The lost art of scripture: Rescuing the sacred texts

The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth where the words affect only the four inches between ear and mouth. The aim for a wise man should be that learning enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions – ancient Chinese scholar Xunzi


In the Bible, St. Paul declares: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Scholars suspect that this was actually written by some grump other than St. Paul, but such sexist passages are sometimes used by conservative Christians to justify the subjugation of women — and by secular liberals to portray the Bible as outdated and misogynistic.

Or take militant passages from the Quran like this one: “Kill them wherever you encounter them.” Early Muslims considered this obsolete because it applied narrowly to enemies in a particular conflict; more recently, Muslim extremists have interpreted such passages to justify murder, while Islamophobes cite them to excuse religious bigotry.

Similar points can be made of many Scriptures from around the world. Both secular liberals and fundamentalists see Scripture as words to be taken literally, the former to ridicule and the latter to embrace. Karen Armstrong wades into these debates and says that both sides are wrong. 

“Too many believers and nonbelievers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality,” Armstrong writes. “Because its creation myths do not concur with recent scientific discoveries, militant atheists have condemned the Bible as a pack of lies, while Christian fundamentalists have developed a ‘Creation science’ claiming that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound…Not surprisingly, all this has given Scripture a bad name.”

A British writer and former nun, Armstrong argues in her magisterial new book, The Lost Art of Scripture, that Scripture shouldn’t be interpreted literally or rigidly from a pulpit or in a library. She argues that Scripture is flexible, evolving, contextual and more like performance art than a book.

“Our English word ‘Scripture’ implies a written text, but most Scriptures began as texts that were composed and transmitted orally,” she writes. “Indeed, in some traditions, the sound of the inspired words would always be more important than their semantic meaning. Scripture was usually sung, chanted or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words — a product of the brain’s left hemisphere — were fused with the more indefinable emotions of the right.”

With the rise of literacy and science, Scriptures were printed and scrutinized, then examined as if they were historical documents. Believers and skeptics alike came to read Scripture as if they were poring over Thucydides or Plutarch.

I’ve adopted that approach myself. Among the Gospels, I’ve put the most weight on the Gospel of Mark, because it was the first written, and have skeptically pestered pastors about why Mark doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth or describe the Resurrection. Strange things to leave out! I’ve also been puzzled that the Bible can have multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, or provide conflicting accounts of how Judas died or on which night the Last Supper occurred.

Armstrong argues that this approach misunderstands how Scripture works. It’s like complaining about Shakespeare bending history, or protesting that a great song isn’t factual. That resonates. Anyone who has been to a Catholic Mass or a Pentecostal service, or experienced the recitation of the Quran or a Tibetan Buddhist chant, knows that they couldn’t fully be captured by a transcript any more than a song can be by its lyrics. I still don’t understand Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie,” but it moves me every time I hear it. Music doesn’t need to be factually accurate to be true.

“Because it does not conform to modern scientific and historical norms, many people dismiss Scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue,’ but they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insights by means of fiction,” Armstrong writes. “A work of art, be it a novel, a poem or a Scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre.”

Scriptures historically were infused with contradiction and mystery, intertwined with ritual and music, to offer glimpses of deep truths and often to promote ethical behavior

Partly because Scriptures are revered, they are often regarded today as fossilized, the last word for all eternity. But historically, they were regularly repurposed to provide comfort or insight for new challenges. During the Babylonian Exile, the “editors” of the Hebrew Bible dramatically shaped previous Scripture to make sense of their own turmoil. Abraham, who Armstrong says was originally a southern Israeli hero with only a minor role in northern lore, assumed far greater importance because his story resonated: He had been commanded by God to leave his home, suffered exile and was richly rewarded in turn. The exiles also appear to have added details on the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, which paralleled their own trauma in Babylon.

Some Muslims applauded a similar process of seeking new meaning from old Scripture. “The Quran is perpetually new,” argued Muid ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi, who died in 1240. He went so far as to add that anyone who recited a verse in the same way twice had not understood it correctly.

The subtitle of this book is “Rescuing the Sacred Texts,” and Armstrong’s effort reminds me of Kant trying to save religion by arguing that God is beyond reason and therefore cannot be rationally proved. Not all believers welcomed Kant’s intervention; likewise, traditionalists will resent Armstrong’s “rescue.”

Armstrong has won respect for her scholarly and thoughtful treatment of faith in books such as “A History of God,” “The Case for God” and “Fields of Blood.” Her latest work builds on these, partly by exploring common threads across different religious traditions, and it’s an encyclopedic undertaking. Armstrong guides us not only through the history of Judeo-Christian and Islamic Scripture, but also through Hindu and Sikh texts and Buddhist and Chinese philosophies. She uses “Scripture” loosely, encompassing ancient Greek plays as well as Confucian and Taoist texts that are more about how to live a good life than about God in a Western sense. That’s partly because Armstrong perceives the God of Scripture not as a white-bearded old man on a cloud but as an ineffable, indescribable, unknowable transcendence. We encounter the transcendent, she says, in music, poetry, sex, love, nature — and religion. In effect, Armstrong has written a highly rational tribute to the murky wingman of our lives that exists beyond what is material and rational.

A common feature of Scripture, as she sees it, is helping people connect to a deeper truth to enhance their humanity. Sacred texts often offer a moral framework, supporting justice for the “little people” and advocating mercy for the vulnerable.

St. Augustine said that Christian Scriptures needed to be guided by the “principle of charity”: “Scripture teaches nothing but charity, nor condemns anything but cupidity.” Likewise, Islam emphasizes compassion and justice. “The bedrock message of the Quran is that it is wrong to build a private fortune and good to share your wealth, creating a society in which the poor and vulnerable are treated with respect,” Armstrong writes.

All that said, let’s not overdo the moral message of Scripture. The Hebrew Bible repeatedly has God ordering genocides, as of the Amalekites; and the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, contains contradictions with no neat unifying message. Life is complicated, humans are alternately kind and cruel, and Scriptures incorporated without embarrassment internal conflicts — such as those multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, or the varying accounts of the life of Jesus from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Religious traditions condemn incest, but a literalist must believe that we are here because Adam and Eve’s children slept with each other. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: If Scripture contradicts itself, so be it. Scripture is large; it contains multitudes.

In juggling texts in Hebrew, ancient Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit and other languages, Armstrong covers a vast range and inevitably wades into areas in which she is not expert. I’m not in a position to judge this, but I did note that she made a few transcription errors in Chinese. And while I found the broad arguments at the beginning and end of this book to be fascinating and persuasive, I yawned periodically over details of the Rig Veda, neo-Confucians or Sikh ideology.

Yet this is a dazzling accomplishment, a reflection of an encyclopedic knowledge of comparative religion and of a wisdom about spirituality in the human species. What shines through is the way Scriptures in so many traditions were an art form, like an opera or poetry reading, meant to elevate us, not simply to give us ammunition to support preconceived views. Fundamentalists may cite the Gospels to oppose ordination of women, or the Torah to displace Palestinians, or the Quran to justify violence — but all that is abuse of sacred texts and the role they play.

I’ve long believed that the great gulf in religion is not so much from one faith to another, but rather between sanctimonious cranks of any creed who point fingers and those of any religion who humbly seek inspiration to live better lives. Armstrong’s exploration of Scripture across so many traditions reinforces my view.

The ancient Chinese scholar Xunzi complained about an early version of what today we might call religious blowhards. “The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth,” Xunzi protested, adding that the words have affected only “the four inches between ear and mouth.” Instead, the aim for a wise man should be that learning “enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions.”

Scriptures historically were infused with contradiction and mystery, intertwined with ritual and music, to offer glimpses of deep truths and often to promote ethical behavior. Scriptures typically evolved flexibly to promote compassion, empathy and magnanimity — so it is particularly sad when today they are cherry-picked by ideologues, wrenched from context, to justify rigid and pusillanimous dogma. 

First published in the New York Times

Writer is a New York Times Op-Ed columnist

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