“As tumultous to a non-believer as to a devout Christian” – Chris Goode on the King James Bible
; published on October 27, 2011 at 5:59 pm
Chris Goode - Playwright and theatre director. Photo by Malcolm Phillips.
As the King James Bible celebrates its 400-year anniversary, the Bush Theatre in London has dramatised sixty six responses to the sixty six books of the translated religious text. Called Sixty-Six Books, the production has been performed in sections and also as part of a marathon 24 hour live show featuring 130 actors. Oberon Books will publish the full script shortly. Here, Chris Goode describes the inspiring experience of facing the King James Bible for a second time, in order to write a performance:
I grew up with the Good News Bible, and only the mild bits at that: but even as a child I knew – mostly from the thorny opening to the Gospel of John, that weird and wordy gobbet at the school carol service – that there was more going on in the Bible than met the eye in colourful stories of whales and dreamcoats. But as my teenage years brought on a cheerful atheism, it wasn’t until I arrived at university to find the King James Bible on my English Literature reading list that the good book and I really got serious.
Treating the 1611 Bible simply as a work of literature was – pun not unintended – a revelation. I found it deeply beautiful and strange: daunting, frightening almost in its poetry and polyphony, and not least its seeming madness across long bleak stretches: and though I put my Bible back on its high shelf as soon as my studies allowed, and left it there, its presence – within reach but seldom touched – never stopped feeling incendiary.
So when the Bush invited me to be part of their extraordinary 66 Books project, the opportunity to re-confront the King James Bible was irresistible. Above all I wanted to attest to those qualities in it that scared me. And so the book I chose to work with was Philippians, from which originates a whole strain of theological inquiry around the idea of ‘kenosis’, the emptying out of self-will; it’s a line of thought that gets somewhere so radical so quickly, its implications were as tumultous to a non-believer like me as they would be to a devout Christian.
Much of my work as a writer has always been – as my Philippians piece The Loss of All Things is – about those moments when words fail us: when our experiences and intuitions are too big, too fast, too intense to be verbalised; when the complexity of who, and what, we are exceeds the technology of language. Marvelling at the range of 66 Books at the opening weekend, I was nonetheless equally struck by the narrowness of text-driven theatre. How weird it felt, to sit in an audience and hear all these words for hours on end! How little of what we think and feel – the mundane and extreme alike – can be captured in language, even by exceptional writers. How much falls into the cracks between words.
And that, ultimately, is the fruitful paradox of 66 Books, and of the Bible itself. The mystery of our existence is out of the reach of writing. What we write are the gestures of faith and doubt and longing that the mystery compels: and because the mystery never resolves, and because the gesture never quite feels terminally futile, we keep going back.
Which is what I’m doing now. Picking up the Bible again has had a way more disturbing impact on me than I ever imagined; I’ve already started work on a new show, God/Head, about how reading Philippians changed my life.