08 October 2020

The Lost Art of Scripture:
Rescuing the Sacred Texts,
a book review

The Lost Art of Scripture:
Rescuing the Sacred Texts,

Karen Armstrong, London: The Bodley Head, 2019, pp 549 pp, £25, ISBN 978-1-847-92431-5

The writer and broadcaster Karen Armstrong is a former nun of Irish descent who is known for her books on the history of comparative religion. In her books, she has focussed on mutual understanding and compassion, and they have brought her many awards and much public recognition. But she has also drawn criticism from a wide range of people, from atheists to evangelical Christians, for her supposed ‘religious apology for Islamic fundamentalists,’ for her ‘anti-realist’ views of statements about God, and for her comparisons of the treatment of Muslims in the West today with the treatment of Jews in Europe in the 1930s. Apart from her biographical account of her time in a convent, Through the Narrow Gate (1982), her best-known books include Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991) and A History of God (1993), none of which has been without controversy.

Her critics are not going to be comfortable with this latest book, which seeks to rescue the ‘Sacred Texts’ of many traditions from their ‘fundamentalists’ – from the texts of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists and Confucianists, to the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, texts in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, in Chinese and Sanskrit, or other languages such as the Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate.

Today, the Quran is used by some to justify war and acts of terrorism, the Torah to deny Palestinians the right to live in the Land of Israel, and the Bible to condemn homosexuality, the ordination of women and contraception. But she argues it is not scripture – but the misunderstanding of scripture – that is often at the root of many of today’s controversies.

She argues that in every tradition, sacred texts have been co-opted by their fundamentalists, who insist that the texts must be read in what they understand as a literal reading, and by others who interpret scripture to bolster their own prejudices. These texts are seen to prescribe ethical norms and codes of behaviour that are divinely ordained; they are believed to contain eternal truths.

But, Armstrong argues, as she seeks to chart the development and significance of major religions, narrow readings of scriptures are a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of their history, the world’s religious traditions have regarded these texts as tools that allow us to connect with the divine, to experience a different level of consciousness, and that help us engage with the world in a more meaningful and a more compassionate way.

She points out that the word ‘fundamentalist’ as we apply it today to a variety of groups we may seek to marginalise – from Islamic jihadists to Hasidic Jews – did not originate among them, but among Protestant Evangelicals in the US in the early 20th century when they could not cope with evolving understandings of faith, tradition and the Bible.

She continues, ‘fundamentalisms – be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Confucian – all follow a similar trajectory. They are embattled spiritualities that have developed in response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past.’

We see this today in Anglicanism, with the rise of Gafcon, Reform and similar groups. But, as the Netflix series Unorthodox has shown, it is also found in Judaism. Many years ago, I had some Buddhist monks as house guests who rose early in the morning each day, and sat outside chanting a paean of praise to one Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra.

If evangelical ‘fundamentalists’ have misunderstood the origins, nature and purpose of scripture and sacred texts – and therefore continue to misread the Bible, interpreting poetry and drama as historical narrative and scientific fact – then they share an approach found in other religious traditions too.

For example, she writes, while terrorist atrocities committed in the name of Islam have led many people in the West to assume that the Quran ‘is an inherently violent scripture and addicted to jihad,’ and believe that jihad means ‘holy war,’ she points out that the word jihad often has a figurative meaning, applied to giving to the poor in times of personal hardship and ‘striving in the path of God.’ She points out that only once does the term harb (‘fighting’) ‘refer to a righteous war waged by the Prophet.’

‘In the Quran … jihad is associated not with warfare but with non-violent resistance.’

She might also have pointed out that the term ‘holy war’ has its origins not in Islam but in Christianity, in the writings of Augustine and later justifications for the Crusades.

It is difficult to accept her understanding of the Gospels and the New Testament as hadith or midrash – commentary on the text – rather than Scripture and Sacred Text in its own context.

In dealing thoroughly with Luther’s use of the Bible to justify the slaughter of the peasants, she might also have taken account of his use of Scripture to develop an ugly anti-Semitism that had severe out-workings in 16th century Germany, and has a direct link, in an unbroken chain, with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

She traces the roots of modern biblical fundamentalism to its expressions in the 19th century, including the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), founder of the Plymouth Brethren, though surprisingly – given her own Irish roots – she does not mention his Irish background. Christians, by and large, have been rescued from 19th century fundamentalist approaches to the Bible through ‘Higher Criticism,’ which she sees exemplified in Essays and Reviews, published in 1860 within weeks of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But credit too must go to the Cambridge Triumvirate – JB Lightfoot, BF Westcott and the Dublin-born FJA Hort – for making Higher Criticism acceptable throughout the English-speaking world of scholarship, and for influencing every subsequent translation of the Bible.

In reading this book, I am reminded of a point made by John Dominic Crossan, ‘My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.’

Patrick Comerford

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes (Diocese of Limerick) and a former adjunct assistant professor at TCD and CITI.

An edited version of this book review is published in the Autumn 2020 edition of Searcch, A Church of Ireland Journal (Vol 43, No 3), pp 231-232.

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