A two-hour Channel 4 special about the Bible opens with images of George Bush – and Osama Bin Laden. The Bible, holy books and the religious faith they inspire are on the news agenda as they’ve rarely been before, and the presenter of the programme, Dr Robert Beckford, is looking for good answers to what sounds like a simple question: Who wrote the Bible?
It’s a question that has preoccupied biblical scholars for several generations but Beckford, who is director of the Centre for Black Theology at the University of Birmingham, forsakes the library and takes to the road in a journey from Jerusalem to Rome and on to the USA (with a stopover in Walthamstow). On the way, he talks to American pilgrims shouldering crosses on the streets of Jerusalem, to the head of the Pope’s Bible Institute, to a former criminal and boxing promoter in East London, and many more. Beckford must be the only theologian in the UK who has his own Saturday night radio show, so he looks perfectly at home in the open top, electric blue fin-tail car he drives on the US leg of his quest.
Sitting on a pew with a Baptist minister in Georgia, USA, he hears the most direct answer to his question of who wrote the Good Book: ‘Gaaad said it; that settles it; I believe it!’ says the minister, Dr Richard Land, who is an adviser to President Bush and has the presidential cufflinks to prove it. Dr Land then goes on to take George Bush to task for not sending more troops into Iraq, giving a chilling glimpse into the way the Bible’s more militaristic books might be fuelling the conflict. ‘I would have sent 500,000 troops,’ he declares.
That revealing episode is just one jolt among many in the programme, showing us that the Bible is not some dusty old tome, locked in the past. The ancient texts still have power, for good and evil. For Beckford, the most memorable moment during filming comes when he talks to a Jewish settler in the Palestinian town of Hebron. ‘We’re surrounded by soldiers, he is armed and there are a couple of tanks making sure we are not attacked. I ask the settler what it means to be in Hebron and there is a sparkle in his eye as he says, “This is our land, given to us by God.”‘