Fire Gospel

The exploits of the Quranburners make uncomfortable reading.

These were inflammatory islamophobic acts, rather than acts against religion in general, and they deserve contempt. In this climate, they need to be investigated for incitement. But it’s an unfree land where public scenes against religion are outlawed – the burning of a book is surely too pathetic to be considered incitement in itself – or if it isn’t then I worry the time approaches when a number of very ordinary things are considered grounds for punishment – wearing niqab as incitement against Frenchness, for example. That would never happen, not in liberty egality fraternity France. Oh, it just did.

And a society where the burning of Quran could be taken as a pretext for the murder of United Nations workers is a society infested with the kind of people that make anti-Muslim bigots feel like expressing themselves with Qurans. The wedge drivers need each other. And so it goes on.

Personally I think that to hold stunt provocateur Pastor Terry Jones responsible for the murders can only appease the actual murderers. Contemptible islamophobe, yes – murderer, no. The actual murderers responded to the burning of a book with a killing spree as if a burnt book was worth several lives. The atrocity belongs wholly to them. They’re not Islam, but a small group of thugs who need to be marginalised. Raffaello Pantuchi argues that Terry Jones’ story of an army of jihadi terrorists is just that – a story.

Personally I think it is ridiculous to hold the Quran responsible for the murders. As Goldie Looking Chain once stated, “Guns don’t kill people – rappers do”.

Rosie Bell writes on this with reference to John Stuart Mill and how stupid The Observer was to publicise the British version as if it was public interest. Meanwhile it is important to reserve the right to disrespect holy books.

All this was happening around the time I plucked my first loan from the shelves of our newly refurbished, miraculously unclosed, Fullwell Cross public library. It was a slim, commissioned satire called The Fire Gospel whose author Michel Faber is better known for the currently-serialised ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ (already on loan).

Calculating and pathetic Aramaic scholar Theo Griepenkerl returns to the US with some unknown papyrus scrolls he’s looted from the wreckage of a bomb blast in contemporary Mosul. They turn out to be a fifth gospel written by a contemporary of Jesus’ called Malchus. Malchus is a pious and grotty windbag whose correspondence is reminiscent of a column in the local newspaper of a small and parochial town. Theo Griepenkerl finds a publisher.

The trouble is, in its innocent details – the drug-taking, the struggle to hoist the newly-nailed Jesus upright on the cross because although small in stature he is large in girth, the un-iconic, carnal nature of death (instead of uttering the final dignified words “It is finished” he instead whimpers for somebody to please finish him), Malchus being under the cross when the dying Jesus’ bowels and bladder open – this gospel possesses extraordinary power to ruin Christian faith.

Amazon reviews are Theo’s first intimation of trouble to come. On his book tour he is kidnapped – not by slighted Christians but by an Ickey millenarian and a Muslim anti-Zionist who believes that the debunking of Christianity Malchus’ gospel represents will empower the Jews and enslave the world. (I hadn’t gone looking for that, I can tell you – I’d gone looking for ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. Zeitgeist.)

Some reviewers feel that Fire Gospel is rather thin. I loved the caricature of the academic, Malchus was hilarious, the Christian disarray was sketched very deftly, as were the Amazon reviews and the bonkers intrusions of daytime television. Despite Malchus’ telling, replete with inappropriate details, the death of Jesus still manages to appall. Over the course of the book, in a turn that would be revelatory except for being written as farce, this unscrupulous but ultimately harmless academic fails to notice how much he is coming to resemble Malchus’ revised and compromised Jesus.

It was a book of laughs and groans, which brings me back to the beginning – Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh would probably agree that if you can’t see any humour in the social role of religious texts you may well end up in a society where you’re not allowed to disrespect holy books at all.


being under the cross when the dying Jesus’ bowels and bladder opened

4 thoughts on “Fire Gospel

  1. I enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White too – I hadn’t heard about this new one – it sounds a bit like Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man which is very striking, though sometimes the shock factor becomes a bit irritating.

    • If Fire Gospel is anything to go by, definitely. Faber tickles and pinches – keep the old deep vein thrombosis at bay.

      I’m enjoying the telly adaptation of Crimson Petal too. Ersatz, maybe, and I haven’t read it either, but what the film does is make you alive to how claustrophobic, restricted and downright precarious a woman’s existence can be. And Rackham is a such a vivid study of hypocrisy as “the compliment that vice pays to virtue”.

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