Christian belief suffered a serious setback in the first half of the 19th century, when critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss suggested that the Bible was a story-book like any other - a multi-authored compilation of fact, fiction, folktale and fantasy, a fabrication on a par with the Iliad, the Aeneid or the Niebelungenlied.
In theory the Christians could have turned the challenge back on their assailants: they could have accepted that their holy books were works of myth-making, while affirming that they told the greatest stories in the world. In practice however the case was not so easy to make. You cannot spin much depth of character or narrative suspense from the conviction that Jesus saves and that all manner of things will be well. Even Charles Dickens was baffled. He was a supreme storyteller, and - though he was not much of a Christian - he wanted his children to know “something about the History of Jesus Christ”. In the late 1840s he wrote The Life of Our Lord and recited it to them at Christmas. “No one ever lived,” he began, “who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong.”
It was a clunky opening sentence by anyone’s standards; and matters only got worse as Dickens ploughed on. “He is now in heaven,” he continued, “where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead.” Chirpy good cheer in the face of death is not the stuff of great literature, and the author of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield must have known that he had flopped. He gave the manuscript to his children on condition that they would not let anyone copy it or take it out of the house; and in the event it did not sneak into print for almost a hundred years.
If a character born with every perfection is a poor premise for a story, then a God who is almighty, omniscient and eternal is even worse. You can make a case that monotheism was a historical precondition for the rise of modern science, since the idea that the universe is created and controlled by a totally intelligent supreme leader implies a rational order behind the rough and tumble of everyday experience. But if monotheism is a gift for science, it is likely to be poison for the art of narrative. Genesis got off to a bad start, narratologically speaking, with God creating one good thing after another and seeing that each of them was good: the device has the makings of a bedtime soporific rather than a page-turner. God, it would seem, is the death of narrative, and narrative the death of God.