The Lost Art of Scripture
By Karen Armstrong
Bodley Head, 560pp, £25/$29.95
Karen Armstrong is well known for her writings on comparative religion and for her long-held hope that a better understanding of the spiritual side of human nature will help to bring about a more peaceful and compassionate world. This work, which brings together all her interests in the religious literature of the different world civilisations, will be of interest to those keen to explore the richly varied texts she analyses in all their beauty and considerable literary merit.
For Christians it is another story. Readers of this magazine hardly need to be reminded that we believe Christ to be the Lord of history – the Messiah longed for by the Jews who were first given the revelation of their chosen destiny by God through Abraham and his descendants in what we call the Old Testament. For these readers, the usage of BCE and CE to denote the long ages of human history and their decisive division will be seen as the preferred modern way of ignoring Christ’s unique status and role.
Once this caveat is understood, the book is a fascinating excursion into neo-Gnosticism: an attitude suggesting that only an intellectual caste or elite is qualified to understand the “art” of scripture and to thus “rescue” the sacred writings from the “doggedly literal manner” in which they are read by many people today. As the author comments in her introduction, like any artwork “scripture requires the disciplined cultivation of an appropriate mode of consciousness” – from which, presumably, ordinary ignorant people are excluded.
Armstrong has a persuasive thesis to explain man’s yearning for the infinite and the divine: it is a question of neurology – recognising the different functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Thus the right hemisphere is concerned with mythos, the imagination, the spiritual and empathetic side of man, while the left hemisphere is concerned with reason and logos. The left hemisphere, she infers, dominates the modern world, to our evident loss. Psychologists, neurophysicists and neurologists are the professionals, a caste towards which the author is very respectful, for it is their insights into our brain activity that can point us “to revisit these scriptures and make them speak directly to the suffering, rage and hatred that is rife in today’s world”.
Armstrong covers all the world religions and has clearly done an enormous amount of reading and research to handle so skilfully the mass of material she surveys. Judaism, Catholicism, the Indian religions, China, Buddhism, the Greeks, Islam and the Protestant Reformation are all traced from their origins and causes to their later manifestations and creeds (although “creed” is perhaps the wrong word to use, with its implications of dogma and objective truth. Armstrong insists at the start that the “objective truths” on which we rely “are inherently illusive”.)
Naturally, I was interested to read how the author interprets the particular Judaeo-Christian history. She agrees that “the Israelites clearly saw a divine force at work in their history … They may have concluded that [this] could only be attributed to a superhuman power – something had marked them out for an exceptional destiny.”
Inevitably, in a work dealing with the origins of civilisations, certain phrases predominate: “We can only speculate”; “We know very little about”; and so on. Without strong beliefs of his own, the reader is at the mercy of authorial speculations and may be tempted to be swept along by Armstrong’s breadth of knowledge and analytical skills. Buddhism, for her, is “a remarkable instance of the right and left hemispheres of the brain working creatively together”. Even Nietzsche comes into the picture with Thus Spake Zarathustra, which is a “right hemispheric vision of an ecstatic union of opposites”.
Where does Christianity, the religion that gave us BC and AD for nearly two millennia, come into all this? “Jesus of Nazareth, hailed as a prophet and leader … was sentenced to death by crucifixion in about 30 CE by the Roman governor”; though we must bear in mind that Josephus, the Jewish historian, doesn’t mention him and the Gospels “are not historical documents”. Just as the Jews had a stubborn notion of their election, “the early Christians seemed to have glimpsed something of the divine ‘glory’ … in the man Jesus”. And of course Paul only wrote seven of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament, not including the Epistles to the Colossians or the Ephesians.
On Islam, towards which the author is particularly sympathetic, Armstrong is convinced that the religion’s supposed “aggression” was a later reinterpretation of texts “which had been intended for defensive warfare”. Jihad “was resurrected not by the inherent violence of the Quran”, but “by a sustained assault from the West” during the Crusades.
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