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.

Discovering the charms of
Annacotty by the banks
of the River Mulkear

Annacotty, Co Limerick, developed around the mills and weir on the River Mulkear (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The new lock-down is taking its toll on everyone in recent days, and it has put paid to plans for a visit to Dingle, Co Kerry, early next week.

I may be limited to travelling within Co Limerick for at least the next three weeks, if not more. But, as I found out during a visit to Annacotty last weekend, there are many more interesting and beautiful places for me to visit and explore in this county.

From the bus, I have often seen Annacotty, with its beautiful weir and former mills 7 km from Limerick city centre, and had been promising myself a visit for some time.

A mural below the N7 bridge celebrating life on the River Milkear in Annacotty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Today, Annacotty (Áth an Choite, ‘the ford of the angling cots’) is a suburban town on the outskirts of Limerick. It is just off the old N7 Limerick-Dublin road, where it crosses the Mulkear River, 1 km upstream of where it flows into the River Shannon.

The village originally grew up around the grain mills built to take advantage of the water power of the River Mulkear. In the past, the mills were associated with nearby Clonkeen Church, established as a monastic site ca 600. One mill was beside the bridge itself and has now been restored as bar and restaurant, and the second mill was 1 km upstream at Ballyclough.

A railway station opened in Annacotty in 1858, bringing the promise of economic development. The village developed a strong co-operative movement with the setting up of the Annacotty Co-Operative Society in the 1890s, and the creamery became a major centre for the manufacture of butter and cheese.

Ballyclough Co-operative Creamery was founded in Annacotty in 1910 in opposition to the Cleeves Creamery that previously operated in the Mill at the turn of the century.

Annacotty railway station finally closed in 1963. But butter continued to be a major produce in Annacotty until the 1960s, when the creamery was taken over by Black Abbey Co-operative, based in Adare.

The AKZO Group opened the Ferenka factory in Annacotty in March 1972 to manufacture steelcord. However, it gained notoriety when its Dutch managing director, Tiede Herrema, was kidnapped by Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle of the IRA in October 1975. He was freed four weeks later after a protracted siege in Monasterevin, Co Kildare.

After continuing losses and experiencing industrial disputes from the day it opened, the Ferenka factory closed in December 1977, with the loss of over 1,400 full-time jobs.

The original bridge over the River Mulkear at Annacotty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The N7 originally ran through the Main Street, but it by-passed Annacotty in 1980 when a new bridge was built over the River Mulkear 100 metres downstream. That, in turn, was superseded by the building of the Limerick Southern Ring Road, crossing the river 1 km upstream at Ballyclough.

Annacotty Industrial Estate was later built on the site of the former Ferenka factory. Meanwhile, with the expansion of Limerick from 1990 on, Annacotty was absorbed into the rapidly growing suburb of Castletroy.

After a succession of mergers, the co-op in Annacotty became part of the Dairygold Co-op was established in 1993 with the amalgamation of Mitchelstown and Ballyclough co-ops. The former creamery became a hardware store, but this too closed in 2009. The building is now the Irish-owned store Mr Price.

A sculpture in Annacotty of Jackie Power, the ‘Prince of Hurlers’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

As Limerick city and suburban Castletroy expanded, Annacotty became a popular area for housing and industry , with its good infrastructure and transport links, and its easy access to the University of Limerick and the national technological park. Nearby facilities include the Castletroy neighbourhood park, Castletroy Golf Club, fishing on the Mulkear River, and the University of Limerick’s multi-purpose sports arena.

Annacotty became part of Limerick City at the local government elections in May 2014, when local councillors were elected as part of the Limerick City Metropolitan District.

Annacotty has a good variety of pubs and restaurants, including the Black Swan, a colourful pub on the Main Street. It was established over 100 years ago and has been owned and run by the Nicholas family for over 60 years.

The Black Swan is a colourful pub in Annacotty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Black Swan is unique, personal and traditional, a rare find like the sign outside that celebrates a rare bird – Rara Avis – the unique black swan. The Black Swan was refurbished in recent years and is known as a proud supporter of local teams, and for live music.

We had a late lunch at the Mill House, a beautifully restored building, and watched the climax to the Munster v Scarlets match, with a thrilling 30-27 win for Munster.

It seemed appropriate, as Annacotty has a strong sporting tradition as home to UL Bohemians, the local rugby club located on Mulkear Drive, and Aisling Annacotty, the local GAA club.

The former Irish rugby international Peter Clohessy is from Annacotty. The village is also the birthplace of the Limerick county hurler Jackie Power (1916-1994), the ‘Prince of Hurlers.’ A life-size bronze statue of Jackie Power was erected on the Main Street in Annacotty in 1996.

The Annacotty Sundial by the riverbank dates from 2019.

The Annacotty Sundial by the riverbank dates from 2019 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)