged by the more sacrilegious introductions, particularly to the book of Job, and wrote letters of protest. Byng, of course, has nothing but contempt for such people. This unfortunate attitude led to the selection of some authors whose primary concern seemed to be to write something witty, daring, and trenchant, rather than something that would enlighten the reader about the text.
There are nevertheless many gems in Revelations that are well worth reading. The book is such a heterogeneous collection that summarizing all of it is impossible; I will mention just three of my favorites. First, Meir Shalev’s introduction to Samuel highlights a fact that I have never noticed before, namely that the Bible talks a lot about people loving David, but never talks about David loving others. This insight yields a fresh way to read the story of David, and is exactly the kind of thing that I would want from an introduction to a Pocket Canon.
Second, the decision to invite Bono to write an introduction to the Psalms was inspired. The Psalms, more than any other book in the Bible, must not be read with your mind; it must be listened to with your soul. Far too many people think of the Psalms as a textbook that is meant to teach us what we are supposed to think, what we ought to say, and how we ought to say it. Bono, a musician, intuitively understands that the Psalms are music, and the most important thing is to just listen. He gives a fascinating personal account of how the religion of the Psalms and the religion of rock music both clashed and harmonized in his life.
Third, A. S. Byatt’s introduction to the Song of Songs packs an enormous amount of information into only a dozen pages. Byatt traces the history of the interpretation of the Song, as well as the influence it has had on various poets through the ages. I learned, for example, that the figure of Shulamith features prominently in the work of the Holocaust poet Paul Celan.
Despite the occasional dud, Revelations is definitely a valuable collection of perspectives on the Bible. Read it yourself and find your own favorites.